SWEEPING change across Oxfordshire's schools has seen a surge in pupils taught under the controversial academy system.

For the first time since the roll-out of a flagship education policy in 2010, children in academy schools in Oxfordshire significantly outnumber those in council-run schools.

According to new Oxfordshire County Council figures, 62 per cent of pupils in the county’s state schools are in academies, which are governed by multi-academy trusts rather than councils.

It comes as fears over accountability of academies resurfaced, with an official report accusing the government of ‘rushing’ to convert schools and a union warning of ‘significant dangers’.

At the county council’s latest education scrutiny meeting, a council officer said: “62 per cent is a big jump from the previous year.

"There is considerable variation across the county as academies tend to group together around a multi-academy trust.”

The proportion of pupils in academies rose from 55 per cent last year.

In 2010, the Government invited schools to become academies and in 2016 said all schools must convert.

However, it backtracked and now the only schools forced to convert are those given an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating.

Almost all of Oxfordshire’s secondary schools are now academies, and primaries are catching up.

Supporters say becoming part of a larger trust provides more autonomy, financial safety and collaboration.

But last week the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises public spending, raised concerns.

Its report said: "In the rush to convert large numbers of schools to academies, the Department for Education did not pay enough attention to ensuring scrutiny of applicants was sufficiently rigorous.

"It is now strengthening how it examines prospective academies’ financial viability and ability to improve schools, but...changes do not go far enough.”

The National Education Union described the report as a 'damning indictment of the Department’s flagship education policy'.

It added: "There is no imperative nor advantage to becoming part of a multi-academy trust, but there are significant dangers and disadvantages.”

County councillor and education expert John Howson echoed concerns in the committee’s report.

He noted there are now conflicting models of schools, some controlled by councils and others trusts, and called for the government to ‘re-join the parts into a whole’.

The county council's cabinet member for education Hilary Hibbert-Biles said the council still supports academies.

Speaking at the scrutiny meeting, she said: "Some heads said when they became academies it was a case of 'you are not our responsibility anymore', but the fact is we are still responsible for attainment and safeguarding for pupils.

"It's very important we get a rapport and work together."

One of the largest multi-academy trusts in Oxfordshire is the River Learning Trust, which runs 14 schools with more proposed - including Oxford’s new Swan School.

Chief executive Paul James said financially, academies are ‘very accountable and transparent’.

The former head of The Cherwell School explained: “Every year you have to have professional auditors scrutinise the books, and publish accounts every year.

“Maintained schools don’t have to do this annual audit, but rather a far lighter-touch self-assessment.”

Mr James said there were ‘clear lines of accountability’ and parents can raise concerns with the school, the trust’s board, Ofsted and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which reviews academy complaints.

Regional schools commissioners also oversee academies and can intervene in failing schools.

Mr James added: "I certainly don't feel less accountable now than when I was headteacher of a maintained (council) school – quite the opposite.

“I do find it frustrating when some have a view that academies are ‘privatised’, as we are still publicly-funded and tightly regulated by central government.

“We are still public servants and have that same underpinning moral purpose of wanting to do the best possible for our children and young people.”

He said the real philosophy behind academies was collaboration rather than autonomy, and a ‘genuine sense of people being in it together’.

Evidence suggests attainment in academies and maintained schools is largely the same.

Mr James said: "That's not too surprising, because education isn't about structures, processes and systems: it's about people. It's people who make the difference."

In autumn the government will consult on proposals to make school accountability clearer.


- State-run schools run by academy trusts, funded directly by the government rather than via a local authority

- The trust employs staff and has greater freedom over term times, admissions and curriculum

- Studio schools, university technical colleges and free schools are all types of academies.

- Not all academies are run by trusts - parents, teachers, businesses, charities and other groups can also apply to set up free schools

- Sponsored academies are schools that have been forced to convert, and converter academies have chosen to

- They are still inspected by Ofsted

- The Department for Education pays one-off grants of £25,000 for each academy conversion

- Regional schools commissioners (RSCs) were established in 2014 to oversee academies