With over half of pupils in state-funded education studying in academies, and with plans to extend this further over coming years, it is increasingly important to ensure that the effective practice which has been achieved to date is consolidated to enable a scale-up.
As such, the Department for Education and the Academies Regulatory and Commissioning Review Advisory Group have worked together to review how the academies system is managed to ensure that it meets two core aims:
- Supporting academy trusts to realise their full potential;
- Ensuring that better outcomes are delivered for children.
Following their review, a report has been produced detailing how the Department will support academy trusts, and create a strong, trust-led system. This approach targets reforming the regulatory system, embedding a clear definition of ‘trust quality’, and strengthening departmental support.
Revision and consolidation
One of the aims set out in the report is reviewing and consolidating the current regulatory approach to ensure that it is more proportionate, effective, and risk-based, to provide more strategic oversight. Currently, stakeholder engagement highlighted that, whilst the current regulatory approach generally provides appropriate safeguards, checks and balances, there are areas where historic and accumulated requirements are unnecessary.
The proposed approach will give academy trusts the opportunity to innovate and aims to remove the barriers to trust growth. This includes:
- improving how the Department works with academy trusts by embedding the clearer points of contact and departmental responsibilities set out in the ESFA Arm’s Length Body Review;
- simplifying the requirements of the Academy Trust Handbook and streamlining the ESFA’s approach to financial regulation ;
- making the Department’s complaints process clearer to remove duplication for parents and academy trusts. This will include clarity in respect of what is in scope for different organisations, and the ways in which complaints data informs key processes and its limits, providing greater clarity for all who use the system. In addition, the Department is trialling a new virtual assistant for parents to direct queries on a range of issues, including the school complaint process, attendance, and admissions;
- working with Ofsted to tackle educational underperformance by continuing to intervene where a school has inadequate, or consecutive judgements by Ofsted that are below good. There is also consideration as to whether academies should only transfer between trusts with the consent of both trust boards or where they are eligible for intervention, as currently, given that transfers in other circumstances risks disincentivising strong trusts from taking on schools in need of support.
Recognising academy trust quality
The report also sets out how the Department will ensure that trust quality is recognised more clearly. To improve the reach of strong trusts, the report has found that the Department needs to more clearly set out what is meant by ‘trust quality’. It is hoped that this will enable Department decisions to promote quality and inform leaders’ priorities for effective trust development. As a result, schools which have not converted to academy status will see the benefits of forming, or joining, a trust.
The proposed steps to be taken include:
- developing expanded descriptions of ‘trust quality’, which will be proposed this month and finalised in June 2023;
- publishing new Trust Development Statements to set clearer strategic direction in the areas of highest need;
- commissioning decisions made by the Department’s Regions Group are the main way in which the Department shapes the trust landscape. The role of Regional Directors in commissioning is to consider and approve sector-led applications, including academy conversions and mergers. To ensure that commissioning decisions reflect the needs of local communities, the Department wants to focus on building a more transparent commissioning process, with clearer, consolidated commissioning guidance planned to be published in June 2023 and implemented in the autumn;
- developing ways to present relevant and appropriate data in respect of decision-making back to academy trusts to improve their understanding. It is proposed that this will include providing trusts with more relevant information in respect of their own performance measures against other trusts operating in similar localities and contexts.
As well as encouraging schools to join multi-academy trusts, it is also key to ensure that existing multi-academy trusts are encouraged and helped to become high-quality trusts. Through the life of the academies system, the strongest trusts optimise their use of resources to strengthen and improve educational outcomes, workforce resilience, and the development of curriculum.
The Department wants to continue to support a transition to a self-improving system and will do so by sharing effective practices, supporting academy trust improvement, establishing peer-to-peer networks, and creating new professional development courses and qualifications. Some of the proposed steps to strengthen Department support for trusts include:
- supporting sector-led initiatives for trust improvement;
- working with the sector to establish new regional networks of trusts to facilitate peer-to-peer support;
- establishing a MAT CEO Leadership Development Programme to prepare future MAT leaders and chairs, starting by January 2024;
- supporting the professional development of MAT Chief Financial Officers by rolling out a national expert mentoring programme from summer 2023;
- encourage trust growth and improvement through a multi-year Trust Capacity Fund.
What this means for your academy trust
It is clear that the direction of travel remains for schools to join strong multi-academy trusts, and for existing trusts to develop and improve their offering to better support struggling schools. Do let us know if we can support your trust’s expansion. You should also ensure that, when the streamlined Academy Trust Handbook is published, your academy trust is familiar with any updates and well positioned to implement any necessary change. We expect that this will take effect from September 2023.
With a number of changes due to be announced in the coming year, we will keep you updated on how these may impact your trust.