Many of us will attend academies, send our children to them or have at least heard of them in the news. They have been criticised harshly (not least by me in many of my articles) yet staunchly defended by others. However, none of it is really very helpful if you don’t actually know what one is. So, without further ado, here is our guide to academies.

First of all, academies are schools that are independently run and receive funding from the government, rather than stretched local councils. Academies are sponsored by certain groups or organisations like businesses, religious groups, education organisations or universities. If they wanted to, McDonald’s could sponsor a school. I wonder what the school lunches would be like…

Academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term-times. Realistically, the October holidays could be moved to another point in the year if the academy trust really wanted to.

Originally, academies were brought in to raise education standards. Tony Blair’s Labour government wanted them to improve Oftsed results and recover failing schools. Now, though, they are a way of getting more money, giving more power to head teachers and supposedly enhancing the creativity of schools due to them not having to follow the national curriculum.

However, there is much dispute about the effectiveness of academies and the lack of accountability that is attributed (or not) to academy chains – the sponsors. In February this year, a report from the House of Commons Education Select Committee found that the evidence that academy chains can improve the performance of pupils is “limited and varied”, leading MPs to have “significant concerns” over the accountability of independent academy chains.

When we speak about the lack of accountability, we mean that a school can be inspected by Ofsted and rated on its effectiveness but a trust cannot. Therefore if a school underperforms, it is just the school that is able to bear the brunt of the blame. This system seems totally illogical as the trusts play a huge part in the running of academies. They direct resources and funding at the end of the day. If an academy underperforms, it seems only right that Oftsed looks into the whole picture why, including the academy chain. In recent months there have been further concerns raised over the published evidence of trust leaders’ high salary increases. Once again, this is something that cannot be inspected or regulated which has been a real cause for concern among MPs.

In March last year when it was announced that all schools were to become academies, I spoke to MP for Blaydon Dave Anderson who said that the move was “not about education; it’s about taking powers away from local authorities with the long-term object of eliminating them as ‘unnecessary’”. While this policy was reversed, the government’s policy now is that any school not rated ‘good’ overall in their Ofsted must convert to an academy.

With so little really known about academies, we hope this article has provoked some thought – and maybe even debate. What do you think? Let us know.