The government’s target for all schools to be in or preparing to join multi-academy trusts by 2030 is officially dead, with another key white paper pledge for councils to set up their own trusts also axed.
There have been five education secretaries since the paper was launched, with the resulting schools bill, which proposed legislation to help meet many of the policies, also canned last year.
But dropping two of the paper’s main policies to boost academisation – neither of which required legislation – marks a major shift in policy under education secretary Gillian Keegan.
The government had said it wanted “all schools to be in or joining a strong trust by 2030…to achieve a fully trust-led system”.
But Keegan has remained quiet on the pledge since October when she became the fifth education secretary in just four months.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said today in an answer to a written Parliamentary question that “over time”, the government “would like all schools to be in a strong multi-academy trust, because we see the positive impact it can have on children’s lives”.
“If we get this right then we will see the vast majority of schools in trusts before 2030. The department is exploring how to further support the growth of strong multi-academy trusts through the regulation and commissioning review.”
However, Schools Week understands the specific ambition from the white paper – that schools would either have joined or be joining a trust by 2030 – has officially been dropped.
Councils won’t get power to establish trusts
The white paper also outlined plans for local authorities to set up their own academy trusts with officials hoping this would speed up conversions among reluctant council schools.
A pilot with ten councils was supposed to start last year. The 30 or so that applied have been left in the dark.
The policy has now been ditched, Schools Week can reveal.
Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Munira Wilson demanded Keegan “apologise to parents across the country for wasting inordinate amounts of schools’ time, energy and money that should’ve been spent on children’s education”.
A briefing from a Schools North East roundtable of trust chief executives, published yesterday, said schools have been “waiting on announcements” on the council MAT pilot.
Workforce data published in June shows just 40 per cent of schools are academies, although they educate more than half of pupils (53 per cent).
Four in five secondaries are academies, but just 39 per cent of primaries.
The government’s annual academy accounts report for 2020-21, published last week, shows most primary schools at nearly two-thirds of councils have still not academised.
But the Schools North East briefing stated a “lack of clear and consistent approach” to the proposed policy had “led to some deterioration in relations between LAs and trusts”, with some councils “being increasingly ‘defensive’ over ‘their’ maintained schools”.
Leaders ‘frustrated’ by lack of clarity
As well as slowing academisation, the ditched policies will likely impede MAT growth.
A major report from Kreston academies group this week found many single-academy trusts, while recognising “the benefits of MATs”, were “clearly waiting on the government to clarify their policy” towards the 2030 target.
But school leaders in the north east also said the “pressure to grow and merge MATs has been time-consuming, and is taking school leaders away from embedding school improvement”.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said it was “extremely frustrating” schools had not been told which policies would continue.
“It shows a total disregard for school leaders and makes it very difficult for them to plan. Clarity is desperately needed.”
Wilson said the government should now “finally get round to tackling the issues that parents care about: investing in mental health support in schools, extending free school meals and a fair deal for teachers that ends these strikes”.
But the Confederation of School Trusts welcomed the government’s “renewed commitment” to strong academy trusts.
CEO Leora Cruddas said: “We have never been in favour of schools being forced to join a trust.
“But it is encouraging to see the government renewing its commitment to the sector as a way of supporting all children, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and with special educational needs.”
A DfE spokesperson said the white paper set out an “ambitious agenda for transforming the education system to ensure all children in England have a world-class education”.
Correction: We amended an incorrect figure of 30 per cent for the percentage of primary schools that are academies. It is 39 per cent.