The Secretary of State for Education published the much-anticipated White Paper, “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” on 28 March 2022. The aim of the White Paper is to set out the government’s vision for the future of schooling and it focuses, in particular, on ensuring that all schools will be part of a multi-academy trust (MAT) by 2030.
Since the introduction of the Academies Act 2010, school standards have improved rapidly and 86% of schools are now rated good or outstanding, compared to 68% in 2010. Currently, there are almost 10,000 academies, of which 8,500 are in MATs that have more than one school. The White Paper recognises that there is a need to adjust the current school system to introduce a single regulatory approach and to focus on creating and building strong MATs. The benefits of strong MATs are key to the agenda, and the government aims to create a fully trust led system.
Therefore, by 2030, the government plans for all children to benefit from receiving their education within a strong MAT or to be in the process of joining or forming a MAT.
The White Paper recognises the success of transferring underperforming schools into strong trusts. More than 7 out of 10 sponsored academies are now rated good or outstanding, compared to 1 in 10 of the local authority-maintained schools they replaced. Accordingly, the government will continue with its current objective of converting underperforming schools to academy status and will expand on this, as we have set out below.
One of the core successes of MATs is that they can, of course, use their collaborative structure to provide excellent outcomes for pupils by combining their resources. Given that one of the government’s core aims is to ensure that all children can access key literacy and numeracy skills, by forming or joining a MAT more schools will be able to train, retain and deploy high quality teachers where they are most needed.
Further, schools which are part of a strong family of schools can form communities of best practice and share their approaches to improve outcomes for children. Trusts can also achieve economies of scale by centralising functions, joint procurement and introducing robust financial governance.
Achieving the vision
The government’s vision to create a fully trust led system will be achieved in several ways:
- Increasing capacity
The government will invest in 55 Education Investment Areas (EIAs) in parts of the country where the outcomes in literacy and numeracy have been some of the lowest performing. There will be a consultation on moving schools that have received two consecutive below ‘good’ judgements from Ofsted into strong trusts to tackle underperformance, beginning in EIAs, then spreading across the country.
Over the next three years, the government proposes to commit up to £86m to support the strongest trusts to expand into EIAs. Additionally, 24 ‘priority’ EIAs will be supported to address underperformance in areas of the highest disadvantage in the country. The government is committed to making available £40m of additional funding for tailored inventions to address local needs, including addressing high absence rates.
As well as providing additional funding, a new MAT Chief Executive Officer (CEO) development programme will be created for established leaders, such as executive headteachers and senior staff in academy trusts to support their development and preparedness for CEO roles. It is important for senior leaders of schools to consider the roles which will be expected of them in a MAT structure and how this will impact on their role.
- Shaping a system of strong trusts
The White Paper notes that trusts typically start to develop central capacity when they have more than 10 schools. Therefore, converting schools as standalone academies will not be approved by the Department for Education, and instead schools should create or join a MAT. Existing single academy trusts and small MATs should now also be putting in place plans to expand to a minimum of 10 schools. The only exception will be for bids for high quality free schools that may open initially as standalone trusts.
For clarity, there is no maximum size of trust, but the proportion of schools in a local area that can be run by an individual trust will be considered by the Regional Directors.
- Ensuring that all schools can build the fully trust led system
To date, local authorities have been unable to set up trusts, preventing some of the highest achieving local authorities supporting the academies programme. The White Paper will change this position, allowing local authorities to establish new MATs where too few strong trusts exist in their area. These trusts will be regulated in the same way as any other trusts, and local authority involvement on the trust board will be limited.
Further, in respect of church and faith schools, the government will provide that, when they join or form MATS, legislation to ensure that statutory freedoms and protections that apply to church and faith-maintained schools also apply to academies with a religious character.
The White Paper also clarifies that selective schools will be secure in MATs owing to the important role they play within the communities they serve. Whilst little information is provided in respect of how grammar schools will be protected, it is anticipated that the position on ballots on selective arrangements will be reviewed.
- Better regulation of school trusts
The government recognises that the current legal and regulatory system for trusts, based around individual contracts, is unsuitable, as it was designed for a small group of schools. A short-term and long-term plan are set out in the White Paper to tackle this problem.
In the short term, the aim is to bring together both new and existing requirements on academy trusts which are currently set out in legislation and funding agreements, into statutory academy trust standards. Further, new statutory intervention powers will provide a robust framework for tackling any trust failures to achieve expected outcomes.
In the long term, a regulatory review will be held in May 2022 looking at accountability and regulation, including how trusts are held to account through inspection in the future. A definition of trust strength will also be provided. A consultation will also be held in respect of the exceptional circumstances in which a good school could request that the regulator agrees to the school moving to a stronger trust.
- Every party to have a clear role
As well as improving regulation, the government wants to provide greater clarity and coherence about who does what, aligning accountabilities with delivery. Local authorities will remain at the heart of the system as they step back from directly maintaining schools. In their new role, they will harness their ability to coordinate across local services to improve outcomes for children. Local authorities will be backed with new legal powers to match their responsibilities, and the Department for Education will work with them and the wider school system to co-design the detail over the coming months. There will also be plans to ensure they are held accountable for delivering SEND responsibilities.
Independent inspectorates such as Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission will continue to assure the quality of schools, specialist providers, and children’s services, but their roles may evolve as the system becomes fully trust led.
In terms of school improvement, strong trusts will be solely accountable for delivering a high standard of education for children, with churches and other faith groups continuing to offer a distinctive education through networks of trusts. To ensure that all parties play their role, a new collaborative standard requiring that trusts work constructively with each other, their local authorities and the wider public and third sectors, will be introduced.
It is clear from the White Paper that the drive for schools to form and join MATs is stronger than ever. This impacts all schools, including current single academy trusts, which will need to form or join a strong family of 10 schools, or have plans in place to do so, by 2030.
Schools should start to have those conversation as soon as possible in order to ensure that they determine the MATs that they will be a part of and have longer term plans to build these MATs to a minimum of 10 schools.
The Department for Education’s new Regions Group (previously the Regional School Commissioners) will also work with local partners to develop plans which achieve this, based on local dialogue about which collaborations will best serve the interests of children and parents. In the interim, all schools should expect an Ofsted inspection against the current inspection framework by the end of the summer term 2025. This includes outstanding schools that were, until recently, exempt from routine inspection.
The full White Paper can be found here.