Labour Research April 2019


Lessons in fragmentation

As teaching unions prepare for their annual conferences this month, Labour Research looks at the challenges academisation has posed for them.

There has rightly been a focus on the impact of the academisation of schools on children’s education, particularly in the light of a number of recent high-profile academy scandals (see box). But how has it affected union organisation and the pay and conditions of union members working in academies?

Public Accounts Committee inquiry into academies

In January, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published Academy accounts and performance, described by National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Kevin Courtney as an “absolutely damning” report. 

Academy trusts educate nearly half of all children in England’s state-funded schools. But the committee concluded that the trusts are not sufficiently transparent or accountable to parents or local communities. Its report followed “a succession of high-profile academy failures that have been costly to the taxpayer and damaging to children’s education”. 

These include misusing public money through paying excessive salaries and through related-party transactions. These are transactions with subsidiary companies or shared services; diocesan education authorities; a charity classified as a related party; and trustees (or trustees’ family members) providing services to the trust. The NEU is calling for a ban on related-party transactions.

The report highlighted serious failures of governance and oversight at academy chains including the Bright Tribe Trust. 

The NEU agreed with the recommendations of the PAC that while academies still exist: 

• they should be required to make financial information available at school level;

• there should be sanctions with teeth to deter, punish and prevent malpractice among academy trustees;

• all academy trusts should publish complaints procedures with named individuals to whom parents can escalate concerns; and 

• the Department for Education, and the Education and Skills Funding Agency should publish reports into trust abuses in a timely and transparent manner. 

“This absolutely damning report shows the need to restore local accountability and democratic governance to all schools,” said Courtney. This “can best be done by ensuring that all schools are overseen by local authorities”.

The academies programme of Tony Blair’s Labour government focused on improving performance in schools in disadvantaged communities. It began in the early 2000s, and by the time Labour left office in 2010, around 200 schools in England had become academies. 

The incoming Tory-led coalition government, with Michael Gove as education secretary, and subsequent Conservative governments, gave a massive boost to the academies programme by providing financial incentives for schools to convert, and then forcing so-called “failing” schools to become academies. 

Academy schools now educate around half of all children in state-funded schools in England. By January 2019 there were around 7,500 academy schools, most in trusts that manage more than one school, educating around 3.8 million pupils. 

The major academy chains

Some of the largest academy chains are:

United Learning: runs academy schools “from Cumbria to Kent”, educating over 40,000 children. It has 22 primary schools, 31 secondary schools, four “all-through” academies (schools providing both primary and secondary education) and 13 independent schools (

Academies Enterprise Trust: a national network of over 60 primary, special and secondary academies. It has 33 primary schools, 24 secondary schools and five special schools (

Harris Federation: has 47 academies in and around London educating 32,000 students. It lists a further nine “future” academies ( 

Ormiston Academies Trust (OAT): one of the largest not-for-profit multi-academy trusts (MATs) in England, educating 29,000 pupils across six English regions, in 30 secondary schools, seven primary schools and one special school (

Oasis Community Learning: has 52 academies grouped into five regions around England — the North, the Midlands, the South West, the South Coast and London and the South East (

Ark: describes itself as an international charity running a network of 38 schools in the UK, in Birmingham, Hastings, London and Portsmouth (

Outwood Grange Academies Trust (OGAT): currently has 31 schools across the north of England (

The Kemnal Academy Trust (TKAT): says it is one of the largest Multi-Academy Trusts in the south of England with over 40 primary and secondary academies (

E-ACT: has 29 academies “across the breadth and depth of England”, supported through four regional clusters in London and Buckinghamshire, Midlands, North and South West (

Delta Academies Trust: operates across the north of England with 52 academies (

REAch2 Academy Trust: says it is the largest primary-only academy trust in the country and a growing charitable organisation currently supporting 55 primary academies across England (

David Ross Education Trust: has 34 academies, incorporating primary, secondary, grammar and special schools (

Union organising in academies

According to Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, the Tories’ academy programme was ideological and based on introducing a free market. This aimed “to break up and fragment the education service in England”. Behind this, she says, the government also hoped the changes would adversely impact on union organisation. In fact, the opposite has happened. 

