Cautious schools can join academy trusts as ‘associate members’

The national schools commissioner is offering schools the option to join academy trusts as “associate members” so they do not relinquish their legal independence.

Sir David Carter said that he would be making the point more widely in future, as a response to hurdles some schools face in joining academy trusts, at a training event held by the Church of England yesterday.

Associate membership allows a school to join a trust in a more flexible arrangement, accessing shared resources and leadership, but it does not legally transfer into the trust.

In some cases the school will pay into the trust’s central funds via a “top-slicing” arrangement, where a fee is taken for each pupil in the school. However in other cases the membership may be free, especially where the school is able to offer training support to others in the trust.

In both instances, the school retains the right to leave the academy trust if the arrangement is unsatisfactory.

“The arrangement could last for something like two years, on the basis that once the time is up school and trust leaders will know if it is the right thing for them and are likely to sign up,” he said.

He believes the change is a positive way forward for small schools which otherwise might struggle to be taken into trusts, or which fear they might be closed after formally signing over all their powers. It also helps church schools wishing to work with a local non-religious academy trust in a way that enables their original ethos to stay intact while still drawing on resources for school improvement.

“A partnership gets around some of the ideology problems, but it helps people improve,” he added.

It is also a way of encouraging governors to allow headteachers to work with a local academy trust without having to give up their powers.

The policy marks a shift in views over flexible arrangements for academies. One of the first types of academy chain, umbrella trusts, enabled schools to retain their own legal status but pay into a central trust which helped with shared resources. The arrangement was gradually phased out in favour of multi-academy trusts, which required schools to give up their individual legal status and became part of one central organisation.

However, a more cautious approach to joining trusts was still needed, especially where schools had complicated financial arrangements. In response, a “try-before-you-buy” scheme developed last year, allowing academy trusts to sign schools up for one year using “a service-level agreement”.

Steve Taylor, the executive head at Robin Hood Academy Trust, which has used the scheme, said one-year deals provided stability while schools sounded out a formal partnership with a trust.

“It provides a transparent way of working that allows the impact of what has been done to be measured before a commitment is made,” he said.

Carter’s new plan looks to extend this option further, as commissioners shift away from worrying about “structures” to a focus on “school improvement”, but it does not replace the multi-academy trust model and would likely only be allowed for short periods.

“It is about allowing good schools, or small schools, to dip their toe into the water and see if it works for them on the basis that they will become academies in the future,” he said.

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  1. Martin Matthews

    This could be the game changer the DfE has been searching for to accelerate academisation.
    Question is could a school be compelled to fully join a MAT after a year or could they “bed and breakfast” their situation and continually roll over their associate membership?
    That may have a significant number of advantages to the school, retaining autonomy.
    Retaining associate membership would enable school to leave failing MATs and not suffer the indignity of being rebrokered.
    Associate membership would also keep governance links to the local community which can be lost if a school joins a large MAT.
    In short the school would remain the arbiter of its own destiny.

  2. Sounds a great idea. I wonder why I have a deja vu about this.
    I remember now. It’s going back a bit so younger teachers might not have heard of it.
    It was called Local Management of Schools.
    Every school was under the umbrella of a larger body. Shall we call that body an LA.
    The school had its own money.
    Under the LA umbrella the school could buy in expertise or share it.
    Teachers collaborated with others in local schools.
    The school was accountable to its local community of parents and voters.
    The school kept its own money.
    The school had its own headteacher.
    No money was spent on executive headteachers.
    If a parent had a problem about something they could go and see the headteacher or contact the governors.
    It was rare for money to be siphoned off to a company belonging to one of the leadership team.
    Minutes of school governor meetings were in the public domain.
    Schools were not sold to other schools managed by an ex-hedge fund manager.
    Headteachers were not sacked and paid large sums to keep quiet about the mis-management above them.

    David Carter will remember this system well. He operated it very well for the school he ran as headteacher. We had no need for a National Schools Commissioner then or £27 million worth of regional assistants & lackeys supporting the post.

        • Mark Watson

          AssemblyTube makes wild, and so far completely unsubstantiated as far as I can see, claims about Hedge Fund Managers “making profits” out of the academies programme.
          The SchoolsWeek article you link to stated “Ark, set up to distribute donations from hedge fund financiers to improve the life chances of disadvantaged children across the world, donated £3.6 million to Ark Schools in 2015, on top of £4.7 million in 2014.”
          Matthew Bennett, on the Local Schools Network website, has previously referred to the “serious money” pumped into Ark Schools by its connected hedge fund managers.
          That Schools Week article also refers to the hedge fund manager (Alan Howard) who donated £5 million to the United Learning trust.
          So firstly, out of the 100s (if not 1000s) of multi-academy trusts, that’s two that have hedge fund connections. Are there many more?
          But most importantly, if you are supporting AssemblyTube’s allegations about hedge fund managers making profit from academies (as opposed to donating millions of pounds to them) can you please provide some examples?

