What’s Behind an Academy Trust’s Decision to Grow?
To put this in some context: academisation is still relatively young. And in this short space of time, those who academised have had to formalise collaboration with relatively little support, and create the most sustainable way of existing outside of the local authority.
The DfE didn’t mandate multi academy trusts at the outset – it recognised academy chains forming, expected stronger schools to support weaker schools, but ultimately they supported a range of models. We had ‘umbrella’ trusts and ‘collaborative partnerships’, but they haven’t really lasted (for more on this, there’s a great section on the history of ‘chains’ in this report from LSE).
Trusts don’t see growth as a quick-fix to paper over financial cracks; the people leading them care about the speed and sustainability and, above all, sharing their vision with like-minded schools to help pupils as best they can.
Multi academy trusts emerged somewhat organically, a dual response to the greater operational responsibilities of increased autonomy and the recognised educational benefits of formal collaboration. Out of the infancy of the academisation policy, they’ve become the model for academy groups. But increasingly these school trusts are finding that, to remain sustainable, they’re having to get bigger.
The pressures to grow
Our research, conducted earlier this year, found that over half of trusts are planning to grow, whether through schools joining or by merging with another trust. So why grow at all? There are plenty of small trusts in the country, many of whom are doing great things for their pupils. But they feel a pressure to grow, and that pressure arises internally and externally.
Internally, growth is seen as a necessity for sustainability. The trusts we spoke to were mostly chasing the next size bracket for the ‘ideal’ number of schools. Over half of the trusts with 1 to 5 schools saw 6 to 10 as the ideal size. And over a third in the 6 to 10 bracket saw 11 to 15 as ideal (and a further quarter were seeking to grow to 16 to 20).
No one has proven a definitive perfect size for a trust, though research to date does indicate a minimum viability of sorts. It’s not a stretch to assume that trust leaders are looking at their budgets and seeing growth as an operational necessity to increasing income and achieving economies of scale in purchasing and delivering services from the ‘centre’.
But the call isn’t just coming from ‘inside the house’. The core tenet of academisation is, as acknowledged earlier, that it’s a self-improving system. The DfE needs trusts to take on underperforming schools. Academy orders are still mandatory for maintained schools judged ‘inadequate’, new trusts need to be found for academies that are re-brokered from failing trusts. And even schools that convert voluntarily are not always deemed high performing enough to become a single academy trust.
A healthy restraint
So, if we accept that pressures to grow exist, why isn’t the country overrun with 100-school trusts, expanding into every city, opening new schools on every corner?
There’s certainly no reluctance to work with each other. Trusts are collaborative – and not just within their own group of schools. A consequence of greater autonomy is a system of leaders who have learned from each other, with trusts supporting their peers through networks of leaders and practitioners. Only 5% of the trusts we surveyed don’t collaborate with other trusts.
Instead, we think the gradual approach we’re seeing shows an understandable caution – with two factors in particular standing out. When we asked about growth plans, many trusts were open to growth, even though they weren’t in the process. 28% would grow "if the right schools came along” and 12% would like to grow "in the future, but we’re not ready”.
The first of those reflects the nature of compatibility. Trust leaders recognise the importance of only taking on schools with a compatible vision and ethos. This is critical to a self-improving system; if we accept that there is no one correct vision for education, and that context matters, then it’s clear that you can’t put any school into any trust and expect the same success.
The second of those responses speaks to capacity. Successful growth hinges not just on due diligence on the joining school, but also on an understanding of the trust’s own capacity to support that school. This might be financial resource, school improvement expertise, or having the self-sufficiency in enough of the other schools that leaders can focus attention on improving the new school. The potential negative consequences of growth extend beyond failing to turn around a new school; there’s the risk of a detrimental effect on the existing schools in the trust too.
This is not bad news
We found our research findings really encouraging. Trusts don’t see growth as a quick-fix to paper over financial cracks; the people leading them care about the speed and sustainability and, above all, sharing their vision with like-minded schools to help pupils as best they can. There is no denying there are systemic pressures on all schools (not just academy trusts) and it’s always affirming to remember that the people facing them haven’t, in the face of these pressures, lost sight of what’s important. We have the right people in place; we just have to continue improving the environment they’re working in.