Schools Bill

Why schools shouldn’t lose time preparing for academy trusts

The process of creating and joining MATs is complex and the 2030 target is likely to stay – so schools shouldn’t delay planning for the future, writes Gemma Duxbury

The process of creating and joining MATs is complex and the 2030 target is likely to stay – so schools shouldn’t delay planning for the future, writes Gemma Duxbury

13 Sep 2022, 5:00

On 29 June, the DfE launched a review of how it works with academy trusts to ensure children in schools within trusts get the right support to fulfil their potential. The review – expected to be concluded by the end of 2022 – is intended to give clarity about how the powers in the Schools Bill will be applied. It will explore the standards which academy trusts are held to and how the government supports the growth of existing trusts and the creation of new strong ones, in line with its vision for all schools to be in or joining strong academy trusts by 2030.

But while the Department has set out its intended destination, the journey to it is still largely up to individual schools and academy trusts. And with so much uncertainty and furore surrounding the schools bill, schools may understandably be reluctant to start considering the changes they need to make to reach this goal. 

With other pressing priorities brought on by the cost-of-living crisis and with the announcement of a new prime minister and DfE team, schools may be more inclined to wait for the final passing of the Schools Bill and the outcomes of the review before beginning to build a strategy around academisation.

However, Liz Truss appears committed to the overall aims of the schools white paper, and the policy landscape governing the formation and running of academy trusts is complex, so schools would be well advised to start looking at their options now. Regional School Commissioners have extensive criteria when assessing trusts for growth and any failure to properly prepare for changes could impede future development and leave schools falling behind.

Schools would be well advised to start looking at their options now

Schools looking towards academisation should first consider how much flexibility they have to be wholly independent in their choice. Catholic and Church of England schools, for example, are likely to find their local diocese has significant control over how they academise. Starting the process will therefore first entail getting an understanding their options. Does the diocese have its own multi-academy trust, an approved list of trusts, or is it open to new trusts being set up? Have these conversations early to set expectations right from the outset.

Next, there are multiple resources which set out how to choose the correct trust to join. Amid the options, twenty-nine local authorities have applied to be part of a pilot to set up their own trusts, which may be attractive for maintained schools that are happy with the status quo.

Of course, MATs are also preparing for growth and will expect to carry out full due diligence in relation to schools’ policies and procedures, as well as any issues that may cause them future problems. These include liabilities for building and maintenance work and other contractual issues. Schools should therefore be vigilant about entering into new contracts, as existing obligations may hamper efforts to join or create a trust further down the line.

When it comes to creating their own trusts, academies should give early thought to their proposed organisational structure, starting with consideration of what is already in place and identifying gaps. One of the key issues is that certain talent is required for growth, particularly with regards to finance functions. Funding new hires and additional resources isn’t always easy, and if growth doesn’t follow, it could leave an academy in a challenging position.

Participation and/or collaboration agreements can help to mitigate this. They are already recommended for schools looking at sharing expertise in curriculum specialities and leadership, and offer a good avenue for schools to work together before entering into a formal academisation process.

This week’s change at the top hasn’t changed the basics; Multi-academy trusts are going to be the norm, and a lack of preparedness for academisation could limit and slow the growth of schools. This is a long-term vision, and taking steps now to pick the right partners could avoid delays and enhance schools’ prospects for the future.

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