  3. Non-academies are already in an umbrella organisation. It’s called a local authority. No need to risk becoming associate members in MATs. If schools do so, they will unwittingly be further undermining their local authority and its ability to support schools who wish to remain under the LA brolly. And then, after a couple of years, they’ll find there’s no LA to return to thereby forcing them to stay in their MAT. But they won’t be associates any more – they’ll be full members thereby losing their autonomy and legal status.

    • Mark Watson

      You are right – an umbrella organisation that they are locked into, cannot leave, cannot negotiate on the terms of their involvement, cannot realistically influence and cannot leave (unless of course they convert to an academy).
      I’m not saying that the model outlined by David Carter is a silver bullet, but it puts more choice in the hands of the school. It is up to them which MAT they ‘join’, and presumably they would have to see the benefit in doing so before joining. If they don’t like how it is operating, or a better opportunity presents itself somewhere else, they can up sticks and move.
      I don’t dispute for a minute that some LAs do an excellent job of looking after their schools, and I’ve always said that schools that are doing well and are happy with their LA should have the freedom to stay with that LA.
      But if an LA is not doing well, and even the rosiest-tinted cheerleader for LAs must concede some are not high performers, why should those schools not have the option to change things for the betterment of their pupils?

      • LAs can perform at a higher or lower level than other LAs – that’s inevitable when LAs are ranked in league tables. But school performance in an LA may have little to do with the LA especially if many of the schools are academies. LAs, remember, don’t control schools under their umbrella.
        The LA as a whole might not be a ‘high performer’ but it does not follow that school will automatically improve if they move to a MAT. And there’s no need for schools to move into a MAT if they’re already good or better.
        That said, it’s right that Ofsted should look at school improvement services in LAs. Some are judged effective even when results for the LA as a whole are low (eg Peterborough).

        • Mark Watson

          I agree with you, but that’s not the point you originally made.
          Of course league tables can simply mean that a good LA is below a slightly better LA. But the point I’m making, and I appreciate it is blunt and crude, is that there are ‘bad’ local authorities. (Yes, just as there are ‘bad’ academy trusts).
          The difference is that a school, especially with this ‘association membership’ model is not forced to stay with a failing local authority OR a failing MAT but can move to wherever best supports them.
          Will a school automatically improve if it leaves its LA, even if that LA is ‘poor’ – no.
          Should a school need to move into a MAT if they’re good or better – no.
          The difference between you and I, as I see it (and it’s not meant to be confrontational), is that I think the school should be able to look at what will be best for its pupils and, if there is a better opportunity out there, have the choice to move if it wants to.

          • Mark – you’re right that schools should consider what is best for their pupils. That’s presumably why the majority, admittedly mainly primary schools, have decided to stay with LAs.
            But schools aren’t isolated islands – they are part of a national education service. It’s important, therefore, they consider how their actions will affect other schools.
            Schools have the right to become academies. But many schools were forcibly converted or jumped before being pushed.
            And one right denied to academies is the right to move back to LA stewardship if they think that would be best for their pupils.

          • Mark Watson

            I agree that academies should have the option to rejoin their LA if they want to, presumably on the basis they think that would provide the best outcomes.
            However please just answer this very simple question – if a school is part of an LA which is performing very poorly (whatever the reasons are behind that) do you think that school should be forced to stay with that LA, or do you think they should have the choice to either stay or to leave?

  4. Ben Gibbs

    Legally, it will be completely up to the trust how long to allow schools to remain in the ‘associate’ mode of engagement. The DfE has no authority over this. Now it will just take some bright and sympathetic spark to establish a ‘partnership trust’, invite recalcitrant schools to join as permanent ‘associates’, guarantee their legal independence in perpetuity, and bob’s their uncle. If it then actually established the practical means for its associates to work together, share resources, and develop some collegiate structure to achieve shared aims, we *might* end up with something positive.

    • You are absolutely right Ben. After years of rhetoric about system leadership those in the centre think they know best. When really effective leaders move on the organisation they left behind continues to move on. The record of the National Commissioner on this criteria is worthy of some forensic examination. The point is that great leadershp celebrates success and spreads good practice rather than developing marginally relevant structural concepts such as “Associate Membership” , “Improving Deccliners” etc etc.Those who speak regularly at conferences and/or. events have to spend their time thinking of something to say or something new to say. What you describe is a system working it out for itself. When the people know what problem they are trying to solve they will make progress. When they are faced with a regular flow of “tactical suggestions” it will just confuse and act as a brake. This is at the heart of why centralised bureaucracy is a problem. Politicians and National Commissioners need to use the two ears and one mouth principle, do twice as much listening than talking!