‘Chain Effects’ – The Impact of Multi-Academy Trusts on Low-Income Students

30 June 2017

This week The Sutton Trust released another of their research updates, entitled: ‘Chain Effects 2017:The Impact of Academy Chains on Low-Income Students’. Written by Professor Becky Francis and Professor Merryn Hutchings, reveals with forensic insight the variable performance of academy chains in our school system.

Some of the key findings are stark:

“There continues to be very significant variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains. This year disadvantaged pupils in ten out of 48 chains had attainment above the national average for disadvantaged pupils in all mainstream schools (maintained and academies), including four chains which were substantially above that average.”

Now, it is well understood that the deck is stacked up against disadvantaged students far broader than just the school gates. From scarcity of safety and food, to a catalogue of developmental issues related to social deprivation, the research evidence on why children and families are entrenched in a vicious cycle of poor qualifications, health and social mobility, is both depressing and well-established. There is no easy fix and a school becoming part of an academy chain is no guarantee of a better education.

Crucially though, some academy chains are performing far better than others, regardless of the starting points of their students, effectively defying the odds for many disadvantaged students. Four academy chains – City of London, Diocese London, the Harris Federation and Outwood Grange – had disadvantaged students attain significantly above the national average. Although it would be simplistic to cherry-pick their ‘best bits’, to transplant their chain model into schools and expect the same successes to be repeated, we should still learn from the ingredients of their success. Every school leader should humbly search out ideas.

The Sutton Trust goes on to recommend ways for the National and Regional School Commissioners to better share and spread best practice amongst academy chains (hopefully not forgetting those sitting outside such chains too). Whilst never losing sight of the complex causes and outcomes driven by disadvantage, we can better learn as a school system how to support our most vulnerable students.

The recommendations recognise that expertise is found within and without of MATs too:

“To this end, the government must recognise the challenge of limited capacity in the system and allow RSCs to draw on all providers with good track records of successful public education delivery, including, where appropriate, successful Local Authorities.”

There is still a good deal of fragmentary brilliant and disconnectedness within our school system. In our brave new world, we have so many different model of schools and related support organisations, that any concerted attempt for widespread improvement is bound to be fraught and tricky. Still, by drawing fairly upon the best available evidence, and gleaning insights from this research evidence from The Sutton Trust and the practice of schools proving a success, we can better hope for a more coherent school system and begin to root the developments of new and existing academy chains in the best available evidence for school improvement.


You can hear Professor Becky Francis give a keynote at Researched York 2017 at Huntington School on the 8th of JulyTICKETS HERE.


Alex Quigley, Director of Huntington Research School


Posted on 30 June 2017
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