The government will “certainly” miss its 2030 target for all schools joining larger multi-academy trusts, as it would require “unprecedented” upheaval that threatens standards, a new report says.
Here are the key findings from a National Foundation for Educational Research study, published today, on “transitioning to a multi-academy trust-led system”.
1. ‘Unprecedented’ academy conversions required
Schools would have to join MATs and trusts merge “at an unprecedented scale” to have all schools in MATs of 10 schools or 7,500 pupils by 2030 – the 2021 ‘opportunity for all’ white paper’s vision.
The study found 25 maintained mainstream schools and three single-academy trusts would need to convert every week. Schools Week analysis shows actual conversions only averaged 7.5 per week in December.
Currently, more than half of academies are in trusts with fewer than 10 schools – which rises to more than two-thirds in London and the north-west.
Julie McCulloch, policy director at school leaders’ union ASCL, dubbed the 2030 target “totally unrealistic”.
NFER research director Jenna Julius said the Department for Education should instead “prioritise a slower transition that allows time to build MAT capacity”.
2. Schools and councils frosty on academisation …
But do those schools even want to join MATs?
Just six per cent of the 33 councils who completed the NFER survey were in favour of all schools being in strong MATs of 10 schools or 7,500 pupils by 2030.
More than half of LAs said their local maintained and standalone academy schools alike were opposed to joining multi-academy trusts.
Only around one in 10 councils felt retaining schools was no longer financially viable, or wanted powers to force conversions – as proposed by DfE under the since-ditched schools bill.
The report notes 2010 academy legislation and the 2016 white paper both sparked mass conversions.
But it warned a repeat is “unlikely”, explaining: “Given the current political context, the slowdown in academisation in recent years and the scale of academisation and trust growth that would be required, it is likely to take a significant period for the government to achieve an all-MAT system, certainly beyond 2030,” the report said.
3. … and councils lack cash to form MATs
Two-thirds of councils surveyed showed interest in DfE proposals for LA-established trusts.
The NFER called it an “important avenue” to boost conversions, but said more cash was needed.
The study found just two in five councils expected to launch MATs within three years; only one in five applied to a DfE pilot.
The NFER put the gap down to “concerns … about their ability to fund the process”, with two-thirds of councils saying they lacked both resources and clarity needed. The DfE was approached for an update on its LA MAT pilot.
A Local Government Association spokesperson said the government should widen its plans beyond areas without “strong” trusts, noting it would help reluctant converters remain connected to LAs.
Four-fifths of council respondents feared even some schools looking to convert would be “left behind”, unwanted by MATs. Meanwhile trust funding pots for growth are also “not commensurate with a rapid academisation target”.
4. Rapid growth threatens standards
The NFER also warns rapid growth “risks creating issues for trust quality, as it did during the initial rapid expansion of MATs”, with schools joining “inappropriate” trusts.
Ministers had to “pause” the growth of large trusts, including E-ACT and the Academies Enterprise Trust, around a decade ago over concerns they had grown too quickly and standards had fallen.
Plymouth CAST’s birth from 34 simultaneous conversions in 2014 has also been described as “cautionary tale”, with stinging criticism from Ofsted.
The NFER report states: “Some schools might rush to join a MAT, which is not necessarily an appropriate match, for fear of being forced to join another MAT in the future.”
This risks creating “substantial medium-term challenges” – particularly given the lack of an “appropriate” regulatory framework – and could impact other priorities like Covid-19 recovery.
NFER also flagged councils’ warnings that mass conversions would “inevitably divert resources from other areas”, including pressing priorities like the cost-of-living crisis and special educational needs and disability funding.
McCulloch also urged DfE to prioritise “pressing issues” like staffing shortages and funding. “These are much greater threats to educational standards over the next few years than some schools not being in MATs.”
5. ‘Lack of evidence’ for trust vision
The NFER urged government to prioritise a delayed academy regulation review, with a “clear need” for a national regulatory framework for trust performance – and “high-quality evidence” needed to underpin it.
It is “not clear” whether proposals will “adequately assess trust quality”, with reliance on performance measures “potentially…misleading”. Evidence is currently lacking on the optimal trust size, the report noted, and research has shown “academisation alone does not necessarily improve school outcomes”.
Nearly one in 10 MATs have a majority of schools rated less than ‘good’, raising questions about whether there is “sufficient focus” on improving MAT schools.
There is also “considerable variation” in how quickly DfE regional directors transfer failing academies into new trusts, with re-brokerage typically 18 months faster in the east of England than the north-east.
The DfE was approached for comment.