Academies

New academy trust descriptors could stifle innovation

Trust boss fears descriptors could become the 'Ofsted handbook' of the MAT world

Trust boss fears descriptors could become the 'Ofsted handbook' of the MAT world

24 Nov 2023, 9:00

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The boss of a prominent academy chain fears the government’s new trust quality descriptors could become the “Ofsted handbook” of the MAT world.

Tom Campbell, the chief executive of E-ACT, said the sector could “miss a lot of innovation and diversity” if leaders stuck rigidly to the Department for Education’s definition of trust strength.

The guidance surfaced in last year’s schools white paper, with ministers basing it around five “pillars” to help potential expansions.

Their definitions were fleshed out in April, with MATs told they would be expected to support flexible working, operate collaboratively and “take action to promote equality and diversity”.

Tom Campbell
Tom Campbell

Officials use the descriptors for commissioning decisions related to academies.

But speaking at the Schools and Academies Show on Wednesday, Campbell said the descriptors “don’t sit easy with me because surely it’s up to a trust to define itself”.

“Some trusts run all schools the same…other trusts, like E-ACT, think of schools as their own school and make decisions that relate to their context.

“It’s quite difficult to find a catch-all set of descriptors…I welcome some clarity, but I’m nervous about it becoming the Ofsted handbook of MATs.”

Trusts ‘evolve’

Campbell reasoned that his 28-school chain had “evolved” and changed the way it defined itself since its launch 16 years ago.

He was concerned “a lot of innovation and diversity” would be missed if too much time was spent “trying to build our trusts to these descriptions”. They should be used as a “conversation starter” instead.

Rowena Hackwood, the chief executive of the Astrea Academy Trust, said she had used the guidance as a loose framework when talking to regional directors.

Rowena Hackwood
Rowena Hackwood

But they should not be used to judge the “performance” of an MAT.

The five pillars are: high-quality and inclusive leadership; school improvement; workforce; finance and operations; governance and leadership.

When the DfE published more details seven months ago, it said the guidance “represents a clear and ambitious vision for the academies sector”. It also hoped it would help to “inform trusts’ improvement and capacity-building priorities”.

Anita Notta, the chief executive of the Khalsa Academies Trust, said the descriptors helped her two-school chain after it was issued with a financial notice to improve.

This culminated in the notice – imposed before Notta started running the trust – being lifted in May.

“We had a visit from a regional director who said ‘18 months ago we wouldn’t consider you, however now, we are actively having conversations with local authorities to say is this a trust you would consider [for expansions]’.”

Indicators not a ‘binary checklist’

Responding to Campbell’s concerns, David Withey, the chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, insisted the indicators were not  “a binary checklist” but a “really helpful” guide, particularly for smaller trusts.

David Withey
David Withey

“What we’ve tried to do … is play back to the sector the sorts of things we are looking at. They are really helpful as a bit of a guide for people, particularly in smaller trusts.

“The organisation has found it really helpful because they allowed them to have clearer conversations with trusts about the sorts of things we’re thinking about.”

New commissioning guidance published by the DfE during the summer sets out how regional directors should assess “strategic need” and trust quality before ruling on academisation plans.

The document said the five pillars would underpin decisions. Regional directors would link various evidence to each pillar, including “headline metrics” – drawn from MAT performance tables – which would then be used to “form a hypothesis about a trust’s quality”.

These include phonics pass rates, the percentage of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools in a chain and attainment trajectories. 

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