School leaders have been offered a glimpse of how the government’s new approach to academies will work, with officials deploying “soft levers” to encourage small schools to convert and build capacity in the system.
But Baroness Barran, the academies minister, this week insisted a planned shake-up of school commissioning would not equate to “a kind of algorithm that sends people to the top or the bottom”.
As part of the academies commissioning review, the government pledged to introduce a new, “more transparent” system of decision-making over school sponsorship, conversion and trust mergers.
Barran said this week she wants an approach that is “as transparent as possible… because what we’ve heard from all of you was it felt like it was at best a black box, and at worst a kind of list of the friends of the regional director”.
The government has published new quality descriptors for trusts, which will be used to help to inform commissioning decisions.
But Barran said these were to make sure the government was “always objective”, adding: “In no place in the framework does achieving a quantitative metric mean, you know, pass [go], earn £200, get a new school.”
‘Our role is about leadership’
Last year, the government reorganised its team of regional schools commissioners into regional directors. They oversee commissioning decisions such as school sponsorship, conversion and trust mergers.
Ministers want to see all schools in multi-academy trusts, but do not plan to force well-performing schools over the line.
Instead, regional directors and their teams will coax maintained schools into trusts and encourage mergers of smaller trusts and standalone academies.
Hannah Woodhouse, the DfE’s regional director for the south west, told a panel discussion the directors only had “very limited formal levers”, and could not force mergers of schools or trusts that were performing well.
“Our role is about leadership, convening, soft power as it were, to be leading those conversations on the ground.”
Andrew Warren, who oversees the West Midlands, admitted there was “a lot of pushing, shoving, enabling, facilitating discussions”.
“We’re not dating agencies. We’re not going to set things up. But we are a lot of talking on the ground about how we can make this work.”
Part of the government’s academisation strategy involves targeting faith schools, thousands of which remain in the maintained sector.
Crunch talks over future of village schools
Warren acknowledged village schools were “important” to their communities and faced viability problems. He said directors talked “lots and lots with our dioceses about what their plans are”.
“Again, we have to use our soft levers. Where a headteacher is retiring, it’s having the opportunity to discuss with the diocese, ‘so is this the time to bring a few of those [schools] together to safeguard that, so that we have one overall leader for two, three, four, five schools?
“If you want that village school staying open, what’s the viable plan? It’s having some difficult conversations with chairs of governors and groups about ‘if you want this to stay, it will mean x, y and z’.”
However, Woodhouse said it was “worth saying we have got some outstanding trusts doing incredible work with large groups of very small schools”.
“I think they’re keeping them open actually. Otherwise, we may well see schools struggling with financial viability and leadership capacity.”
Realising ministers’ ambitions for academisation would spell the end of single-academy trusts (SATs). There are about 1,000 in England.
Woodhouse said they were “still seeing a number of single academy trusts continuing to stay individual”, and she didn’t “see an appetite from ministers to challenge that, particularly wholesale…[to] remove SATs entirely”.
“That said, we are seeing quite a number of SATs choosing to join MATs. Where they are vulnerable, we are encouraging it even more.”