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Academy trusts: From growing pains to gains

As more leaders consider growth, what do we know about how to do this well?

As more leaders consider growth, what do we know about how to do this well?

29 Mar 2024, 12:00

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Academy conversions are on the rise and trusts are getting bigger. The average MAT now has more than eight schools on its books, up from six in 2019.

So as more leaders consider growth, what do we know about how to do this well?

Schools Week spoke to leaders who have helped right the ship after their trusts got growth wrong to find out what they learned as they set sights on expanding again.

Pause and take a breath

John Murphy, Oasis Community Learning Trust’s former CEO, told an event earlier this month he was “irresponsible enough to take on 29 schools in special measures” between 2014 and 2016.

Rebecca Boomer-Clark, AET’s chief executive, said there were “plenty of high-profile examples of MATs that simply grew too fast” at the start of the academy movement.

Rebecca Boomer-Clark
Rebecca Boomer Clark

There were several other “near misses”, she added, with trusts having “stretched their organisational capacity and bandwidth to the limit, and sometimes took several years to return to a steady state”.

In 2013, AET was placed on a pause list by government, meaning it could not grow for four years.

“It would be irresponsible for us not to heed the lessons of the past,” she added.

In 2018, Murphy paused Oasis’s growth after realising “we can’t keep on doing [it]. We had lots of successes…we managed to get schools out of special measures, managed to raise results in a number of schools. But it was chaotic … because we weren’t systemising what we were doing.”

He pointed to how youngsters across Oasis’s schools would have a “a totally different education” to each other, despite being part of “the same organisation”.

A batch inspection of 10 of the trust’s academies in 2015 had concluded a “legacy of weak challenge and insufficiently systematic or rigorous improvement work” had “resulted in slow or little improvement for nearly half” of them.

Beware isolation

In 2016, then Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw published a scathing letter after several such “focused inspections”, naming and shaming trusts for “serious weaknesses that were contributing to poor progress and outcomes for too many pupils”.

Paul Tarn was appointed to lead one of them, the School Partnership Trust Academies (SPTA), the month before.  

“They had schools in special measures, lots of RI schools and the finance was absolutely broken,” Tarn recalled. “The trust also had a projected £8.6 million in-year deficit in 2016–17. It was a complete and utter mess.”

East Midlands and the Humber regional schools commissioner Jennifer Bexon-Smith decided to strip the trust, since renamed Delta Academies Trust, of three “isolated” schools in Nottinghamshire.

A lesson was to not take on the odd school that is “geographically isolated” from others. Doing so would be “silly” as they “wouldn’t be able to share resources – it would just be a vanity project”.

The Department for Education pledged two years ago to focus more on giving chains clusters of schools.

Tarn has now set his sights on launching a “southern group”, having taken on a pair of schools in Nottingham and Lincolnshire.

But “we think we might have a couple of others interested. We’re looking for groups or clusters. If it’s one school, [we look at] if it’s large enough to put a cluster around it.”

Growing in hubs

Tom Campbell, chief executive of E-ACT, which was also named in Wilshaw’s letter, said the “clustering model … adds resilience and infrastructure”.

After being banned from expanding back in 2014, the trust is now expected to have 10 more schools on its book by the end of this year.

“If you go back to the beginning, you’d go ‘why would you have schools in the northwest, southwest, London?’” he said. But he added: “We’ve now been there so long that we’re embedded there and building around that.”

In these areas, the trust has tried to add secondary provision where there is none and primaries in parts of the country where these are lacking. Campbell has looked to take on special schools “where we’ve got high needs in terms of SEND”.

It ensures his trust maintains “operational capacity” as “all of that is already there”, while enhancing his ability to maintain school improvement. However, he fears other CEOs with an eye on growth may not be considering these aspects.

‘Consider impact on operational capacity’

“If you look at advisory board minutes, you’ll see examples of small trusts with two or three schools suddenly becoming seven or eight overnight,” he said.

“You’re thinking, ‘Have they considered the impact on operational capacity, what their tools are around school improvement?’”

Among those joining E-ACT is a school that acts as a feeder to the trust’s only secondary in Daventry, west Northamptonshire. Campbell said the addition means “we [now] provide most of the education for the town”.

It is also due to subsume The Venturers Trust, an eight-school chain in Bristol, over the summer. Campbell runs six schools in the area, also used as a base for central team members.

“It’s thought through – it’s not scattergun,” Campbell continued. “We wanted to work where we were already working because we have the operational infrastructure there … it meant that any growth could focus on school improvement.”

Making trusts ‘a family’

Wilshaw’s letter suggested that some trusts were not providing “robust oversight, challenge and support to ensure that pupils in all their academies receive a good quality of education”.

Both Tarn and Murphy said some of their issues stemmed from schools not working and teaching in a similar manner.

John Murphy
John Murphy

When Tarn took over SPTA he found teachers across his academies had not been able to collaborate “on high-quality resources and share the workload”.

Instead, they were working in “small silos”. In history, there were “about 16 different specifications”. To solve this, he introduced shared curriculum plans. Subject specialists were then appointed to work across the academies.

“Today we have common assessments, gap analysis that helps children, resources that go with that and we deploy staff where we see things aren’t going well. It doesn’t mean everybody’s doing the right thing – it means you’ve got a common spine that runs through the trust.”

At the point, Murphy brought his expansion to a halt, he realised his trust was not acting as “one family… I had 52 schools doing 48 different curriculums.”

To aid this, his team devised an “Oasis curriculum”.

‘Learn how to unlock capacity’

Statements of intent were drawn up and shared along with “schemes of work in lesson plans”. Every academy was given “an individual plan that was then differentiated according to that school’s stage and journey”.

“What I was doing was going through a process of having individual academies with shared aims, shared processes and creating that sense of organisational synergy,” Murphy added.

Campbell noted that across his clusters of schools, in the likes of Birmingham and Bristol, he now has “hundreds” of maths teachers.

This means the trust has “to learn how to unlock that capacity, connect the best teachers, share the best practice, or accelerate school improvement”.

Delta shares “all” its “data with everyone in the trust”, allowing heads to compare notes on performance. Regular network meetings are held with leaders and the trust’s core team.

“When you put systems in place and everybody pulls in the same direction, rather than against each other,” Tarn added, “it’s likely you’ll make rapid progress.”

Sharing lessons learned

Righting the ships has put these trusts in an ideal position to share wider lessons with others.

Through its Project H, AET is sharing the work because it wants to “celebrate our successes”, but also “believe in the power of learning from setbacks and embracing failure”.

Campbell added it is “incumbent on larger trusts to make their resources available for others”. E-ACT has started to run “ideas conferences “where we invite staff from outside the trust to benefit from our training, events, speakers.

“We did growth in system leadership capacity, so before we took on more schools we said ‘are there trusts or other projects we can support?’

“We’re not hiding that capacity – we’re going ‘we’ve got some great stuff. It’s working in our schools – would it work in yours?’”

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