Could multi-academy trusts be a potential model for the good local authorities?

We’ve heard some local authorities are looking at setting up a multi-academy trust – could this be a potential model for the good local authorities?

Antony says: The government has made its policy position on the role of local authorities in education very clear in the white paper. It sees local authorities taking on a “more focused and clearly-defined remit so they can concentrate on delivering their core functions” of school-place planning, ensuring the needs of vulnerable pupils are met and “acting as champions for all parents and families.” So, it’s clear that the government does not really see a future role for local authorities in having direct responsibility for running schools. In fact, the white paper goes further by pointing out that “to retain expertise in the system and ensure children continue to benefit from the best talent in local authorities, we expect that some individuals working in local authority teams will leave to set up new trusts or join existing ones and become academy sponsors.”

The short answer is probably more of a maybe than a yes

The other clear policy intention by the government is for schools to join multi-academy trusts and they see trusts as being better than local authorities. “When every school is an academy, groups of schools will be able to span geographic boundaries, with the best MATs expanding to run schools in our toughest areas in a way that no high-performing local authority ever could. This provides real accountability, competitive pressure and choice – improving performance, enabling innovation and scaling success.”

While the government has decided to not directly compel every school to become an academy, the policy intention of every school becoming an academy remains.  The government wants to “take new powers to direct schools to become academies in local authority areas which are underperforming or where the local authority no longer has capacity to maintain its schools.” Given the unprecedented pressures on local authority budgets and education funding being heavily weighted in favour of promoting a move away from local authority involvement in running schools, any local authority (however good) seeking to continue running schools may well find itself swimming upstream.

That said, could it be a potential model? The short answer is probably more of a maybe than a yes. There is a maybe (but not a definite maybe) because the Local Government Association is pushing for it. Cllr Roy Perry, chairman of the LGA’s children and young people board, has said: “For parents, who are far more concerned with the quality of their child’s education in the classroom than the legal status of the school, it is the council that they still frequently and naturally turn to for advice and support.” So it is conceivable that as legislation progresses, the government may wish to provide some options for local authorities.

I would be cautious about advising local authorities to devote significant resources to setting up a multi-academy trust

While Camden Council has set up an education company, the cabinet report noted that its main purpose was to “ensure the long-term stability and effectiveness of the partnership in relation to school improvement, rather than for the company to become an academy sponsor… however, it would still be open for the company to consider its role in relation to academy sponsorship, as the policy landscape becomes clearer. It is understood that under the current regulations it is the Secretary of State who makes the decision about who is or is not an academy sponsor.”

So at this stage, there is a very clear policy intention by the government for all schools to convert and join a multi-academy trust. There is a clear policy intention for local authorities to spend significantly less money and have a clearly defined, albeit narrow, role in education which does not include running schools. Therefore, unless and until there is a clear signal by the government that there are realistic prospects of local authorities being in a viable position to have the resources to set up sustainable companies, I would be cautious about advising local authorities to devote significant resources to setting up a multi-academy trust.

That said, when it comes to government policy I would never say never but I would advise all local authorities to start to think now what relationship they want to have with their schools in the new educational landscape. Whether or not the local authority is running a school, the role of a local authority is to promote the economic well-being of its area, so good schools providing a good education is always going to be a key to any successful local authority strategy. Successful relationships between local authorities and schools are always going to be vital.

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