Academy trust development statements boost decline of standalone schools

Leaders fear smaller academy trusts 'aren’t being allowed to grow' in England’s left-behind areas

Leaders fear smaller academy trusts 'aren’t being allowed to grow' in England’s left-behind areas

11 Mar 2024, 5:00

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Leaders fear smaller academy trusts “aren’t being allowed to grow” in England’s left-behind areas as MATs bulge in size and standalone academies tumble.

Since the government unveiled its blueprint to expand, merge or create multi-academy trusts in 55 priority areas, single-trust declines in these towns and counties have outstripped national falls, Schools Week analysis shows.

Some leaders have argued the push for larger academy chains has helped protect the most “vulnerable” schools from financial peril.

But others worry smaller MATs have been side-lined over England’s largest trusts instead of expanding into new areas.

DfE plan turbo boosts fall of SATs

Last March, ministers published plans – dubbed “trust development statements” – to expand or launch new MATs in 55 “education investment areas”, which have the nation’s weakest results.

At the time, the government said the documents “clearly signpost” the types of “growth project we want to encourage” to improve outcomes in each EIA.

Schools Week analysis of government data shows the number of SATs in the EIAs has dropped by 13 per cent over the last year. National drops stood at eight per cent over the same period.

Jenny Blunden
Jenny Blunden

Of all the EIAs, Rotherham witnessed the largest fall, with its stock of standalones falling from eight to just one.

Looking at regional data, the West Midlands and South East were the only ones not to see a fall in the number of SATs, with numbers remaining the same.

Dr Jenny Blunden, who sits on the regional director’s advisory board for the south-west, attributed the region’s 10 per cent fall in SATs to the fact many are already working with local MATs.

“Trying to bring together more vulnerable trusts to make larger, stronger trusts is a key driver, particularly in a region that’s perhaps more highly academised than other areas,” added Blunden, who also runs 34-school chain Truro and Penwith Academy Trust.

“Much of this is common sense – it’s not particularly radical. Any schools standing alone [in the southwest] have been encouraged, I think, by regional groups to consider working within a group of schools.”

‘Signs of greater consistency’

Trust leaders have long had concerns about secrecy and variability in academy commissioning decisions. But it appears the statements are providing some more logic.

Leora Cruddas
Leora Cruddas

Minutes from a north-west advisory board meeting in September detail how proposals for St Aidan’s CofE Academy, in Darlington, to be absorbed by a MAT were “in line with the strategic plan outlined” in the statements.

The board “discussed the ongoing challenges” the secondary faces “as a standalone”. The merger would help “support the school and make the necessary improvements”.

Confederation of School Trusts chief Leora Cruddas said the statements were an “attempt to bring greater transparency and consistency on how decisions are made. We are seeing some signs of that, but the picture is not perfect.”

In the long term, CST wants an “independent national schools regulator making these types of decisions, to ensure independence, impartiality, and transparency of regulation”.

Trusts get bigger

Our figures also reveal that the average size of a trust operating in EIAs has grown by more than 11 per cent, from 6.5 schools to 7.2, since the government released the statements. The national figure rose by 9 per cent, from 4.2 schools to 4.6.

Improvement areas in Yorkshire and the Humber recorded the highest rise (15.8 per cent), while those in the west Midlands had the lowest (6 per cent).

Matt Crawford, CEO of the 19-school Embark Federation in Derbyshire, said interest from schools considering moving into his trust has been “higher than ever” over the last 12 months. There are now 16 schools hoping to join.

He believes his organisation’s growth strategy, which will see it populate all six regions of Derbyshire with up to 10 academies, will further the DfE’s aim of “building capacity near the northern and western borders” of the county.

During a meeting last summer, the north-east advisory board threw its weight behind plans for Eden Learning Trust, which now has eight schools, to take on the Kepier Academy in Sunderland.

Members said the application was “in line with the aspirations” of the development statements, which wanted the city to have “fewer, larger” chains.

To aid Eden Learning with its “next stage of growth”, members supported regional director Katherine Cowell’s “recommendation for the CEO and chair to undertake some peer mentoring from experienced colleagues of a larger trust”.

‘Opportunities all go to big MATs’

The statements also outlined the DfE’s desire to see “high-quality trusts” move into some EIAs if they were already operating in neighbouring local authority areas.

Rob Tarn, CEO of the 26-school Northern Education Trust, said his team has been in discussions with the government to “work in more priority areas in greater Manchester”, including Bury and Salford.

“This will increase the number of trust schools in the area from two to eight and we believe this is a good example of strategic decision making to introduce strong trusts into areas where performance needs to improve.”

Oasis founder Steve Chalke, whose MAT runs 53 academies, stated he is in talks to take on more schools in seven EIAs.

“What happens in reality is a school trust grows through relationships. We began discussions with a local authority – they didn’t refer to this list [of EIAs] – it was simply them saying ‘look, we have a situation we think you’ll be able to help us with’.”

But one advisory board member, who wanted to remain anonymous, said there is “some tension” between small trusts wanting to grow and the government’s strategic wish to engage large MATs in EIAs.

They explained there’s a feeling “they’re not allowed to grow as all the opportunities are going to the big ones”.

The CEO of a smaller trust claimed the department has “a very clear view over where they want all” investment area primaries and secondaries to go.

How each region is performing

Those in the North West recorded the highest proportion rise in schools in MATs (12.8 per cent) and academy growth (10.5 per cent), while levels in the east of England stood at just 2.6 and 2 per cent respectively.

However, the north west has the fewer proportion of academies nationally, while the east of England has among the most.

At six per cent, Yorkshire and the Humber EIAs witnessed the largest fall in trust numbers, while West Midlands EIAs registered the largest increase (3.6 per cent).

Epworth Education Trust CEO Julie-Ann Hewitt, who runs seven academies across five investment areas, thinks there is “a real lack of consistency” from councils.

While some are keen to collaborate with trusts, she has faced some “resistance”.

Hewitt said: “Such barriers mean that it can feel like we are going through the motions of doing the things that are being asked of us, but it doesn’t then reach the desired successful or effective conclusion.”

Former national school commissioner Sir David Carter believes the government’s push could be driving “many of the conversations” around trust mergers.

He gave the example of Lincolnshire, one of the 55 areas, where “those who have resisted very vocally joining a trust in the past are now thinking more strategically to join the trust that is right for them. That has to be a good thing moving forward.”

DfE: Early signs ‘promising’

The Department for Education said it is “still considering the impact of the statements, but the early signs are promising and local partners have welcomed the clarity they have brought”.

It knows “that trusts can benefit from growing at scale”, with larger MATS “able to generate greater economies of scale that can be reinvested in school improvement”.

To help deliver on the aims of the statements, the department has also provided “an enhanced package of support … particularly in EIAs” across the latest rounds of the trust capacity, establishment and growth funds.

“Strong academy trusts can transform schools that are underperforming, and it is widely recognised that there are clear benefits to being part of a high-quality trust,” a spokesperson added.

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