To kick off the first term of 2017-18, Schools Week has delved into the data on academy trust expansion over the last year.
Although the headlines have been full of trusts shedding their schools, populations are booming at many others. We set out to find out what is driving this growth.
Twenty academy trusts grew by taking over five or more schools last year – with some even managing to triple in size.
Using Department for Education data on open academies, we looked at every takeover during the 2016-17 academic year, as well as schools which are planning to open between now and the end of 2017.*
Of the academy trusts that “supersized” this past year, the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust grew the most, taking on nine new schools and growing from 18 to 27 in total.
The Elliot Foundation Academies Trust started from the largest base – holding 22 schools in September 2016 – and took on five new schools over the following 12 months to also reach a total of 27 this term.
But certain smaller trusts took on almost as many, with three chains grabbing seven schools each.
Reach South Academy Trust – which only had one school this time last year – now encompasses eight primaries, and has told Schools Week there will announcements about further expansion “in the near future”. It just so happens to be a sister chain to Reach2, the largest primary school academy trust, and is led by Sir Steve Lancashire, a prominent member of the Headteacher Board.
Meanwhile L.E.A.D. multi-academy trust, based in Nottingham, grew from 13 schools to 21, and the Learner’s Trust grew from three to 10. St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocesan Multi Academy Trust doubled its size from seven to 14 and is also lining up new additions for this academic year.
GLF schools, led by Jon Chaloner from the Headteachers Round Table, notably took on an extra five schools during 2016-17, rising from 19 to 24. It has a further three takeovers due before the end of the year, bringing its numbers up to 27, and was also granted three new schools in April through the free school programme.
Derby Diocesan Academy Trust rose from eight to 11 schools over the last year, but with four more takeovers due before Christmas it will have taken on seven altogether, bringing its total to 15.
The Eastern Multi-Academy Trust, which was originally set up as CWA Academy Trust and received one of the lowest scores for performance last year, doubled in size last year, growing from six to 12. And Ebor Academy Trust, the first MAT in York, grew from five to 11 schools.
Some much smaller trusts have also grown significantly: Severn Academies Educational Trust and Yorkshire and the Humber Cooperative Learning Trust both increased from just one each to six, and the Worcester Diocesan Academies Trust expanded from two to seven schools.
The trend for local expansions
Most growing academy trusts are in local clusters or ‘hubs’.
Richard Ludlow, the chief executive of Ebor Academy Trust, is planning to run four hubs of between eight and 10 schools “within relatively easy reach of one another”. The trust owned five schools last year but expects to be 20-strong by September 2018.
Executive headteachers are employed to “lead and quality-assure” each hub, said Ludlow, adding: “It is the executive headteachers’ jobs to make sure all our schools operate to the highest of professional standards.”
Grouping schools into clusters prevents them from feeling lost
Gary Peile, chief executive of the Active Learning Trust, said the hub model his trust uses across Cambridgeshire, Lowestoft and Ipswich “means best practice and knowledge are shared at local level”.
ALT is opening two new schools in Littleport this month to meet a need for additional pupil places in secondary and special education. This is being managed by executive headteachers from two of its other Cambridgeshire schools who have the “experience and expertise” to guide the process.
Another new school will open in Ipswich next year.
Michael Cowland, the interim chief executive at the Peterborough Diocese Education Trust, said grouping schools into clusters prevents them from feeling lost.
PDET’s 23 schools are all in Northamptonshire, except one on the Rutland border.
“I think our school in Rutland probably felt a bit more isolated until we had some more on the north of the county joining us,” he said.
The trust is building “regional learning communities” over the next 12 months, but “because we’ve got a large number of schools, it will become increasingly hard to know these schools intimately, so we’re thinking how we can best make use of these clusters.”
Jon Chaloner, the chief executive of GLF Schools, said he had split his member schools into primary and secondary clusters.
“We focused on primary first and, in light of the initial geographical spread, focused on developing clusters to enable more local collaboration and support,” he said.
The trust has recently turned its attention to secondary level, growing from one to four secondary schools in 2016.
Eight of the expanding trusts were diocesan multi-academy trusts, catering for Christian schools.
St Edmundsbury’s chief executive Jane Sheat has seen her two-year-old trust double in size since September 2016, from seven church schools to 14. She stressed it was important for her trust to be “rooted in Christian values”.