With the government rolling out the academy programme “quite vigorously”, the NASUWT responded by going into schools with a pack of information about academisation. 

Keates told Labour Research: “We found that as a result of getting in and organising against academisation in those schools facing it, in both schools that remained as local authority-maintained schools, and those that did become academies, union organisation improved, with more reps. 

“It is still the case today that we have a higher proportion of reps in academy schools than in maintained schools.” The union also “anticipated and reorganised”, appointing nationally-employed staff, who are not confined to a particular local authority area or region, to negotiate in national academy chains.

Darren O’Grady, head of bargaining, at the NEU education union, says that in the early days there was concern about academisation and union organisation and there was some decline. 

He said: “Very broadly, some employers took a ‘new-broom’, ‘fresh-start’ approach which saw more experienced teachers, who were more likely to be union reps, leaving schools.” 

However, this is no longer the case. The union’s response was to build “democratic participation and lay leadership”. O’Grady says this was necessary to deal with the fragmentation brought about by the academy programme. The organising strategy has not only focused on recruitment, but on increasing the capacity and power of lay reps, allowing the union to be proactive in “the new landscape”.

He said: “In several leading academy chains, lay members now lead on negotiations with the support of full-time officers. They have improved terms and conditions and increased rep and member density, reversing the tide.”

Chris Fabby, national officer at the UNISON public services union, says academisation has created challenges in terms of an explosion in the number of employers and fragmentation. 

“Regions and branches have put a lot of effort into ensuring the continuation of recognition and collective bargaining,” he told Labour Research. “We are also responding to the challenges by focusing on building lay structures to support them.”

Unions have also successfully worked together through the TUC to develop a model trade union agreement to maintain recognition and collective bargaining and protect pay and conditions. The majority of academies recognise unions and abide by national agreements, although Keates says there has been some “bleeding away at the edges”. 

O’Grady says both the Harris and Ark academy chains have contracts that differ from the national agreements, with different working hours, sometimes with higher remuneration. Keates reports an increase in the number of temporary contracts. 


Fabby says that while academies have, in the main, stuck by national terms and conditions, they tend to want to develop their own policies in areas like disciplinary and grievance procedures, capability, sickness absence and appraisals. 

Unions are alert to this and are keeping a close eye on developments to ensure good practice. Part of UNISON’s response has been to develop a suite of model policies for reps based on the best terms and conditions agreed with academy trusts for reps to use in local negotiations.


According to the NASUWT’s 2019 report, Where has all the money gone?, classroom teachers’ salaries are £1,500 lower in academies than in maintained schools, with an even larger gap — £1,700 — in primary schools. 

O’Grady says some academy chains save staff costs by having “an unusually high proportion” of newly qualified staff who leave before moving up the pay scale. 

On the other hand, one positive development, he reports, is that two of the largest 12 multi-academy trusts (MATs: see box on page 15) have committed to abolishing performance-related pay — which Gove mandated maintained schools to introduce — because they see it as harming staff morale. A number of other MATs are actively considering the move.

Support staff

Meanwhile, UNISON is concerned that some trusts are attempting to introduce inferior terms and conditions and pension schemes for new staff through outsourcing of areas such as catering, cleaning and ITC. 

“Also, we fear that we are seeing potentially larger numbers of redundancies in academies,” said Fabby. “While the truth is that all schools are facing serious funding cuts, academies cannot take advantage of the economies of scale that a local authority family of schools could, which is making the situation even worse, we believe.”

In addition, Fabby points out: “In contradiction to the supposed original aim of giving schools more autonomy, some trusts are centralising and taking away budget-setting and other decisions from individual schools.” He says that in some cases, this has led to trusts imposing cuts to estates and other school support staff with an impact on health and safety and teaching and learning. 

For example: “In one large trust, our members reported that fire alarm and portable electrical appliances were not being properly tested as a result. Centralising and cutting the number of support staff in individual schools increases the workload of other support staff and teachers, takes them out of the classroom and has a detrimental impact on teaching and learning.”

