Building back better? Understanding the government’s plans for multi-academy trusts

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In his recent speech to the Confederation of School Trusts, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson set out plans to significantly increase the number of pupils being educated in academies and end the “pick and mix structure of the school system”.

The speech, alongside recent DfE guidance, signals a new push from the Government to accelerate the academies programme “because multi-academy trusts are the best way to advance education for the public benefit and can deliver clear benefits for teaching and pupil outcomes.”

This might sound familiar. Just twelve months ago in a speech at the Schools and Academies Show 2019, then Education Secretary Damian Hinds praised MATs as powerful vehicles for improving schools and outcomes for pupils, concluding: “this is something that we want to see more of”.

So, what’s new?

Announced in Williamson’s speech were a series of measures, including:

  • The release of £24m over the 2021-22 financial year through the next phase of the Trust Capacity Fund.
  • The launch of a pilot programme in partnership with the Church of England and the Catholic Church to set up new church academy trusts.
  • A ‘try before you buy’ scheme through which schools can temporarily partner with a strong MAT to test-drive the experience of being part of an academy trust.
  • Funding for selected leaders of academy trusts to gain personal qualifications in executive leadership.
  • Funding for maintained schools to set up a trust partnership.

 

As well as incentivising schools to partner with MATs, the long-term sustainability of single academy trusts were called into question, with the Education Secretary warning that it’s: “no longer viable for schools to be single entities”.

Schools judged ‘requires improvement’ or worse by Ofsted in their last three consecutive full inspections were also put on notice that they’ll be brought into ‘strong’ multi-academy trusts. Further details will be released by the DfE on these proposals in due course.

What does this mean for you?

Given the DfE’s plans, maintained schools considering conversion or schools that may be forced to convert because of their Ofsted history, may wish to consider their options. Schools should start researching and identifying local academy trusts that provide a ‘best-fit’ for their culture, and which share visions and values.

For existing smaller MATs, this emphasis on growth and strength may mean collaborative working or potential mergers between MATs as well as organic growth through conversion or re-brokering. Existing MATs will need to carefully consider their growth plans, revising strategies as necessary to make sure that they’re not left behind in the push to convert schools.  Some may decide to start conversations with local schools sooner than originally planned.

In light of the DfE’s proposals, it seems inevitable that many MATs will be going through a period of change. It’s important to note that MATs, RSCs and Las will only have so much capacity to work on these projects, which may slow the process down for those who aren’t ‘early adopters’.  Schools that react quickly may find that they can convert within their own timescales and join their chosen partners more readily than schools that aren’t actively considering joining a MAT.

DfE guidance entitled Building Strong Academy Trusts, released to add details to Williamson’s announcements, gives further pause for thought for those schools wishing to set up their own academy trusts. Describing joining an existing academy trust as often the ‘best option’ for a school, the guidance makes clear that the creation of new academy trusts is most likely to be allowed in areas of the country where standards are low and demand for strong trusts outstrips supply. Any school wishing to set up a new academy trust are encouraged to talk to their RSC office about whether there’s a need for new academy trusts in the area, or whether it would be preferable to join an existing MAT. The direction of travel appears to be towards increasing the size of existing MATs where possible.  This will result in more schools being academies with fewer MATs, and so the size of MATs will inevitably grow.  Those MATs looking to grow need to be strategically and operationally prepared for the challenges and opportunities that such growth will present.

Getting your house in order

If Williamson’s speech signals the start of a renewed push towards 100% academisation of state schools, schools will need to consider what conversion to an academy could mean for them. This might include:

  • How they should engage with staff and parents.
  • The changes to governance structures that will need to be made.
  • How their school would fit into a larger MAT structure.
  • Whether there are local or regional MATs that would provide a suitable cultural and educational fit.
  • Whether conversion to an academy – and finding what the DfE refers to as a ‘strong family’ of schools to join – is in the best interests of the school and its pupils.

 

Existing trusts will need to carefully consider what their vision and strategy is under this clear policy.

  • Are they strategically and operationally in a position to grow?
  • Will any growth provide an education benefit to their pupils and the pupils of any joining school?
  • What can the trust offer if it was to extend its family?
  • Do they have robust policies and procedures in place to facilitate growth?  Is the Trust financially ready to expand?

 

We can help

The DfE guidance is clear that “getting legal advice early in the process helps academy trusts understand any risks, sensitivities and issues early”. As well as getting early advice, schools need to get the right advice. Finding solicitors who act as part of your team, take the complexity out of the conversion process, advise on difficult issues in simple terms, and are proactive and take the lead is vital.

Muckle LLP will be running a series of events in September and we’d like you to join us. You can help plan your journey by registering for one of our free webinars below or by talking to Joanne Davison, partner in our education team at Muckle LLP on 0191 211 7958 or by emailing [email protected].

Top Tips for Academy Conversion – 22nd September 2021

Growing your Academy Trust – 28th September 2021