Dominant multi-academy trusts risk investigation for monopolising markets

Multi-academy trusts risk being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority if they come to dominate their local areas, Schools Week understands.

As academy trusts continue to expand, with some focusing on specific areas, parents’ choice may end up limited to a set of schools run by the same organisation.

Schools Week understands that the CMA can intervene if a trust’s prevalence in an area leads to complaints, and if the problems reported match its criteria for anti-competitive conduct – for example if local competition is poor.

So far, however, the CMA website shows no investigations into schools.

Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the situation was “concerning”.

“When schools run by the same trust then adopt the same curriculum model, the same teaching and learning approach, the same behavioural management policy – some of which are contested both in the public sphere and also by parents – if you’re not in tune with that then actually you have very little choice, if any,” she said.

Schools run by the same trust then adopt the same curriculum model, the same teaching and learning approach

It is increasingly common for academy trusts to run a number of schools in the same area, as part of a wider strategy to protect schools from the impact of isolation.

For example, Wakefield City Academy Trust gave up all of its 21 schools in September and eight of these, all based in Wakefield, are expected to go to Outwood Grange Academy Trust, which already runs 22 schools in the north of England.

Oasis Community Learning has five primary academies and three secondary academies in Bristol, and earlier this year won a bid to open two new secondary schools in the area.

John Murphy, its chief executive, told Schools Week that his trust’s academies “intentionally work closely together”.

“Our staff share resources, best practice, and expertise, while we also receive training together and offer career development pathways,” he said.
He added that “local and regional clustering” means the trust’s pupils “benefit from improved teaching and learning”.

While there are benefits to schools being able to collaborate closely, parental opposition to academy chain expansion has been widespread.

In May the BBC reported that councillors on the Isle of Wight had agreed on plans to oust England’s largest academy chain, Academies Enterprise Trust, from the island all together, after complaints from parents and children about the trust’s intentions to merge two schools.

The problem of trust dominance goes back several years. In December 2011,a parent from Bromley wrote to the Local Schools Network, saying:

“Parents in Penge, south London, who want to send their child to their local school are being effectively denied any meaningful preference since the Harris Federation now runs the four main secondary schools that serve the area.”

The Harris Federation now runs 44 schools in and around London, and insists its schools are “a federation, not a chain”.

“Each academy is run and led by its head in a unique way,” a spokesperson said.

“Twenty-seven of our academies were failing or in great difficulty before joining the federation and now most are ‘outstanding’. It is hard to see how that is a worse choice.”

Examples of anticompetitive activity include businesses agreeing not to compete with each other, abusing their “dominant position”, or having long-term exclusive contracts with customers.

James Goffin, a spokesperson for the Inspiration Trust, which runs 14 schools around Norfolk, said that in rural areas, the academy trust in charge was not the main concern for parents.

“Focusing on which trust is running a school is a bit of a red herring in many rural areas, where population, geography, and transport are the really important factors governing parental choice,” he said.

“It also assumes that all schools in a trust have to be carbon copies of each other, which certainly isn’t the case at the Inspiration Trust.”