DfE goes shy on ‘try before you buy’ academy deals

The government has quietly slashed funding for trust partnerships, unveiled only last year to revive its multi-academy trust drive

The government has quietly slashed funding for trust partnerships, unveiled only last year to revive its multi-academy trust drive

11 Sep 2022, 5:00

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The government has quietly slashed funding for “try before you buy” trust partnerships, a flagship initiative unveiled last year to revive its multi-academy trust drive.

The catchy-sounding policy drew national headlines in April 2021, with new guidance on MATs offering temporary support to maintained schools and standalone academies.

Gavin Williamson, the former education secretary, encouraged all maintained schools to use such partnerships – albeit not new in themselves – to test academisation before committing.

A Department for Education webpage outlining its “trust and school improvement offer” to schools previously offered those rated “requires improvement” up to £10,000 credit towards such partnerships.

But the funding was removed without explanation on Friday. 

A Department for Education spokesperson told Schools Week it had “reviewed the offer, taking into account ongoing dialogue with the sector, and has redirected funding”.

The funds will instead increase the number of days’ help schools can get from a strong school trust chief executive or national leader of education.

They can help leaders “identify and implement improvements” and support building MAT relationships “where appropriate” for ten days, rather than between three and five as previously.

Schools can still “choose to work together” through partnerships, but will not get extra cash.

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, said it was “broadly sensible” to consolidate funding in an initiative that “allows a deeper relationship focused on improvement”.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of teachers’ union NEU, said it showed ‘try before you buy’ was a “failure”. 

But he said he was not surprised, claiming schools had a “waning interest” in MATs, given the loss of “autonomy, identity and control over finances”.

Jeff Marshall, the managing director of conversion advisers J&G Marshall, said he had seen the scheme work well, but it was “always open to abuse”.

“A school could look for support with an eye on an inspection with no intention of joining. Similarly, a trust could invite schools to ‘try before you buy’ to help the trust out of a financial issue, with no intention of taking the school in.”

But Alice Gregson, an executive director of Forum Strategy, a membership organisation for trust leaders, said try before you buy was a “good opportunity to incentivise more schools to join trusts”.

The government wants all schools in “strong” MATs by 2030.

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