Trusts face a reckoning over their growth plans

More interest in sponsorship of a dwindling number of schools means smaller trusts should bet on growth by other means, argues David Thomas

More interest in sponsorship of a dwindling number of schools means smaller trusts should bet on growth by other means, argues David Thomas

14 Oct 2023, 5:00

The past three years have been a test of resilience for our school system. We should be proud that it is, on the whole, a test on which we have done remarkably well. But the tests keep coming: an energy crisis hot on the heels of the pandemic, followed by industrial action and now crumbly concrete. Trust leaders understandably feel strained.

It’s not surprising therefore that the Confederation of School Trusts’ (CST) annual trust CEO survey, conducted with 400 leaders in the early summer, found them focused on issues around resilience. But that same survey shows signs that not all of their plans to get more resilient will work.

Smaller trusts (those with two to nine schools) are overwhelmingly betting on growth as the answer to becoming more resilient. Almost three-quarters of these trusts listed growth as a top priority for this academic year. And over half of those trusts expected to grow by sponsoring one or more academies.

The next most common route, opening new schools, was selected by just under one-quarter of those small trusts looking to grow this year. Their ambitions are not small: two-thirds expect to add two or more schools to their trust this academic year.

But small trusts aren’t the only ones hoping to grow. Their larger counterparts are also overwhelmingly planning for growth, with more than three-quarters of them expecting to add two or more schools to their trusts this year. Again, they expect to do this mostly by sponsoring academies.

Can everyone’s expectations come true? I doubt there will be enough schools requiring sponsorship to go around. And if there’s tough competition for the ones that are available, who will win?

Growth by takeover is running out of steam

The CEO survey also shows us what trusts are focused on. For small trusts it is overwhelmingly growth and financial resilience. Larger trusts, although they expect to grow, don’t see it as a priority. They’re focused more on workforce, on pupil outcomes, on civic partnerships and on strategic issues like digital infrastructure. This list is remarkably similar to the DfE’s high-quality trust framework, which regional directors will be using to decide which trusts get to sponsor a school.

Imagine the regional director faced with a choice: on the one hand, a small trust that wants to grow to become more resilient but will struggle to make the forward investment in improving a challenging school, and on the other a larger trust with improving pupil outcomes, a workforce strategy and a programme of community engagement. The choice they’ll make will of course depend on local context, but I can see why they might, on average, lean towards the latter.

If I’m right then we have a problem coming. A large group of smaller trusts will face a sort of reckoning, as they bet on growth as their road to resilience but find that this road isn’t as open as they thought it would be.

So what should they do? Last week I discussed this at CST’s annual conference with Edurio chief executive, Ernest Jenavs, who carried out the survey. As one attendee pointed out during the discussion in our session, the answer lies in the conference’s theme of belonging.

Instead of relying on sponsorship and opening new schools – two narrow routes that are less consensual – trusts should focus on building and joining communities where schools feel like they belong. This might be where maintained schools feel they belong and want to join the trust, or it might be where two trusts decide to join and merge.

The mindset of growth by takeover is running out of steam, and cannot work for every trust looking to grow. A mindset of belonging, where leaders come together to achieve resilience with like-minded colleagues, should replace it.

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