Ministers target groups of failing academies in regulation crackdown

Review pledges to explore 'greater use' of intervention powers to tackle underperformance in academy trusts

Review pledges to explore 'greater use' of intervention powers to tackle underperformance in academy trusts

The government will ramp up its use of powers to strip trusts of groups of underperforming academies en-masse, a minister has said.

The Department for Education’s academies regulatory and commissioning review, published today, pledged to explore making “greater use” of intervention powers to tackle educational underperformance in academy trusts.

Schools Week reported last year how ministers planned to bolster their use of powers to tear up funding agreements and move schools into larger trusts, after then education secretary Kit Malthouse vowed to be “more assertive” about intervention.

Government intervention for poor performance is usually focused on individual schools, with termination warnings issued to academies that are rated ‘inadequate’, and individual settings rebrokered to new sponsors if troubles persist.

But the review found there was a “strong case for the department to be able to intervene at trust level in cases of sustained educational failure”, as it already does for governance or financial issues.

Speaking to Schools Week, academies minister Baroness Barran said the intervention would focus on groups of underperforming schools.

“I think what we’re looking at is where a trust has a group of schools, let’s say in an area, that are significantly underperforming, a similar group of schools.

“Our responsibility to those children is to make sure that they’re run by a trust who can deliver better outcomes for those children.”

‘Where we see a better option we should act’

She acknowledged there was a “delicate balance”, because “some schools turn around quicker, some can take longer to turn around”.

“So we really are talking about where we see sustained underperformance, and in particular, where we’re seeing a group of schools and where their peers locally are doing much better.

“There will be a handful of cases I think where we can see there’s a better option for those children and we should act on it.”

Today’s report concludes the review launched last year in the wake of the schools white paper.

Ministers will publish new “trust development statements” for each of their 55 education investment areas. These will “set out an assessment of local need at all phases and types of school and opportunities for trusts developed with local delivery partners”.

The government has also pledged to set up a “trust development network” in all nine regions of England. Led by multi-academy trusts, these networks will “help facilitate peer-to-peer support”.

The review also proposes a “single, proportionate, risk-based approach to regulatory oversight”, a simplification of the requirements in the academy trust handbook, and clarification of the government’s approach to complaints.

“Clearer, consolidated” guidance on how schools are moved around the system will be published in June, with a new approach implemented over the autumn. Proposed “expanded descriptions” of trust quality will be published in April and then finalised by June.

‘Strong case’ for trust-level intervention

The review said it had heard there was a “strong case for the Department to be able to intervene at trust level in cases of sustained educational failure”.

“We will therefore explore ways of using our current powers to intervene at trust-level, under the existing legal framework.

“We will do this on a case-by-case basis, where there is clear evidence suggesting trusts are failing to hold executive leaders to account for poor educational performance across the trust and its academies.”

But Barran said the spirit of the report was “all about support for the sector, codifying what really effective practice looks like, sharing it, creating networks of support”.

“There are so many trusts which may be younger, less well-developed but absolutely committed to doing the best they can possibly do. We have that solid starting point. And it’s really only some time down the line, if that doesn’t work, that we would intervene.

‘We may need to take new powers’

The government will also “continue to work closely with local authorities and dioceses to identify and support vulnerable maintained schools”, the review said.

This includes offering interim support, including from “strong trusts”, and encouraging schools to join MATs.

But “when the majority of schools are in trusts, we may well need to take new powers to ensure we can intervene effectively and proportionately”.

“This would need to be done in consultation with the sector and be clearly restricted to cases of significant and sustained underperformance.”

The government will also confirm today how it is allocating £42 million of “local needs funding” pledged last year.

This will go to 24 areas of the country deemed “priority” education investment areas, and will pay for schools to “access evidenced based programmes that will help boost pupils’ literacy, numeracy, and attendance”.

Content for a new MAT CEO development programme, also pledged last year, will be published today.

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