Lack of ‘capacity-givers’ forces small academy trust into merger

Coast and Vale Learning Trust was told by the DfE it would not be allowed to take on any more schools in deficit

Coast and Vale Learning Trust was told by the DfE it would not be allowed to take on any more schools in deficit

30 Mar 2024, 7:00

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A six-school trust is set to join one of England’s biggest academy trusts after it found all nearby “capacity giver” schools had already been academised.

Coast and Vale Learning Trust decided merging was its only option after being told by the Department for Education it would not be allowed to take on any more schools in deficit. The trust will now join 57-school Delta Academies Trust.

Trust mergers are on the up and sector leaders say the dwindling stock of local authority secondary schools will lead more to join forces.

Leora Cruddas
Leora Cruddas

Confederation of School Trusts CEO Leora Cruddas said: “Given the challenges the school system is facing now, and will continue to face, we believe that those leading our schools and trusts should ensure that they are part of a strong and sustainable group of schools, working together in a single legal entity to secure good outcomes for children.”

However, she warned of the importance of finding the “right match”.

Coast and Vale director of education Michael McCluskie said the trust has two schools on its books that are carrying a combined deficit of about £1 million.

But in discussions with the regional director, bosses learned they would not be given the greenlight to absorb any others running at a loss.

Capacity-givers were ‘already in a trust’

McCluskie said the “DfE didn’t rule out growth” and that it was “open to conversations” about taking on primary schools rated ‘good’ by Ofsted and with “some money in the bank”. But they would not “bring in as much money” as secondaries.

“[Capacity-giver] schools locally were already in a trust or had already made applications to join another trust, so we were limited in terms of the schools we could actually approach.

“We still had plenty of cash in the bank, but in terms of taking on more schools – which is what the DfE wanted us to do – it would have presented us with an unacceptable risk.”

When it later advertised for a new CEO, the brief for the role stated it would be “an interim post”, with the new chief expected “to manage a merger … within the next two years”, McCluskie added.

After seeing the notice, the trust was approached by Paul Tarn, the CEO of Delta Academies Trust. He proposed stepping into the interim role and “if you like what you see, you take a decision at a later stage over whether you’d like to formally join us”.

Large trust steps in

From April 1, Tarn will be Coast and Vale’s chief executive and accounting officer. He said trustees have come to an “in-principle agreement” to join Delta.

Both sets of trustees must carry out due diligence and the regional director will have to give the proposals the green light before it becomes official.

“If we were in a position where we can’t grow and influence the educational agenda on the Yorkshire coast, that would really thwart what the trust was set up to do,” McCluskie continued. “Joining a bigger partner and becoming a hub for Delta would help us to realise that.”

All of Coast and Vale’s schools are based in North Yorkshire, which is one of 55 education investment areas earmarked for multi-academy trust expansions by the DfE.

Trust development statements setting out its vision for schools across the local authority state government would welcome “growth proposals from existing trusts operating in the area”.

It also encourages “proposals from existing MATs based outside North Yorkshire to increase capacity and choice for maintained schools and SATs”.

More mergers expected as sector ‘matures’

Mark Greatrex, who leads a 10-academy MAT and has advised others on their structures, believes there will be “a lot more” mergers as the sector “matures”. He, too, is eyeing potential mergers as he bids to grow his trust to 24 schools.

“It’s the way things are going to go. Growing one by one is challenging and not sustainable. [I’m] willing for any organisation with a vacancy to think about working with another organisation, as well as considering whether they replace their CEO.” 

The government has said it expects that “most trusts will be on a trajectory to either serve a minimum of 7,500 pupils or run at least 10 schools” by 2030.

Cruddas noted, though, that there are “lots of different approaches to trust size, with some successful and viable trusts at all levels”.

For her, “the important thing is not the size of a trust but whether the organisation is focused on building educational excellence and resilience”.

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