Academies

Lack of MAT get-out clause sees strikes, petitions and open letters

Unrest at MATs shows allowing schools to leave trusts would create 'much healthier relationships', claims union rep, but how could it work?

Unrest at MATs shows allowing schools to leave trusts would create 'much healthier relationships', claims union rep, but how could it work?

Staff starting petitions, going on strike and politicians writing open letters to the press in protest over their MAT have revived calls for a route allowing schools to quit their chains.

Members of the National Education Union (NEU) are demanding change at Lodge Park Academy, in Northamptonshire. The David Ross Education Trust has “failed” to make the “right decisions for the school and its students through a revolving door” of 10 principals in 12 years, a petition from staff states.

The staff voted on strike action on Wednesday, but didn’t meet the turnout threshold. The union and DRET hope to find a resolution to the dispute by the end of this week.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that governors at Parkfield School, in Bournemouth, discussed leaving their trust, Reach South, last autumn as they considered measures to stave off closure.

But the trust replaced the local governing board with an “improvement board” in March and recently decided to shut the school.

‘Power sits with trusts’

Ministers are again being urged to consider letting schools leave their trust, having previously pledged to consult on the idea.

Emma Knights

National Governance Association co-CEO Emma Knights said the pledge “spoke to the predicament that schools unhappy with the MAT they are part of [are in, as they] have no recourse to leaving the trust: the power sits at the level of the board of trustees. 

“Making departure possible in certain limited circumstances would be a healthy addition to the system and a likely benefit to pupils.”

The lack of a route is clearly causing trusts their own problems. At Lodge Park, five Corby town councillors penned an open letter to DRET CEO Stuart Burns, citing “huge levels of unrest and uncertainty among the staffing body”.

The trust said it and the NEU were “working together through any remaining issues”. It also wrote to the councillors as “many of their claims were inaccurate or out of date”. 

Meanwhile, at Parkfield, a former governor claimed the all-through free school “was not receiving adequate value for the money invested in being part” of the MAT, accusing Reach South of “neglect”. 

However, a trust spokesperson said it was “not possible to secure the capital funding needed that would help” Parkfield be “viable”. 

“We wanted to ensure we were doing everything we could to make the school a success.” 

Petitions and strikes

University of Brighton Academies Trust schools decided to take part in walkouts following a row over its “absolutely excessive” pooling of cash. 

One of its schools is effectively having around 20 per cent of its cash retained by the trust to pay for its central services. 

Sally-Ann Hart, the former MP for Hastings and Rye, is also now involved – launching a petition for the trust to “hand over control” of two schools in her area. 

A trust spokesperson said “positive” talks with the NEU mean strikes were suspended last week. They are “committed to working with the union to prevent any future planned action”. 

Academy supporters will also point out to the involvement in some cases of the NEU, which opposes academisation. The union’s vote on strike action at Park Lodge only involved about 20 members of staff. 

But Jenny Sutton, the NEU’s Hastings district secretary, said allowing schools to transfer would lead to “much healthier relationships”.

“You strike if you’re not listened or if there isn’t another mechanism for actually influencing the decisions.”

Previous calls for transfer changes

Currently, schools can only leave a trust through government intervention, usually after poor Ofsted results, or if trustees decide to approve a transfer.

Former DfE adviser Sam Freedman has proposed that MATs should be made to give each school a local governing body. They could then get “special voting rights” to leave trusts, creating a “potentially more responsive system”.

However, Freedman said the votes should be subject to regulatory sign-off to prevent “vexatious or frivolous” attempts, or those based on disliking “difficult personnel or financial decisions taken by the MAT”.

Knights added that such a move would also “require a change to the law as governors at academy level are a committee of the trustee board”. 

Leora Cruddas
Leora Cruddas

The schools white paper, published two years ago, said the department would “consult on the exceptional circumstances in which a good school could request that the regulator agrees to [it] moving to a stronger trust”. 

It was punted back to the academy regulation review, which did not take the proposal forward.

The review said any change “could act as a powerful disincentive for high-quality trusts to take on and invest in schools needing their support”. 

Confederation of School Trusts CEO Leora Cruddas said trusts and their schools “are the same organisation. It makes very little sense to suggest that a school could somehow independently seek to move to another trust.”

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