Minister admits ‘transparency’ needed over academy transfers and conversion

MATs and academy-sceptics alike are likely to welcome more transparency about why schools get transferred to particular trusts

MATs and academy-sceptics alike are likely to welcome more transparency about why schools get transferred to particular trusts

17 Nov 2022, 11:12

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A government minister has accepted more “transparency” is needed in its decision-making over academisation and transfers of schools into new trusts.

Baroness Barran, recently re-appointed academies minister, said it was in response to sector calls for greater openness as part of its ongoing review of academy regulation.

Speaking at the Schools and Academies Show in Birmingham today, she also pledged to “simplify” regulatory burdens on trusts, and highlighted the importance of trusts having “geographical coherence”.

More transparency, fewer regulatory burdens

The government’s academy system has faced criticism before over transparency about significant decisions over schools’ futures.

Struggling maintained schools and academies can be forced to academise or join new trusts through a process known as “brokering” and “rebrokering”. But decisions are signed off at regional government advisory board meetings not open to the public, with only limited minutes published typically months later.

Baroness Barran said the government’s external advisory group on academy regulation and commissioning had been working “tirelessly” since the summer on potential reforms.

“One of the things that’s been clearly fed back to us is that we need to be much more transparent about trust quality, the metrics that we use, and where we use them and how we use them in our commissioning and rebrokering and brokering decisions about schools.”

She said she had heard from “many” in the sector about how regulatory burdens can feel “duplicative”, and the government is working to “strip out any unnecessary reporting”.

It is also trying to ensure a “seamless interface” between the Education and Skills Funding Agency and Department for Education in trusts’ dealings with them.

Barran spent most of her speech setting out some aspects of the government’s definition and examples of “strong” trusts, repeating themes previously spelled out including collaboration, culture, economies of scale and career opportunities.

Focus on ‘clusters’ of schools

But she also placed fresh emphasis on how government often sees “geographic coherence” in strong trusts.

She stressed this was not “trusts operating in a single area”, but instead trusts having clusters of schools – “so they can benefit from some of the collaboration that can take place between schools that are close to each other.”

But Hannah Woodhouse, DfE regional director for the south-west, said at a later panel: “I don’t think there is a ‘we should do clusters’ – but it does make sense to think about schools joining trusts in groups at the same time. 

“No trust wants to grow by one primary school one month, another one the next, another one – that makes absolutely no sense in terms of resourcing.”

Schools Week reported earlier this month how government officials were working on plans to package up “clusters” of schools eligible for government intervention so they can be moved en-masse into large academy trusts.

Jonathan Gullis, the former schools minister, has said officials wanted to be more strategic about academy expansion and help large trusts into areas in which they did not have schools.

Woodhouse also acknowledged growth and resources were “intimately linked”. While she had found “lots of interest” in the government’s 2030 MAT vision, she acknowledged “the most pressing” issues schools were immediately dealing with were their financial situation, recruitment and retention, coming out of the pandemic and the cost of living.

Government remains clear about the “long-term sense of direction”, Woodhouse added, though she added later it was a “judgement about pace” and not growing “too quickly” in terms of resources and planning.

Sector leader ‘disappointed’ minister silent on budgets

Barran’s speech meanwhile did not mention the government’s autumn statement due just hours later, despite the scale of sector worries about budgets and belt-tightening.

ISBL CEO Stephen Morales
Stephen Morales

Stephen Morales, chief executive of the Institute of School Business Leaders, said on stage following Barran’s speech that it was a “regurgitation of things we’ve heard in the period before the summer”.

He was “slightly disappointed” not to hear more on the autumn statement, having warned in his own speech earlier of schools risking insolvency. But he would be “interested” to hear more about efforts to simplify regulatory burdens.

Paul Gosling, president of the National Association of Headteachers, also said on a panel session his members were in “survival mode” rather than thinking about the government’s 2030 vision.

Meanwhile Jude Hilary of the National Foundation for Education Research said the government should commission more “conclusive” research about whether MAT schools perform better, despite Barran and Woodhouse repeatedly highlighting their benefits.

But Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, said the emphasis on geographic hubs would be welcomed by governors. “It’s something we’ve been talking about for really long time”.

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