May 2021 edition: Towards a Fully Academised System – but Keep it in the Family

Towards a Fully Academised System – but Keep it in the Family

Gavin Williamson has a clear vision of the future of the state-funded school system and that is for every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong Multi-academy Trust.

This was the message from his speech to the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) on the 28 April and in the contemporaneously released Department for Education (DfE) guidance "Building Stronger Trusts”.

For any schools considering becoming an academy (and Academy Trusts looking to expand), these comments will be very welcome and a clear indication that the Government is committed to a fully academised state school system.

Understandably, the number of academy conversions dipped in the 12 months leading up to The Secretary of State’s recent statement, the nation and its schools were grappling with more pressing matters. This recent development, which is unequivocal in its messaging, provides clarity on the Government’s intentions for the state funded schools sector.

The speech went beyond simply supporting the academy system and asserted that we need to move away from the current pick-and-mix structure and towards a single model. Although, he fell short of suggesting a compulsory conversion approach, he confirmed he was actively looking at ways to achieve this vision.

The rationale for this endorsement of the academy system was a commitment to the belief that the strongest leaders can take responsibility for supporting more schools, developing staff, allowing schools to focus on teaching and ultimately bringing about improved outcomes for students.

The common thread through the speech and the guidance is the potential for strong governance across groups of schools to bring about a greater impact than, for example, soft federations or alliances. This point was reinforced with the confirmation that the Government does not consider single-entity schools a viable proposition. The future is likely to be the growth of Academy Trusts through mergers or conversion of schools into the existing Trusts.

This latter point on the growth of Trusts is echoed in the guidance. It is not only clear that new standalone Academy Trusts are unlikely to be approved but new Multi-academy Trusts are likely to be approved only if they are in areas of need and where standards are low, the preference is for existing Academy Trusts.

This concept of a family of schools appears repeatedly in the guidance and seems to be the preferred terminology. It is notable that the term ‘MAT’ is rarely used; the current preference being for ‘families of schools’ and ‘strong Academy Trusts’.

The rationale for this endorsement of the academy system was a commitment to the belief that the strongest leaders can take responsibility for supporting more schools, developing staff, allowing schools to focus on teaching and ultimately bringing about improved outcomes for students.

Adrian Shardlow

The Government considers that one way of encouraging these families of schools to grow is using the ‘try before you buy’ option or Trust Partnership. This is an arrangement where maintained schools and Academy Trusts enter into an agreement for a fixed period whereby the school receives support from the Trust as if it were a member of the Trust. It is clearly hoped that the arrangement will be positive for both parties and will then lead to the maintained school joining the Trust.

Although Trust Partnerships have been available before, they have not been utilised in large numbers and their use depends very much on the willingness of Trusts to provide a significant level of openness and support without commitment from the maintained school. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State said he could see no reason why every local authority-maintained school in the country shouldn’t consider taking up this opportunity as soon as possible.

Interestingly, the sample service level agreement goes beyond the services to be provided and suggests that the school should launch a consultation on becoming an academy and thereafter vote on whether to progress to academisation.

A somewhat less volitional approach to expanding Trusts was also intimated. This relates to schools that have been judged ‘Requires Improvement’ (or worse) by Ofsted in their last three consecutive full inspections. The Secretary of State indicated an intention to bring such schools into Multi-academy Trusts and confirmed that further details would be available in due course.

Attempts to bring about forced academisation beyond failing schools have resulted in turbulent times for previous Secretaries of State and the current incumbent suggested he would be consulting on any such proposals.

For some time now it was not unreasonable for schools to have doubts as to whether the expansion of the academy system had the full backing of the Government. For many school leaders this presented problems in discussing any future proposals with their stakeholders. Whether or not you support the expansion of the academy system, it is helpful for the education sector to have a clear understanding of the Government’s vision and expectations for the future of the state-funded school system.

Browne Jacobson is a CST Platinum Partner.