Academy trusts are becoming more risk-averse, says former schools commissioner

Academy trusts have become more risk-averse as the government has increased its auditing of their work, the former national schools commissioner has said.

Sir David Carter said today that the weakest schools will continue to fail unless more strong academy trusts and leaders step up to take them on.

It follows a warning from Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman that the government needs to find more sponsors if it is to realise its ambition of supporting failing schools.

The Ofsted chief said in her annual report that the “current halfway house whereby all inadequate schools become academies and require a sponsor, but where there is a severe lack of capacity to sponsor them, has led to a mismatch in available support”.

She said more school leaders are needed to “give back to the system” by collaborating and supporting struggling local schools, by becoming a system leader or forming a MAT.

Carter, who stood down from his role as national schools commissioner this summer after four years in the civil service, is now executive director of system leadership at Ambition School Leadership and the Institute for Teaching.

Writing exclusively for Schools Week, Carter said the DfE “has become more focused in the last year on audit and compliance”, making academy trusts more risk-averse.

“The result is that boards rightly seek reassurance about the quality and safety of the buildings they will inherit often after years of neglect by the local authority. They look for comfort that they will not be disadvantaged by the funding lag that comes with a school funded on census data, but where pupils are joining the school every week as it improves.

“In my time, the DfE worked hard to achieve this support for trusts taking on schools that had failed, but I suspect it may become harder in the future as the funding challenge grips government departments as well as schools in the system.”

Carter also warned that because high-performing schools can’t be forced to join MATs they often only become a “soft improvement partner” for failing schools in their areas, which doesn’t always work.

He said: “MATs need to build a better narrative about why good schools should join them, and the DfE needs to incentivise good schools to be “capacity givers” to a MAT that would otherwise not take on the risk of a single isolated school.”

He said investment in the support and capacity of good schools to join multi-academy trusts would be a “simple shift in policy thinking.”

“If you believe as I do that the multi academy trust is the best model for improving schools which have failed for many years, then we need more of them to be the best version of themselves in new areas of the country,” he said.

He also took aim at Ofsted itself, labelling Spielman’s comments as “ironic”.

“The irony of Ofsted calling out the DfE for a lack of sponsor capacity at a time when it is clear that teachers and leaders are thinking twice about moving their careers to tough schools is not lost on many of us in the system.”