Catholic turnaround trust eyes coasting or cash-strapped schools

Such new trusts could help the DfE fix low Christian academisation rates and the chronic problem of schools strugging to find sponsors

Such new trusts could help the DfE fix low Christian academisation rates and the chronic problem of schools strugging to find sponsors

28 Feb 2022, 4:53

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A pilot Catholic “turnaround trust” has had its remit expanded to take on schools in financial trouble or those that are coasting.

The Department for Education pledged £1.25 million last year for a new flagship Catholic trust to take over “inadequate” religious schools unable to find sponsors.

However, three of the six schools that the St Joseph Catholic Multi Academy Trust will take on are rated as ‘requires improvement’, with the first school joining next week.

Funding documents seen by Schools Week state that the trust will also seek to transform mismanaged, cash-strapped or unwanted schools.

The revelations have prompted criticism over the funding and scope of the trust. 

A spokesperson said that St Joseph was “more than a turnaround trust. We are a Catholic home for schools at any stage of their development but which are characterised by wishing to work together and share best practice.”

It has said it will focus on “short-term recovery and stabilisation” for schools in challenging circumstances, though some will need only “light-touch” support. 

The aim is to pass them on to other trusts as “viable assets” and “capacity-givers” in two or three years. 

The set-up now aligns with the government’s first northern turnaround trust, Falcon Education, which recently announced national expansion after taking on two schools since its 2019 launch. 

All St Joseph schools are in the Liverpool city region and have academy orders. But three of the six – St Ambrose Primary School, St Augustine of Canterbury Catholic High School and St Nicholas’ Catholic Primary School – have since progressed to ‘requires improvement’.

Two other schools, the Trinity Catholic Primary School and St Chad’s Catholic and Church of England High School, are already taking “effective action” towards removing special measures. 

The trust describes itself as “highly ambitious”, with a “higher appetite for risk than other MATs”. It will support schools in the Archdiocese of Liverpool and Diocese of Shrewsbury and expects more schools in the summer and a third wave in the next academic year.

This could include those that are “coasting”, need “significant improvement” or have a “significant history of educational underperformance”.

The documents show that Catholic schools and trusts in financial trouble, and failing existing academies will also be eligible, along with those suffering financial mismanagement or with complex PFI or building woes.

Schools maintained by trusts with significant “financial issues”, liabilities or mismanagement are also in scope, as well as any trust subject to a financial notice to improve.

The growth signals a ramping up of DfE efforts to fix the chronic academy sector problem of SNOWs, or “schools no one wants”.

The “turnaround” and other Catholic academy pilots were announced last April, amid lower-than-average Christian school academisation rates.

Michelle Forrest, the headteacher of Holy Spirit Catholic Primary School, which joins the trust in April, said that opportunities for collaboration, staff development and extra funding would be “hugely beneficial”.

“We know we need to make changes, so it’s positive to be in a trust doing that rapid improvement,” she said. “There’s a little nervousness with any change in leadership – I joined in January too – but we look forward to it.”

However, Keith Bradley, regional officer at Unison, which has staff at joining schools, asked: “Is £1.25 million value for money, or is it a government vanity project?”

Unison official Keith Bradley

Most trusts can only access capacity fund grants between £50,000 and £310,000, and other diocese MAT pilots without turnaround remits have received £100,000 or less.

A recent report by Sam Freedman, a former government adviser, warned that “significantly more capacity-building funding” was needed across the sector.

Bradley added: “Some of the schools have got themselves out of their difficulties and should be allowed to flourish. If they’re successful, they could join existing trusts.”

He questioned whether it was “logical” to make schools adapt to the new trust before adjusting to another one several years later. 

Robert Cann, an education campaigner at the secular lobby group Humanists UK, said it would be “odd” if a designated turnaround trust ended up welcoming schools not in need of turnaround support. 

The DfE has been approached for comment.

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