John Crane, chief executive of the Diocese of Chelmsford Vine Schools Trust, said diocesan trusts aimed to provide “a home” for any church school that wanted to become an academy, but that their rapid growth had also come as an academy solution for schools that were “in trouble”.
“Sometimes with the Church of England … the choice is little more limited, because if you get a church school in trouble then the diocese has to provide a solution,” he said. “They’re not going to turn their back on any school.”
His trust holds “a level of responsibility to those children at that school”, he added. So where “some secular trusts might get to pick and choose” the schools they take in, dioceses support any church school in need.
His trust has grown from 10 to 16 academies in the last year. Normally, he said, academies that come to join it “need a sponsored solution”, for different reasons.
“Sometimes it’s Ofsted, sometimes it’s a warning notice for the local authority, or back-to-back exam results,” he said.
But bringing in new good schools also matters: “Out of the four new ones that joined recently, two bring extra capacity,” he added. “They are good schools with good leaders.”
Michael Cowland, the interim chief executive at the Peterborough Diocese Education Trust, said his trust had welcomed six new schools in 2016-17, bringing it to 22 academies.
Like Crane, he described his trust as “a home for any church school”, saying that joining was generally their “preferred option” in the area.
This ready acceptance of any church school has meant a steady increase in the trust’s population. In fact, schools regularly approach the trust, and typically need support as services they are used to receiving from the local authority decrease.
“We’ve currently got two schools with academy orders waiting to join us, and another seven with applications in,” he said. “We didn’t have to go out and sell ourselves to schools.”
Supersizing helps the budget (but beware the hospital pass)
Increasing the number of schools was described in many cases as a way to ensure trusts could work more effectively with their finances – but trusts must beware so-called “hospital pass” schools which drag on the overall budget.
The commitment by dioceses to take in schools, particularly smaller primaries, can influence the balance of school sizes within the trust. For example, the Peterborough Diocese Education Trust has “a higher-than-average number of smaller schools” simply because church schools tend to be smaller.
“We’re now on 23 academies and three-and-a-half thousand children, whereas I think some of the larger ones have got a similar number to us but over 10,000 children,” Cowland said.
Small academy trusts don’t have the balance sheet of the local authority
This brings “its own challenges” but the trust won’t turn away small church schools that come to them for support.
The chief executive of the Elliot Foundation Academies Trust, Hugh Greenway, believes the size of the trust is important to its sustainability.
“The DfE has only lately come round to realising that if you don’t provide funding to keep schools safe, solvent, structurally sound, legally complaint and educationally improving, you have to take the money to do it from the schools’ budgets themselves,” he said. “You need to be of a certain size to be able to afford to do it.”
Trusts can manage if they are smaller in size, he said, but will have to rely more on “significant amounts of volunteering, both from trustees but also from your executive principals, who you won’t be able to pay for the job they are doing”.
However, trusts should try to “avoid hospital passes” he said, warning that taking on very weak schools can be a burden.
“At our third school, the roof fell in six weeks after it converted,” he said. “It was a Christmas of sustained and heavy rain. We only had three or four schools in the trust and it was half a million pounds to fix. That could have bankrupted the trust.”
Small academy trusts just “don’t have the balance sheet of the local authority”, meaning that they should choose carefully which schools they take on.
“That was one of the points of having roughly 150 local authorities; each of those had some capacity to absorb the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he said.
The cost-benefit of being an expandable trust
There can be a downside to expansion. Several multi-academy trusts have been heavily criticised for supersizing too quickly. The DfE has put nearly 60 academy chains onto a pause list in order to stop their growth.
In response, the national schools commissioner David Carter introduced “health checks” to look at a trust’s history before granting expansions.
Nevertheless, a Schools Week investigation in January found several trusts were ducking the pause list and still expanding.
Several more trusts were also told this year by Ofsted that they had expanded too quickly, and that supersizing had led to poor performance among schools, including the Northern Education Trust, which took on nine “untouchable” schools, to create a stable of 18 academies.
Ofsted said weakness in due diligence meant the trust took on too many challenging schools.
Ultimately, for all trusts, there is a balance between continued growth, especially where required by commitments or necessary for budget, and the perils of over-expansion.