Academy reform limbo risks ‘good chap theory of government’

Calls for greater intervention powers after trust warned four times in six years over school performance

Calls for greater intervention powers after trust warned four times in six years over school performance

A large multi-academy trust has been warned four times in six years that it could be stripped of four schools following ‘inadequate’ ratings.

Experts said it justified the government’s bid to strengthen intervention powers – but a U-turn and delays to the controversial schools bill have left reforms hanging in the balance.

The Active Learning Trust received a termination warning notice (TWN) last month after Burrowmoor Primary School in Cambridgeshire was rated ‘inadequate’.

Inspectors had claimed trust leaders were not “rigorous enough” appraising the curriculum, behaviour and safeguarding.

It came four months another TWN threatened to transfer Littleport and East Cambridgeshire Academy if it did not improve following an ‘inadequate’ rating.

Inspectors said leaders were “bringing about improvements”, but both schools were criticised for disruptive behaviour, “low” expectations and aspects of the curriculum and SEND provision.

Stephen Chamberlain, the former chief executive of the trust, resigned in May, citing personal reasons.

DfE ‘concerned’ over poor inspections

The trust, which runs 21 schools across eastern England, had already received notices over Kingsfield Primary in 2020 and Grove Primary in 2017, although both are now ‘good’. Three other schools are rated ‘requires improvement’.

Jonathan Duff

Jonathan Duff, the Department for Education’s regional director, warned the trust twice that he was “concerned” by multiple poor inspections.

But Jonathan Simons, head of education at consultancy Public First, said there was virtually “nothing” regional directors (RDs) could formally do to directly address systemic concerns at trusts.

“They are incredibly powerful, but if a trust says ‘no’, all they can do is take away failing schools and suggest through back channels that it merge, hire new leaders or broker schools away.”

School-level notices were a last resort and sometimes “treating the symptom, not cause”. They exposed a “weakness in the system” the schools bill and regulatory review were grappling with, he said.

‘Excellent example’ of need for new powers

Jonathan Simons

Sam Freedman, another ex-government adviser, called it an “excellent example” of the need for trust-level intervention powers.

His recent Institute for Government report claimed many weak MATs survived partly because there were no formal MAT expectations or accountability mechanisms for educational performance. RDs were unsustainably reliant on “menace” and limited rebrokering powers.

The DfE has admitted its powers could be “slow” or “ineffective”. It promised a “range of options” for acting “proportionately and quickly” at trust level in its schools bill earlier this year.

Simons said RDs might want to change trustees or leaders, or transfer more schools other than failing ones to better “reposition” a trust and “repackage” schools for another trust.

Academy minister Baroness Barran

But the government delayed and cut down its bill in June. It followed a revolt by sector leaders and peers over handing ministers “unprecedented” powers.

Reforms remain in limbo. Baroness Barran, the academies minister, promised in November to confirm the position “in due course”. 

Simons said: “If the bill’s watered down or review punted into the never-never, are we going to have to work on a ‘good chaps theory of government’? If trusts don’t engage in discussions, you need that hard-edged recourse.”

Powers could be ‘misused’

Some MATs relinquish schools without compulsion.

Mark Blackman, the interim chief executive of Southerly Point Co-operative MAT, said it “jointly agreed” with the DfE to transfer its 18 schools to other trusts this year. It had received three TWNs in two months.

Matthew Clements-Wheeler.
Clements Wheeler

Meanwhile Matthew Clements-Wheeler, a consultant at Keystone Knowledge, warned new powers could be “misused”. Perceived bureaucratic weaknesses could become a “pretext” for forcing small trust mergers.

Yet a recent National Governance Association poll of 100 MAT trustees found most backed “more stringent” trust standards and inspection of MATs. It said this marked a “very different picture” to the high-profile backlash over “what now appears to be the doomed bill”.

Active Learning Trust’s acting chief executive, Craig D’Cunha, said new leaders and improvement plans were already yielding “swift and positive changes” after the “turbulent” Covid period. Seven trust schools were recently rated ‘good’.

His replacement by Lynsey Holzer, an Ofsted inspector and chief executive of Evolution Academy Trust, would also help to ensure “consistently high standards”

The DfE did not want to comment.

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