Collaboration is a new buzzword in education, but there are many ways it can happen. Expert Alison Talbot describes how one option in particular may be coming to the fore.

At the beginning of the school term, a number of exciting collaborations and partnerships coming to fruition, with many free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools opening their doors for the first time. Amongst them, these schools are offering a specialist focus on subjects such as Maths, Astronomy, Creativity and Performance, Sports, Engineering and Science and the list of commercial and educational sponsors ranges from top universities and elite independent schools through to banks, car manufacturers and football teams.

In her role as Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan has already restated the Government’s aim to increase the number of these innovative schools as they believe that allowing parents, charities and third parties to open schools will help to raise standards. These new schools offer something different and, as a result, attract high levels of interest from pupils and parents. It will be interesting to see how successful the schools become and whether they are judged to be effective.

At the same time as the increase in new schools, the number of sponsored and convertor academies has been growing significantly and over 4,000 schools have now become academies since 2010. Government policy continues to encourage maintained schools to convert to academy status and in some areas the reduction in Local Authority resources to support maintained schools is forcing schools to carefully consider the implications of remaining as a maintained school. The number of schools converting to academy status therefore looks set to continue to increase.

There have been a number of models emerging amongst these schools, including schools converting to single academies, individual schools being sponsored by other successful schools, colleges or other third parties, and local groups of schools converting together or entering into collaborative partnerships.

After a period of rapid growth, there now appears to be some consolidation going on in the academies sector, with a number of existing academies (both single and multi-academy trusts) seeking advice on mergers with new or existing multi-academy trusts. The motives for these mergers are varied, but often include the need or desire to benefit from greater economies of scale. They are often initiated with the aim of allowing staff and resources to be shared. Most of these mergers centre around a particular secondary school and its catchment area, or a particular town or geographical area. It is quite clear that these local connections make it much easier for schools to share resources, teaching and support staff and to build up an internal network of experience and knowledge to help improve the education that they provide.

Over the next few years it is likely that this consolidation will continue, as existing academies look closely at their ongoing funding arrangements and primary schools consider the benefits of joining existing academies in the face of reduced support from their local authorities. In the future we may also start to see successful free schools, UTCs and studio schools looking to merge with the more traditional academy schools.

Alongside this expansion of local multi-academy trusts, some of the large multi academy sponsors have been forced to reduce the number of schools that they are sponsoring. The effect of the increasing size of local multi-academy trusts and the reducing size of some of the larger multi-academy trusts shows a convergence in the market.

What appears to be emerging is a pattern of medium sized multi-academy trusts of 3 to 8 schools working in local groupings (much like a mini local authority). With the relationship between schools and their sponsors under scrutiny from the House of Commons Education Select Committee there may be a developing trend moving away from large academy chains and we may see that the smaller geographical groups of academy schools becomes the structure of choice in future.

 

Alison Talbot is a Partner at law firm Blake Morgan. Alison specialises in restructuring and academy Conversions