Academies

Academies: No MAT target, but mergers growing

Around one in five trusts which were running schools in 2019 are no longer in operation

Around one in five trusts which were running schools in 2019 are no longer in operation

10 Jul 2024, 11:09

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A boom in trust mergers means the previous Conservative government’s MAT push has moved along despite a lack of political focus – with Labour unlikely to change anything soon.

Schools Week analysis shows that around one in five trusts which were running schools in 2019 are no longer in operation.

Last year the government ditched its official targets for all schools to be in or joining a “strong trust”, which has or is “working towards” having at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils, by 2030.

Sir Kevan Collins, who has been named as an adviser to the DfE on school standards, reportedly told a TES event last Wednesday that his “fierce focus on standards” means he is “pretty agnostic about [school] structures”.

This echoes comments by Labour’s Bridget Phillipson last year. The then shadow education secretary said the party is “not interested in wholesale structural reform”, but wants to “smooth the differences” between academies and maintained schools.

The distinction between the schools “mostly means nothing to parents”.

But market forces appear to be pushing through change anyway. Trusts now have on average of 4.8 schools – up from 3.1 in 2019.

‘Diktats won’t work’

The number of standalone trusts has tumbled from 1,616 to just over 1,100 in that period – a drop of 32 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of MATs has fallen by 1 per cent – despite the number of academies rising from 8,594 to 10,839 over the five years.

Analysis by Education Datalab found if the rates at which schools join MATs continues, all secondaries would be in MATs by 2031. However for all schools, this would be be 2041. SATs would be phased out by 2038.

Trust numbers have fallen from almost 2,800 five years ago to 2,272 in April this year.

Confederation of School Trusts CEO Leora Cruddas said leaders were making “assessments of whether there’s enough resilience within their own organisation and, if there isn’t, [they’re] seeking to join another”. 

“Responding to a government diktat is not the right reason to do it,” she added. 

“We want people to make really good, thoughtful decisions. If they think their children and staff would be better off and their school would be stronger, then that is a really good reason.”

In Norwich, the Heart Education Trust is set to join the Unity Schools Partnership. Heart CEO Hazel Cubbage made the decision after receiving a termination warning notice for one of her academies.

“As a small MAT, we simply lack the institutional strength and sustainability to achieve my ambitious vision for our staff and pupils,” Cubbage said.

“We weren’t prepared to sacrifice our current pupils’ life-chances, while we spent that time growing.”

Beacon Education Trust bosses believe their merger with the Bath and Wells MAT will see them benefit “from additional capacity to tackle under achievement”. 

They will also have access to “various levels of in-house expertise” in attendance, wellbeing and behaviour.

CPD and capital cash

Inspira Academy Trust CEO Dean Jones pointed to “vital” career progression and professional development as a “key factor” behind his move. The two-school Kent chain is set to be absorbed by Turner Schools.  

Yorkshire-based Areté Learning Trust said its merger with Ryedale Learning Trust would bring financial benefits including “access to direct capital allocation”. 

“Knowing that we will receive a guaranteed and significant allocation on an annual basis will enable us to plan strategically to bring about improvements,” a spokesperson said.

Cash-strapped councils are also less likely to be able to provide services for their schools, which could fuel moves.

Problems ahead for Labour

But Association of School and College Leaders general secretary Pepe Di’lasio urged Labour “to provide clarity over whether the ambition that all schools should be part of multi-academy trusts still stands”.

Jonathan Simons, head of education at consultancy firm Public First, said the new government would most likely be “broadly pro schools continuing to academise and MATs merging”, but incentives “may shrink”.

He said the new government will “probably care more about catching underperforming [trusts] quicker” and creating “some form of at least semi-democratic oversight” of the trust system.

But he said there was likely to be a high-profile case of a school challenging an academisation decision in Labour’s hotspot areas, and trusts doing “necessary and unpopular things. Will Labour simply say ‘academy freedoms’, or will they call it out, even if legally they can’t really intervene?”

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2 Comments

  1. Rubina Darr

    Education cannot be by diktats!
    The focus must be standards.
    Where there are strong MATs whether they are big or small, they should be supporting schools in their locality to provide the best education!!
    It seems the focus to merge lies with ESFA who are concerned with finances not a good education.
    Let good schools work their own destiny and flight path!!
    Where there is willingness there is strength.

  2. Carl Parsons

    I cannot bring myself to accept that the chaos of 2,000 MATs and 160 LAs in England is here to stay. Scotland, Wales and NI sale on smugly with their continuing local democratic arrangements
    Terry and I will continue with the YouTube output under the title of Terry and Carl talk shit about academies.