Re-brokering schools

Keates says there is now a “particularly challenging phase” as standalone trusts or groups of academy schools (often known as clusters) are “re-brokered”. If a trust fails, the regional schools commissioner (responsible for approving new academies and intervening in underperforming academies and free schools), the Department for Education (DfE) or the Education and Skills Funding Agency can request that a trust re-brokers its schools — gives them to another trust — if it is unable to make rapid improvement. 

The DfE then “works with” with the trust, which continues to run the academies until a new sponsor can be found. Often, an interim chief executive officer (CEO) or board is appointed.

For example, in 2017, Wakefield City Academies Trust announced it did not have “the capacity to facilitate the rapid improvement our academies need” and requested the DfE work with it to place its 21 schools with new sponsors. The trust was accused of asset stripping after reportedly transferring millions of pounds of the schools’ savings to its own accounts before collapsing. 

In 2018, UNISON helped a BBC Panorama investigation “expose a slew of financial misconduct allegations linked to the Bright Tribe Trust and its multimillionaire founder Michael Dwan, who strenuously denies any wrongdoing”. 

The union called for a full inquiry into the chain after it last year withdrew from all 10 schools it ran. 

Dwan was accused of giving school IT and building contracts to companies in which he or other Bright Tribe bosses had interests, with the work not being finished or simply never carried out. 

Unions point out that the re-brokering or closing of an academy often causes tremendous uncertainty and is highly stressful for pupils and staff. 

Academy trusts are supposed to operate under a strict system of oversight and accountability which is meant to be more robust than in council-run schools, allowing the DfE to take swift action to deal with under-performance. This includes transferring schools to new trusts where necessary. 

But, says the NASUWT, many under-performing trusts have taken years to re-broker — if that re-brokering ever occurs — and many more fly under the radar of the DfE.

Funding crisis

Schools across both the academy and maintained sector are being hit by what the NAHT head teachers’ union describes as a “funding crisis currently gripping schools and colleges across the country”. Last month, it warned that school budgets were at breaking point. 

Its members have written to more than a million families to warn them of the effects of funding cuts, and more than 100,000 parents signed a petition forcing a parliamentary debate.

The NASUWT annual opinion survey of members found teachers’ pay was “plummeting” across the board, with thousands of teachers denied their entitlements to an annual pay award and pay progression. This is despite the fact, the union says, that there are substantial reserves in both sectors. 

The survey, based on responses from nearly 7,000 teachers and school leaders, found nearly six in 10 (57%) have either been told they will not be given any pay award at all this year, or have not had confirmation that they will receive the pay award to which they are entitled. 

Keates says the average percentage of the schools’ budget spend on teacher salaries has fallen from around 80% to 47%. Where has all the money gone? explains how funding for schools and education has suffered real terms cuts, despite government claims to the contrary. It sets out that the spend on teachers is now around 50% of total expenditure for the academy sector and around 46% in the maintained sector.

Trustee and CEO Pay

Unions have long warned that academisation would take money from the front line, and the report also provides examples of excessive academy trustee and CEO pay which, it says, are now “hardwired into the school system”.

While classroom teachers’ pay, and public sector pay more generally, has stagnated, DfE figures show that in 2016-17 academy trusts made 103 payments of over £150,000 to trustees. 

In the Harris Federation, for example, the number of salaries over £150,000 increased from eight to 10. The pay of Harris Federation CEO Daniel Moynihan increased from being in the £420,000-£425,000 pay band to the £440,000-£445,000 pay band. With pension contributions of between £50,000 and £55,000, his total remuneration was around half a million pounds in 2016-17.

Dysfunctional system

NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said the government should “reflect on what impact their dysfunctional system is having on children, parents and schools staff”. She added: “It is time to stop focusing on trying to find new sponsors for schools when clearly the system of MATs is not working. 

“A first step would be to allow schools who have been failed by academy trusts to go back to their local authorities when they choose. But what is needed in the long run is a wholesale return of schools to a system of democratic oversight and support.”