Closing academy trust exposes ‘vulnerability’ of primary schools

The Diocese of Bristol Academies Trust will hand over its schools after being stripped of its only secondary

The Diocese of Bristol Academies Trust will hand over its schools after being stripped of its only secondary

19 Jan 2024, 5:00

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A 15-school academy trust will shut after the government decided to strip it of its only secondary, further revealing the “vulnerability” of primaries amid the double whammy of rising costs and falling rolls.

The Diocese of Bristol Academies Trust (DBAT) will hand over its schools to new trusts after the Deanery School, its secondary in Swindon, was rated “inadequate.”

Ministers decided the secondary should be rebrokered, leaving the trust facing a fundamental restructure of its central team if it were to continue operating, said DBAT’s CEO Stephen Mitchell.

He said: “We decided that in the medium term there were other trusts that could have run our schools with more capacity without going through the pain of a restructure. It was a very mature governance discussion that took place.”

But Mitchell added: “Where you have trusts with a lot of primary schools and a small number of secondaries, their model is based around reliance on the secondary schools’ size. That’s a vulnerability.”

Newly published accounts show DBAT’s reserves plummeted from £2.2 million to little over £940,000 in 2022-23.

The deficit was caused, in part, by pay hikes and rising agency staff costs. The trust struggled to fill vacancies and find cover for sick teachers amid a spike in absences.

SEND pressures played their part

“To be a well-run trust, according to the models put around by the Department for Education, you’re looking for somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent of your funding going out to staffing costs,” said Mitchell, who was only appointed CEO in April.

“We weren’t significantly over 80 per cent, which shows how vulnerable you can be.”

The increased need for one-to-one support for SEND children not covered by education, health and care plans (EHCPs) also played a part, according to Mitchell.      

He said he hopes the closure – which has not yet been given the go-ahead by the DfE – will be completed by the end of 2024. Alternative homes for the primaries have not yet been agreed. 

Schools Week analyses of 22 academy trust accounts for 2022-23 reveal ten dipped into their reserves last year to meet rising costs.

Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust saw levels more than halve over the period, from £2.7 million to £1.3 million.

‘A profound demographic shift’

CEO Dan Morrow attributed this to £890,000 energy bill hikes along with falling primary rolls. Fourteen of his trust’s 18 academies are “small, rural” schools.

He said: “There is a profound demographic shift. In rural, small schools in particular, as well as one-form-entry schools nationally, we haven’t got a systemic approach to this nor a funding response which will help maintain and drive standards.”

Headteachers have been struggling to fill reception classrooms in the wake of a national birth-rate dip of 13 per cent since 2015.

Government data suggests primary pupil numbers will tumble by 760,747 (16.6 per cent) between 2022 and 2032.

The Elliot Foundation, a 36-school primary-only trust, recorded a £1.5 million in-year deficit.

Hugh Greenway, its chief executive, said: “Were we to start the Elliot Foundation now, we would not be primary only.”

‘A downward trend in financial health’

Meanwhile, Our Lady of Lourdes, and Enquire Learning Trust – which run 68 schools between them – racked up in-year deficits of £3.1 million and £1.1 million respectively.

Both partly blamed general inflationary pressures and increases to teacher and support staff pay for the issue.

Leora Cruddas
Leora Cruddas

Kevin Connor, head of academies for auditors Bishop Fleming, said his firm has witnessed a “downward trend in the financial health of trusts,” but added the picture “could have been far worse”.

“Trusts have largely managed to balance the books this year. In the medium term however, if things carry on as they are, we will see many more in deficit and having to reach into their reserves.”

The Confederation of School Trusts’ national survey last year found almost one-fifth (19 per cent) of chief executives “were not very or not at all confident” in their organisation’s financial sustainability.

Leora Cruddas, the sector body’s CEO, argued that “schools need to get fair and sustainable funding from the government to deliver the education that pupils deserve.”

The DfE has been approached for comment.

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