The government’s flagship academies programme is widening class-based inequality as pupils are more likely to be denied access to qualified teachers than in council-run schools, a study suggests.

The quality of education for thousands of pupils has likely been undermined in academies – state schools independent of councils – as they recruit more unqualified teachers, the report argues.

More than a third of unqualified teachers in primary schools do not have a degree and nearly a quarter do not in secondaries, the study of more than 18,000 English state schools found.

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The percentage of teachers without qualified teacher status (QTS) hired by academies is rising compared with schools under local authority control, according to University of Oxford research.

The study, published in the British Journal of Sociology Education, finds that academies in more business-style structures, such as those that are sponsored or in chains, have seen the greatest increase.

Since 2012, the government has allowed state schools to recruit unqualified teachers.

Academies have employed over 1,500 more teachers without the skills normally required than other schools – and thousands of pupils have been taught by these unqualified staff, the study finds.

Author Nicholas Martindale, from the Department of Sociology at Oxford, said: “Neoliberal policies that outsource the management of the education system and undermine professional accreditation are degrading the teaching workforce and widening inequality in access to qualified teachers.”

The number of schools becoming academies is growing and there are now more than 7,000. Nearly three in four secondary schools are academies, as well as more than a quarter of primary schools.

The first academies were set up in 2002 by Labour to improve standards in failing schools. From 2010, the numbers grew after the coalition government allowed all schools to convert to academies.

The Conservative government has been pushing academisation, which gives schools freedoms to set their curricula, admissions policies and working conditions, as well as their policy for school improvement.

Chris Keates, acting general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “The research by the University of Oxford does not come as a surprise, but it is no less shocking.”

She said: “It is unacceptable that children and young people are being denied their fundamental entitlement to be taught by qualified teachers. It is also unacceptable for other staff to be exploited by schools that require them to do the job of a qualified teacher while being paid less.

“Every school should be investing in recruiting and retaining teachers rather than devising strategies to pay teachers as little as they can get away with.

“Parents have a right to expect that a government that cares about their children’s futures will act to ensure that every child is guaranteed the right to be taught by qualified teachers.”

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Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The vast majority of schools of all types seek to recruit appropriately skilled and qualified teachers.

“There may be times when they decide to recruit specialists who do not have QTS in subjects where there are severe teacher shortages such as maths and physics. However, they will always ensure such staff are properly supported. Obviously the best solution would be for more action by the government to tackle the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention so that all schools can recruit the teachers they need.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said there were some legitimate reasons academies or private schools might choose to employ a teacher without QTS – such as when they have some particular skill, like in art or pastoral care.

But he added: “That said, the greatest rise in the use of unqualified teachers has been in sponsored academies – a school type typically found in more disadvantaged areas.

“We already know that recruiting and retaining teachers in schools serving disadvantaged communities is challenging, so the rise of unqualified teachers in these schools is concerning. It is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are most in need of the very best teachers.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “More than 95 per cent of teachers in state funded schools – which includes academies – have qualified teacher status. All schools are held accountable for the quality of teaching through Ofsted inspections and the publication of school performance data.  

“We want all children to have great teachers who can inspire and excite them. That’s why schools have been given the freedom to employ experts, such as scientists, sports people or musicians, to add value and improve the learning experience for pupils.”

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