Can college-run MATs solve the classroom-to-career conundrum?

We've got all of those wraparound things that cocoon and support a school to develop, that go far further than they would have in isolation

It is rare for colleges to run schools. Early examples – which usually involved a college in a consortium of local organisations sponsoring a trust – failed.

But new analysis shows the college-led trust model is slowly gaining traction. Jessica Hill investigates.

Department for Education data suggests 41 colleges are the main sponsors of academy trusts – up from 21 in 2018.

However, our analysis shows only 29 appear to have schools under their remit. Nine of the colleges listed by the DfE no longer exist, and three no longer sponsor schools.

But the number of schools sponsored by colleges is up by 174 per cent in the past four years from 57 to 156. The average college now sponsors more than five schools.

It comes after a rocky start. The Salford Academy Trust was set up in 2012 as a partnership between Salford council, the University of Salford and Salford College.

But in 2018 its four schools were transferred to another trust after the regional schools commissioner cast doubt on the “ability and scale” of the trust to provide the level of support required. All four had all received poor Ofsted ratings.

Other college-led trusts folded because of poor reputations or small size.

Burton and South Derbyshire College’s education trust, set up in 2014, had one school – the Kingfisher Academy in Burton – which it gave up in 2018, a year after Ofsted rated it ‘inadequate’.

And Newbury College Academy Trust is set to merge next year with The Thames Learning Trust after opening its only school, Highwood Copse Primary, in 2021.

‘The golden thread’

But others are thriving.

Since its launch in 2014, the London South East Academies Trust (LSEAT) has sponsored seven alternative provision and special schools and one mainstream school across Bromley and Bexley in Kent and, most recently, Guildford in Surrey.

All its schools inspected by Ofsted since being taken over are ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

UTC Oxfordshire
UTC Oxfordshire

Dr Sam Parrett, the trust’s chief executive and principal of London and South East Colleges, says it is essential to only take on schools for the “right reasons”, with a “golden thread” binding them together.

For LSEAT, this is around SEND provision. The trust’s journey started after the 2013 reforms when the college’s local authorities of Bromley and Bexley became pilots for education, health and care plans, with the college as the transition to adult phase.

“We started working really closely with all our special schools on ‘what does the local offer look like? And what does progression look like?’

“At that time some of the schools were not performing very well in Ofsted terms. We had a long, hard debate at our governing body and could see that through working with our schools where there were young people experiencing disadvantage … who went on to do well in the college… we could be much stronger.”

Parrett describes the schools she takes on as “swans” – schools without a name.

“In most instances, the local authority and the DfE come to us and say, ‘we’d really like you to take on this school … but please change its name because its reputation is so bad that we need it to have a fresh start’.

“Our job is to make them glide and do all the beautiful things that a swan does above the water, whilst you’re paddling frantically underneath to keep it going.”

Closer connections to the workplace

Such set-ups allow schools to benefit from a college’s closer connections with businesses, including bringing pupils on to campus to see what courses are on offer or to do extracurricular activities.

While it is improving, just 12.8 per cent of schools meet all the eight benchmarks of what is classed as providing good careers education – way off the 100 per cent envisioned by ministers just four years ago.

Dudley Academies Trust, sponsored by Dudley College of Technology, has six schools. Its students are working with college engineers on a project to build a two-seater aircraft that Jo Higgins, the trust’s chief executive, says in two years’ time will be “flying over Dudley”.

“We also have an aircraft hangar there,” she says. “It means the sky is the limit for those young people.”

For Activate Learning Group, which includes seven colleges, the golden thread is its focus on technical education – four of its six schools are university technical colleges.

While the trust and the colleges exist within two separate legal entities, they “share a learning philosophy – ‘brain motivation, emotion’ – right the way across, which really brings us closely together”, says Joanne Harper, the chief executive.

Joanne Harper
Joanne Harper

While colleges and schools can be divided by a sense of rivalry for 16 to 18-year-olds in their catchment, Harper says the joint organisation means they don’t tread on each other’s toes.

“We don’t duplicate the requirement for 16-18 courses in the area, we’re really careful about that.”

Getting the right model

Most college MATs are set up with a separate college corporation and the MAT itself under one governance structure and both working together at committee level.

Parrett describes her group as having “very structured formalised accountability frameworks and schemes of delegation” with schools given some independence because “the headteacher knows their local community better than I do”.

The shared education group then provides “infrastructure” to help “grow and support” the schools.

Parrett at Aspire with co-heads
Parrett at Aspire with co heads

Parrett describes the “earned autonomy model” as: “We monitor you, we risk assess you, and the more successful you are the more autonomous you are. The less successful you are, the more accountable you are for what you’re doing.”

Parrett is chief executive of the trust, the colleges and the wider education group.

She says structures where “you haven’t got a single line of accountability” can prove problematic and “might not be easy to grow from”.

In other models, the college takes more of a backseat role.

Harper is very clear that her MAT is “sponsored” by the group’s seven colleges, which have “elements going into the governance of the MAT – but they don’t lead it”.

Wellspring Academy Trust, which has 28 schools, was set up by Barnsley College. The college appointed the original members and has the right to appoint directors – but Yiannis Koursis, its chief executive, although a trustee, is not one of its two company directors.

Smaller college-sponsored MATs often have a single governing board. In 2015 Telford College sponsored TCAT MAT, whose sole school, the Kickstart Academy, operates from college-owned premises. It is overseen by one board with a college appointed vice-chair.

The college is currently working towards transferring the academy to another trust.

Size matters

With the government’s 2030 target for most MATs to be on a trajectory to have at least ten schools or 7,500 pupils, most college-led trusts have an ambition to grow.

The government is also looking for more good sponsors to run trusts – meaning now could be the time for new colleges to enter the sector.

LSEAT is about to take on its ninth school in January and is in discussion with two other special schools and two mainstream schools.

Parrett believes her trust will likely become larger in financial terms than its colleges within the next two to three years. The trust currently has an income of £30 million.

But she admits that growing a MAT is difficult for a college if it “only wants good and outstanding schools to come to it, because there’s a lot of competition”.

An Activate school Credit Karla Gowlett Photography

“Why would a school join a college-run MAT, when it could join one [run by experts in] primary or secondary schools?”

The answer for some lies in the branding a well-regarded college can provide.

Higgins believes her organisation was “really helped in the early phases” by the college’s ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating, which “enhanced the character of the MAT and boosted its branding”.

The trust has the green light for further growth on transforming struggling schools and is “moving towards the government’s target of ten schools”.

Schools Week reported last week a rising number of MAT mergers, with trusts looking to get bigger and financial challenges forcing smaller ones together.

Economies of scale

One of the biggest advantages for being part of a college-led trust is cost savings in back office functions, which Parrett says means “more support in the frontline”.

The group pooled its colleges’ and schools’ central services, with group directors of finance, IT, marketing and estates.

It also means greater purchasing power, with savings from a centralised MIS system coming in at “hundreds of thousands of pounds”.

Furthermore, the colleges’ health and safety team now also works across its schools – noteworthy because it is believed to be rare for a trust of that size to benefit from such a service in-house.

Work is also underway across the schools and colleges on a staff resilience and wellbeing programme. And the group has a framework for training and development of staff from teaching assistants at level two and three apprenticeships through to level seven degree apprenticeships and PhDs for staff.

“We’ve got all of those wraparound things that cocoon and support a school to develop, that go far further than they would have in isolation,” Parrett says.

“There is a MAT dividend, but that dividend is greater when you pool all of the support services of the college and the school to create that central team.”

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