The government has issued its firmest statement yet that trusts should avoid running geographically isolated schools, raising serious questions over who will operate the far-flung academies that nobody wants.
The first “good practice guide” for multi-academy trusts (MATs) was published last week, revealing what conditions trusts must meet to expand.
The guidance also revealed that trusts wanting to “remain small” (fewer than 2,000 pupils) will face closer scrutiny of their finances from regional schools commissioners (RSCs).
The official guidance on isolated academies could prove troubling, with the report saying that “experience shows the geographical isolation of schools within a trust should be avoided” as “isolation makes it more difficult to reap many of the collaborative benefits of being in a MAT as it becomes difficult for leaders and staff to work together in person”.
Schools Week reported last month how a cash-strapped academy on the Isle of Portland, off the coast of Dorset, was ditched by the new academy trust founded by its sponsor. The academy is now searching for a sponsor with “better local resources”.
The government is also searching for a sponsor to take over the only secondary school on the Isles of Scilly, which is facing academy conversion after being put in special measures.
The island is 28 miles off the south-west coast of Cornwall and only accessible by a three-hour ferry journey or a 15-minute helicopter flight costing at least £100 each way.
There are schools so isolated that they don’t have anybody reasonably near to collaborate with them
Mike Cameron, a school governor and former teacher, said: “There are schools so isolated that they don’t have anybody reasonably near to collaborate with them.
“The ideal situation is a family of schools [in a MAT] – a secondary with feeder primaries. But there are so few areas where that is realistic. I’m not sure there is a simple solution.”
Academies minister Lord Nash (pictured) has previously said schools in trusts would ideally be within an hour’s drive of each other.
The MAT report says there is “no ‘right’ geographical spread or upper limit of distance or travel time between schools that determines whether a MAT will be successful or not”.
But it says that most trusts find splitting schools into local hubs is best practice – highlighting a case study where schools are a maximum of 30 minutes from one another.
In response, RSCs will now be encouraging “strong local trusts to take on more schools” so isolated schools are not left without a suitable sponsor.
Commissioners are also keen for trusts to expand to be “financially sustainable”, with the guidance stating primary trusts need at least 1,200 pupils, and mixed or secondary trusts at least 2,000 pupils.
Commissioners will be “more cautious” and in future will ask for more detailed plans from trusts wanting to “remain small”.
One proposed solution is “MAT mergers”, which national schools commissioner Sir David Carter has indicated are increasing.
A Schools Week analysis of headteacher board minutes from June to August, published last week, show commissioners considered at least four applications for MAT mergers.
In October, Floreat Education academies trust, founded by former David Cameron aide Lord O’Shaugnessy, said it was looking at merger options after financial sustainability concerns.
Academy trusts that heavily prescribe teaching methods have been singled out as examples of good practice, again leading to questions as to whether academy status really grants headteachers more autonomy.
The multi-academy trust “good practice guide” highlights “a number of effective trusts” that insist on standardised teaching.
The report says that this level of prescription can “reduce teacher workload”.
Outwood Grange trust is highlighted for its specific formula for curriculum staffing levels and class sizes that is rolled out across all its schools and that can involve cutting staff numbers to make costs sustainable.
However, the guidelines may be used to shoot down ministers’ early claims that becoming an academy would lead to more freedom for school leaders.
When questioned earlier this year about a lack of autonomy in academies, former education secretary Nicky Morgan told Schools Week the debate was “a bit like” the EU.
“There are benefits to working together. And you might give up a bit of sovereignty, but what you gain from the trust – or what you gain from the EU – is that ability to collaborate and have somebody to help you with additional resources.”
The MAT guidance also states there is “no expectation” that all academies or trusts should have the same school improvement approach.