RSC to take ‘unprecedented’ decision on whether a primary can leave its trust

A regional schools commissioner is about to make an “unprecedented” decision on whether a primary school can voluntarily quit its multi-academy trust.

Christine Quinn, the RSC for the west Midlands, has stepped into a row between Black Firs Primary, in Congleton, and its trust – the Congleton Multi-Academy trust (Cmat).

Five of the school’s governors were sacked by trustees from the local governing body after they raised concerns about Cmat, according to a report in the Stoke Sentinel.

Hundreds of parents have now signed a petition against the trust – which was set up in 2014 after Black Firs joined up with Congleton High School. The trust now runs three schools and a college.

Quinn met with parents last week to decide the future of the school, which wants to form a new trust with other primaries in the region.

This decision could open the flood gates for many other restructures

According to the Sentinel, Quinn told parents the situation was “unique”, adding: “This is about a process where there’s no precedent. It’s about looking to gain an understanding of what all the tensions are.”

Academies are normally transferred to new trusts when they are underperforming, but Black Firs is rated ‘good’ by Ofsted.

Previous attempts by schools to leave their trust have been thwarted; the governing body at Greengate Lane Academy in Sheffield was dissolved by its MAT Astrea in April after it outlined plans to hold a formal vote about leaving the chain.

The school joined the trust in March last year, and governors claimed it would be allowed to leave if it became unhappy, but after plans of the meeting emerged, Astrea replaced governors with an interim management board.

However it appears a school has actually quit its trust before.

Schools Week has been pointed to headteacher board minutes for the Lancashire and West Yorkshire region in February showing the Lime Tree Primary, in Trafford, was allowed to quit the Enquire Learning Trust.

The minutes of the meeting, also attended by national schools commissioner Sir David Carter, show the school was given permission to join the Dunham Trust, with key discussion points school improvement and governance.

No more details about the process are included, but it appears to have taken over 12 months to resolve.

The Manchester Evening News had reported nearly 12 months earlier that the Enquire Trust had started talks with the region’s RSC, Vicky Beer, about the move.

The paper reported the governors felt the school would work better in a smaller group in the region, and that the school’s headteacher Simon Beswick had been suspended for five weeks during negotiations to leave the trust, which first started in January last year. He has since been reinstated, the paper reported.

While it is possible for a school to leave a MAT, school support service The Key said there is currently no official guidance on the process.

However, in an article in November, The Key stated an academy would be expected to write a business case explaining why it wanted to leave the trust, to be sent to the academy’s regional Education and Skills Funding Agency caseworker.

This caseworker would then make representations to the secretary of state, who makes the final decision, the article stated. However, it is unclear if the DfE has since changed the process.

It appears Quinn got involved in the Black Firs case after the sacked governors alleged that senior staff had been awarded “inflation-busting” pay rises, amid further claims that Cmat had withheld funds from the primary school, the Sentinel said.

Cmat has been approached for comment.

Annual accounts for last year show that the trust’s highest-paid employee, chief executive David Hermitt, has remained in the £105,000 to £110,000 bracket for the past two years. He received between £95,000 to £100,000 in 2014.

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But the amount Black Firs paid the trust for central services rose from £28,000 in 2015 to £37,000 last year. However this payment was based on an agreed methodology, accounts stated.

Beth Roche, a mother with three children at the school, who helped found a parents action group, told Schools Week: “There has been a shroud of secrecy. We have had no transparency for the reason why the local governing board was dismissed – some have been serving the school for nearly 40 years.”

She said parents were previously told the trust had passed an application from the school to leave to the government, but that it denied doing so during the meeting with Quinn.

In a white paper published in March last year, the former education secretary Nicky Morgan said the government would consider ways for parents to petition RSCs to move their child’s school to different trusts in cases of underperformance or in other exceptional circumstances.

More than 400 parents have signed the petition calling to remove Black Firs from the trust.

Roche, who said Quinn attended the meeting with four officials from London, added: “This decision could open the flood gates for many other restructures – which is clearly not what the government wants.”

Quinn has reportedly said she would deliver a “plan of action” to deal with the situation in September, including a governance review of the trust.


UPDATE: This article was updated on August 2 to include details of the Lime Tree Primary’s move from the Enquire Learning Trust

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  1. John Fowler

    Where in the model funding contract is there provision for a school to leave an Academy Trust except by the Secretary of State revoking the contract on grounds of significant underperformance or non-compliance with the contract, or the Trust giving seven years notice? I accept a Trust can claim that the financial arrangements at a particular school in the Trust might lead to the Trust becoming insolvent, which might lead to removal of that school, but this is not simple procedure.

    • Steph Cunningham

      Where a democracy becomes a dictatorship, it is surely not about the model funding contract. The matter becomes one of morality. Significant underperformance and non compliance with contract are surely less relevant when lies and deceit are uncovered? How can trust be mended and how can that relationship continue to work? How long before that begins to colour decisions which affect the children attending the primary school?

  2. Mark Watson

    This is a really big step in the maturing MAT sector. Personally I think it is absolutely the right way to go that a school can petition to leave a MAT – there should be no assumption from a MAT that it can keep its schools no matter what. A good MAT should always be striving to improve every single one of its schools and should welcome challenge wherever it comes from.
    That being said, I equally don’t agree it should become some sort of popularity contest where parents at a school can flit from one MAT to another. As a parent myself, my number one priority is what a school will do for my child over the next 5 years. That is far more important for me than the long-term future of the school which is what the MAT needs to be looking at.
    So yes, I agree that parents and schools should be able to petition to leave a MAT. The relevant person should then investigate and listen to both the petitioners and the MAT, before balancing all the factors which will include the current AND future pupils at the school, the local community, the staff and the other schools in the area and in the MAT.

  3. Paul Hanks

    This isn’t actually a precedent. Christine Quinn should know that ‘outstanding’ schools have moved trusts successfully.

    There was a similar situation to this in Trafford, Manchester. Lime Tree Primary, part of a multi academy, have had approval to transfer from Enquire Learning Trust to The Dunham Trust.

    Here’s the Head Teacher Board meeting that approved it – interesting that Sir David Carter (National Schools Commissioner) was on the board that allowed Lime tree to leave

  4. Academies don’t just change trusts because they’re underperforming or are inadequate. Other reasons include the Trust winding up (eg Prospects, Navigation); the Trust being ordered by the DfE to give up some of its academies (eg E-Act – not all of its transferred academies were less than good); stand-alone academies joining MATs (we’re likely to see more of these as small stand-alones, particularly primaries, find it difficulty to survive outside the stewardship of an LA, and large stand-alones are encouraged to hoover up other academies); restructuring (eg Barnfield trust academies); to save an academy from closing (Charles Read, Lincolnshire); as consolation prize for a proposed free school supported by a MAT being turned down (Queen Eleanor School, Stamford) and a MAT claiming its academies were ‘geographically isolated’ (eg CfBT).
    The costs of transferring academies can vary between £0m and £6m (exceptional). The DfE is stalling on publishing costs of transferring individual academies – the total figure was buried in DfE accounts under heading which conflated costs for conversion and rebrokering.