July 2021 edition: Joining, Merging and Growing Academy Trusts

Joining, Merging and Growing Academy Trusts

When Hannah Woodhouse (RSC for the South West) and I joined a CST masterclass on ‘joining, merging and growing’ Academy Trusts, the discussion with trust leaders on how the best trusts think about their strategies for development highlighted for me the great maturity of the sector. It was a great privilege for me to continue the discussion in a series of roundtables with trust leaders in my region.

It’s an obvious statement that growth will fundamentally affect your Trust’s resources and capacity to improve its schools. All growth will enhance a Trust’s capacity in some ways, as you will be working with new colleagues with new skills and attributes. Growth will also inevitably, to some extent, absorb your existing Trust capacity – be it in terms of improving maths outcomes, managing a tricky estates question, or learning to work with a new parental community. This balance between enhancing and absorbing your capacity will differ in each individual case and having a clear-eyed view of the possible likely impact of the new school on your existing organisation is essential to making a success of growth.

It is difficult to be prescriptive when considering geography because sometimes, especially in certain types of provision, a wide geographical footprint is important. Generally though, school improvement is made easier when schools can readily access support from elsewhere in the Trust and where a Trust can leverage its capacity to have a bigger impact on its schools. Thinking in terms of ‘hub capacity’ as well as ‘Trust capacity’ is a good discipline to practice and is a way to enable development into areas where otherwise you might struggle to drive school improvement. I am interested in how Trusts might diversify into different provision for example, how a primary Trust develops secondary provision or a mainstream Trust develops special provisions. I’ve seen this kind of development take place in my region through different routes, including mergers between Trusts.

We are experiencing more mergers between Trusts and our evidence-base on how to bring these about is becoming richer. The recently published Best Practice Guidance contains some case-studies on Trust mergers and some of the lessons we have noted are:

This balance between enhancing and absorbing your capacity will differ in each individual case and having a clear-eyed view of the possible likely impact of the new school on your existing organisation is essential to making a success of growth.

Sue Baldwin

  • the importance of being clear about what you want as a Trust and why and returning to this throughout the merger process;

  • having a timescale and process to explore options and setting clear timescales or break points to allow parties to take stock and if necessary, extricate themselves;

  • having sensible governance arrangements for all parties to oversee the work; and

  • sometimes creating space for ‘working alongside’ or ‘working together’, before setting out on anything too formal can be important. The recently launched Trust partnerships are a recognition of the fact that formal structural change is often proceeded by a period of getting to know one another and assessing the mutual benefits or closer working.

Many of the Trusts we work with are interested in and participating in growth and development activities. One such is Sapientia Education Trust. Sapientia has 16 schools – six secondaries and ten primaries - across Norfolk and Suffolk, with seven of its schools joining in the last three years. Sapientia grew out of the founder school, Wymondham College, which is the largest state boarding school in the country, with successive Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ judgements to its name. Some of the key factors of successful growth at Sapientia have included: an excellent school improvement strategy, robust financial management, strong leadership across the trust exemplified by the CEO and National Leader of Education Jonathan Taylor, and extensive involvement and support to other schools and Trusts via vehicles such as the ENCOMPASS Teaching School Alliance (which Sapientia is a core member of). Driving up educational standards - not only in its own schools but within the region and beyond - has been the bedrock of Sapientia’s considerable achievement.

Sapientia is not the only system leader to have played a powerful leadership role over this terrible pandemic and every RSC knows many Trusts doing amazing things. As Trusts now look to the future, there are tools to support growth and mergers. The Best Practice Guidance mentioned above carries excellent case studies on how MATs are functioning around the country and is a substantial update to the evidence base on ‘why MATs?’ We have published off-the-shelf contracts that Trusts and schools can use as a template for agreeing a relationship in Trust Partnerships. Funding worth £24m in TCaF3, which may support the growth of Trust capacity is particularly focused on supporting Trusts that are taking on under-performing schools in areas with lower school performance. If you are interested in a tool to analyse your MAT in its totality, including your readiness for future growth, the MAT capacity framework self-assessment tool has been updated to make it suitable for all types of trusts at all stages in their growth.

Wherever you are on your development and growth strategies, it only remains for me to wish all of you the very best for the coming months and to thank everyone of you especially for your work over the past 18 months.