The government is inviting local authorities across the country to bid to run multi-academy trusts, with a trial to “test the concept” over the next year before deciding on a wider rollout.
But new Department for Education documents say it will only initially support a “small number” of LA MATs in areas with few strong trusts, admitting it is likely to reject some applications.
It will also initially cap their size at 10 schools or 7,500 pupils, and not “typically” let them sponsor underperforming schools, though they can still apply to sponsor.
Majority of council members, but not trustees
The DfE has now confirmed it will scrap the current 19.9 per cent cap on the number of “local authority associated persons” who can be trust members. Members are the founders of trusts, responsible for safeguarding governance and board appointments.
Trusts will be able to appoint an unlimited number of council employees, councillors or officials at council-run bodies as members, with only one independent member required.
However the DfE confirmed it will not remove the same current cap on council involvement in trust boards. This could significantly limit their right to get involved in day-to-day operations.
“This is to reinforce the separation between the role of the LA and academy trustees in the management of the MAT and to minimise conflicts of interest,” the DfE document stated.
Trial with a ‘broad mix’ of councils
Councils have until 31 July to register their interest as part of a “competitive” process. “We expect more applications than the small number of projects we will initially support.”
The “test and learn” trial will help the DfE “review and refine” its approach before “any further decisions are taken on proceeding with the wider rollout”. It will also enable it to identify issues early that are “distinctive to LA-establish MATs which require different handling”.
The DfE is looking for a “broad mix of high-performing LAs, which together reflect the geographic diversity of the country and a mix of school types and phases”.
The DfE is “especially” keen to work in new education investment areas, as well as highlighting rural areas “where small primary schools could benefit from coming together”.
Schools with a religious character will also be allowed where trustees and religious authorities agree, though the DfE’s “expectation” is that most will keep joining trusts led by dioceses or other religious authorities.
The trial will run over the next academic year “with a view to applying identified best practice nationwide” after a review on trust regulation and once the schools bill becomes law (expected from 2023-24).
DfE to check on LA members and MAT ‘ethos’
Councils will have to set out why they want to form a MAT, its vision, ethos and school improvement strategy, when they envisage launching it, school numbers, and the areas it will serve.
Proposed governance and leadership structures and financial arrangements, as well as who will be asked to be members and trustees “where known”, are also required.
They must set out how potential conflicts of interests will be managed, amid trust leaders’ concerns over councils being both “poacher and gamekeeper”.
Councils first need to consult schools on whether “in principle” they would want to join the trust, work with them on applications, and “take opinions” from parents and staff.
The DfE’s regional schools commissioners, currently being rebranded regional directors, will assess whether applications meet the white paper’s definition of a strong trust. They will also assess the need for new local capacity, expertise of proposed members and trustees, and LA “plans, capacity and capability” to support the MAT.
Extra cash and ‘bespoke’ support – but size capped
No timeline is given for when the first trusts will be approved after the 31 July deadline. But the DfE said trials were a priority “through academic year 2022-23”.
Successful applicants will be able to register new MATs as companies and consider seeking trust capacity funding – as well as a new discretionary fund for LA conversions at an “exceptional” scale.
Schools will then apply to convert and join them in the usual way.
The DfE will “agree a bespoke package of support” for the new trusts, “especially around governance and finance”, and offer regional events, networks and peer reviews via a new “trust development fund”.
Government will talk to rejected applicants “about if, or how, proposals could be taken forward in future”.
The initial maximum size of 10 schools, or 7,500 pupils, for the council trusts in the trial is the same as the minimum size for other trusts recommended in the recent white paper.
The DfE itself argues 10 schools is when trusts “typically start to develop central capacity”, with scale helping trusts be “more financially stable” and “drive school improvement”.
It also comes in spite of a warning in January by former national schools commissioner David Carter that LA MATs would “need to start at scale and probably be unviable if they started too small”.
A Local Government Association spokesperson said all councils should be able to launch their own trusts, and their involvement in boards should not be capped.