Academies

Spin-off academy trusts can solve rural school dilemma, say LAs

Council plans seen by Schools Week will boost ministers’ hopes for 'orphan' schools

Council plans seen by Schools Week will boost ministers’ hopes for 'orphan' schools

10 Oct 2022, 5:00

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Local authorities hoping to form spin-off academy trusts say they can boost conversion rates, standards and financial viability – especially among small, rural schools.

Council plans seen by Schools Week will boost ministers’ hopes for “orphan” schools. But one expert warned councils might still lack capacity to turn some around.

This year’s schools white paper included piloting local authority-established trusts, breaking from the initial academy vision of schools outside council control.

The 29 councils – one in five – that applied are currently awaiting Department for Education approval, according to two applicants.

Schools Week asked several councils that had publicly expressed interest in forming trusts, and the Department for Education, for more details.

Kent and South Gloucestershire provided their visions, with both giving an early glimpse into how the new model could work.

MATs could solve primary gap

Kent said it might help some existing “natural groupings of schools working together…[in]” to form their own trusts.

South Gloucestershire similarly said its existing “hub and cluster” maintained model provided “foundations…for a strong MAT”.

Both hope their trusts can launch next year – and help to fix policy challenges familiar nationwide.

They highlighted low primary academisation rates in particular. South Gloucestershire noted a primary MAT “gap”, and Kent the “low penetration of national MATs”.

South Gloucestershire’s trust would prioritise “the sustainability of our rural and small schools alongside those in our priority neighbourhoods”.

Kent wants to “ensure all our communities enjoy access to high-quality school provision, regardless of how rural or deprived these communities might be”.

It highlighted difficulties finding sponsors to tackle “school-improvement challenges in the coastal towns”.

Critics have long claimed the competitive MAT model encourages “cherry-picking”, leaving “orphan” schools.

Sam Freedman, a former DfE adviser, said in a February report that unwanted small, rural primaries were a “structural” issue that needed regulator-launched “backstop” trusts.

The white paper in March even admitted trusts were not “adequately incentivised” to target need.

The councils’ proposals may therefore hearten the new education secretary, Kit Malthouse, who has pledged to “reinvigorate” the academy “revolution”.

The DfE confirmed LA-established trusts would not be eligible for more start-up funding than other trusts, however – despite it handing extra cash to diocesan MATs last year.

Tom Richmond, the founder of the EDSK think tank, said it was “debatable” whether council trusts would have enough improvement capacity and expertise after “drastic funding cuts”.

But achieving the all-MAT vision by 2030 was “hard to see” without them.

‘Scale back once academy trusts are thriving’

Councils’ varied contexts will also likely mean “many different models”.

Kent’s application suggests multiple trusts could serve different purposes, from improving challenging schools to deepening existing town-based partnerships. “The diversity of our schools creates opportunities for a wide range of MAT configurations.”

Meanwhile, South Gloucestershire said its cross-phase trust could reach up to 40 schools, although starting with eight to ten. Its model assumes 80 per cent of schools will be “financially and educationally secure” enough to support others.

It initially plans to top-slice up to 7 per cent of budgets, but eventually embrace grant pooling.

Members would likely include a council cabinet member and HR chief, plus diocesan and “suitable partner organisation” representatives. Trustees proposed include the trust chief executive and an experienced MAT leader from outside the county.

Kent said the make-up was “to be negotiated”, and dependent on factors such as religious character. Council representation would be the minimum necessary and the county would eventually “scale back” involvement once its trusts were “thriving”.

Other councils did not apply. A spokesperson for West Berkshire said this was partly “due to capacity issues”, although Essex and Northamptonshire did not give a reason.

Cheshire East applied, but called the application window “short”. It declined to share application documents with Schools Week as some boards did not have time to discuss them pre-application and “may feel the paperwork does not align with their thinking”.

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One comment

  1. Paul Luxmoore

    So… how will an LA such as Kent improve performance in schools that they are already entirely responsible for, just by turning them into academies? Where will their capacity come from if it does not already exist? Have I missed something, or is this just a way to ensure that LAs still have some schools under their control?