December 2021 edition: The School Trust System: Where are we at, and what can Trusts do next?

The School Trust System: Where are we at, and what can Trusts do next?

Our recent PLMR state-of-the-nation report looked at the current state of the school system in England as it is now on the cusp of its 10,000th academy.

The report offers an overview of what the school system currently looks like and the direction it is headed in. It also helps to frame strategic thinking either for schools which are considering becoming an academy or for Trusts considering growth.

As our report shows, while there had been some speculation after the appointment of the new Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi, that the Department for Education (DfE) would shift its messaging around a move towards all schools becoming an academy, the landscape would say otherwise.

Academy schools are no longer a subset of the school system, increasingly they are the system. In fact, the move towards a system in which all schools are part of a Trust is now more pragmatic as opposed to ideological.

Indeed, as the new-to-post Ofqual chief regulator and former DfE policy adviser, Jo Saxton, recently said, "It’s not a big ideological thing. High-performing jurisdictions don’t have mixed models of school governance and it’s just really messy in England. We have just over half of pupils in academies now; that needs finishing.”

The most recent DfE data drop (since our report was published), shows there are 9,773 academies in England. Whilst we are nearly at 10,000 academy schools, what is happening with those schools not currently in a family of Trust schools?

The DfE’s recently published report, "Schools’ views on the perceived benefits and obstacles to joining a multi-academy Trust”, explores both the experience of recent converters, and the reasons behind hesitancy from maintained schools and single academy Trusts.

Of the 300 maintained schools surveyed, 22% of maintained secondary schools and 13% of maintained primary schools are currently considering converting. This is against a backdrop in which 78% of all state-funded secondaries and 37% of all state-funded primaries are already academies.

Of the 100 standalone academy Trusts surveyed, 34% thought their schools would form or join a multi-academy Trust within the next three years.

The main reason for not looking at joining a trust, from both current maintained schools and standalone academies, essentially came down to concerns around autonomy and loss of identity:

  • 59% of maintained secondary schools and 67% of maintained primary schools had concerns about loss of autonomy;

  • 80% of standalone academies had concerns about losing autonomy over funding, and 86% were concerned about losing other aspects of autonomy;

  • 64% of maintained primary schools and 49% of maintained secondary schools had concerns about loss of culture or distinctive identity; and,

  • 77% of standalone academies had concerns about a loss of the school’s identity.

With those numbers in mind, what did the 300 recent converters who were surveyed have to say?

  • 82% of primary schools and 74% of secondary schools reported that the overall impact of joining a trust had been positive;

  • 92% of primary schools and 86% of secondaries thought the positive impact met or exceeded their expectations;

  • Only 4% of primary schools and 6% of secondary schools were negative about the overall impact of converting.

Recent converters gave collaboration as the key reason for having joined a Trust, and they subsequently found improvements in the sharing of skills, staff CPD, the school’s sense of direction and purpose and the quality of both governance and school leadership, all of which directly impact on the children and young people in the classroom.

Looking back at what the expected benefits would be, only 27% thought quality of leadership would improve, and fewer than a fifth anticipated an improved sense of direction and purpose. As the guidance points out, given the numbers of recent converters which experienced unanticipated improvements in these areas, there is scope for raising awareness of these as potential benefits.

Trusts can do this by focusing on articulating and demonstrating how they support and develop school leaders, the role individual schools have in delivering the Trust’s strategy and how it positively impacts the quality of education within each school.

Academy schools are no longer a subset of the school system, increasingly they are the system.

Tiffany Beck

Interestingly, considering the difficulty involved in any organisational change, 38% of primary schools and 23% of secondary schools reported there had been no negatives as a result of converting.

For those maintained schools not currently considering conversion, some did feel there were some areas that could persuade them to convert:

  • 28% felt increased funding or budget could persuade them;

  • 20% thought assurances of autonomy could persuade them; and

  • 16% thought finding the right schools to partner with could persuade them.

What can be learned from all this?

In a school system in which 43% of state schools are already academies educating 55% of state school pupils, the idea of a ‘lack of autonomy’ cannot logically be barring the development of great schools across the country.

Trusts can focus on having open conversations with potential schools about what people mean by autonomy, and dispel any myths that arise, as a helpful starting point – perhaps including a couple of headteachers as part of that discussion so they can highlight how, for example, they feel empowered to focus on teaching and learning within their school because of the level and types of support the Trust provides. Highlighting vision and strategic plans and how important individual schools are in delivering that would also be helpful, as well as concrete examples of cost savings that have derived from being part of a Trust.

As the system continues to edge towards all schools fully sitting within School Trusts, and more mergers are being either encouraged or required, schools and Trusts alike should consider how they can ensure they are ahead of the game by understanding the landscape around them, in order to best serve their current and future pupils and staff.

In our report, we suggest what we hope are useful questions and factors for schools and trusts to consider in order to strategically shape their future. This is by no means an exhaustive due diligence list, but rather a starting point for thinking about the best options for a school or trust, given the current landscape, in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for all those who make up our educational communities, including both pupils and staff.

PLMR is a CST Platinum Partner.