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Twenty schools is “too small” for a multi-academy trust because they will not be able to fund the training and services that are increasingly expected of them, says the chief executive of a multi-academy trust.

Jon Coles, of United Learning, said the “long-term risk” to the academy system being successful was “not trusts being too big, but that they will be too small”.

Bigger trusts had more capacity to train staff, provide specialist services and invest in difficult schools because they have a larger budget and can make savings on back-office costs, Coles said following a panel debate called Does Size Matter? The Growth of Multi-Academy Trusts.

But business directors said the “local detail” of each school’s character and finances was lost when trusts expanded much beyond 20 schools.

John Banbrook, the business and finance director at Faringdon Academy of Schools in Oxfordshire, whose chair, Liz Holmes, sat on the panel, said growing too large ran the risk of trusts falling “back into the failed local authority model we were trying to get away from” in which councils were having to oversee too many schools.

MATs aren’t supposed to do everything. That’s what teaching school alliances are for

His trust of eight schools, which planned to join another trust to have 15 schools, would still be a size where he was able to talk “in detail about every single school”. If it grew beyond 20, the trust would rely more on data and be a “step removed” from schools on the ground, running the risk of getting into difficulties.

But Coles said his trust’s turnover of £360 million – the result of 40,000 pupils at 46 academies and 13 independent schools – allowed even a 1 per cent investment in teacher training to be a “substantial resource” and meant the trust could train 100 new teachers a year.

National schools commissioner Sir David Carter’s recommendation that 1,200 pupils should be the minimum size for a MAT was therefore “much too small”, because such a trust would only have a budget of about £5 to £6 million, he said. Carter made the comments in March last year.

“To get real advantages of scale, I think a trust needs to be at least five to ten-times that size.”

But Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, who also sat on the panel, said multi-academy trusts should be more focused on collaborating with local schools and trusts than trying to deliver all training and improvement themselves.

“MATs aren’t supposed to do everything. That’s what teaching school alliances are for.”

Senior leaders should also not spend “half their lives in the car” driving between lots of schools within their trust.