Poor consultation on the new Academy Trust Handbook reflects badly on the DfE and could create unnecessary and preventable damage, write Stephen Morales and Stephen Lester

The new Academy Trust Handbook (ATH), which is set to be introduced from Sept 2021, is worryingly thin on why it has a far broader scope than its predecessor the Academies Financial Handbook (AFH). There are a fair few changes spanning governance, safeguarding, estate management, health and safety and a greater role for regional schools commissioners (RSCs) in the appointment of multi-academy trust leaders.

With less than two weeks of this academic year remaining, school business leaders and other academy leaders urgently need clarity on a number of things. However, despite requests for clarification from a range of representative bodies, the reasons for the changes are still unclear.

The previous AFH had a heavy financial bias, but the new ATH spans a much wider remit. This means that the Department for Education (DfE), through the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) or RSCs, can intervene in the activities of MATs and academies to a far greater extent.

The DfE is clearly keen to consolidate regulation, and many have talked about the idea of a ‘single regulatory framework’. However, the new guidance risks a half-baked approach which will fuel confusion, and waste time and money.

A case in point is health and safety. The new Notice to Improve can be used by the ESFA for any item within the ATH. This means ESFA could serve an improvement or prohibition notice regarding health and safety, but the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) might also serve their own notice resulting in the Trust receiving two notices.

This is not a good use of scarce resources and increases the complexity leaders need to contend with

The actions each agency might require from the trust could well differ, and both the ESFA and HSE would need to be satisfied that the actions had been taken before the two separate notices could be removed. The same situation might arise with safeguarding as well, where multiple agencies currently hold schools and trusts to account.

This is not a good use of already scarce resources, and it also increases the complexity with which academy and trust leaders need to contend. The secretary of state has made it clear that it’s his ambition that all LA maintained schools should become academies, but making the regulatory system more complex is not going to tempt more schools to convert and join MATs.

The past year has seen many education organisations, including ISBL, working closely with ministers and their officials in a positive and transparent way. At the end of this turbulent year, it is a missed opportunity on the part of the DfE not to have consulted more widely on this matter. However, we welcome continued dialogue on the evolution of the handbook and the broader regulatory framework.

Officials have suggested to us that there are extremely high levels of compliance with the obligations set out in the AFH. This is something we should celebrate. The changes in the new ATH do little to reflect this compliance or the ambition to encourage and develop a self-improving system.

We need to understand the evidence about why the changes are needed. Otherwise, we’re in danger of putting additional demands and pressures on trusts in solving a problem that doesn’t exist.