The UK Education White Paper for academies... and their sponsors

Article 23 May 2022 Experience: Education

Since the Academies Act came in more than a decade ago, there has been a general direction of travel in favour of multi-academy trusts (MATs’). The headline policy (across the main political parties, in fact) has been academisation generally, but within this, the organs of government have tended to push for consolidation, sharing of resources and achieving economies of scale. In a sense this is curious because, in principle, academies – and certainly single academies – are more isolated units than the maintained schools that they replace. The MAT is the most obvious and effective way to reconcile this.

There has been some dalliance with less formal academy ‘umbrella trusts’, but now the MAT as Plan A is on a firmer footing than ever, with this spring’s education White Paper making a very firm statement in favour of more, bigger and better MATs. (And even MATs established by local authorities, which has not been possible to date and seems a little at odds with the founding principles of the academies programme.)

To quote the White Paper directly, the key messages around this are as follows: 1. “By 2030, all children will benefit from being taught in a family of schools, with their school in a strong multi academy trust or with plans to join or form one”. 2. “[academy] trusts typically start to develop central capacity when they have more than 10 schools. Scale is also what enables them to be more financially stable, maximise the impact of a well-supported workforce and drive school improvement.”… “We expect that most trusts will be on a trajectory to either serve a minimum of 7,500 pupils or run at least 10 schools.” 3. “We will carefully monitor the size of new trusts and never expect a trust to expand before it is ready. While there will be no maximum size of trust, we will limit the proportion of schools in local area that can be run by an individual trust.”

Academy trusts are also to be put onto a firmer statutory footing. This is a major development. To date, academy trusts have existed under statute in that they only open once an ‘academy order’ is made by the Secretary of State pursuant to the Academies Act. But they are also independent charities, with powers exerted by central government mostly as a matter of contract, under the funding agreement, as well as through each academy trust’s articles of association. The arrangement is a bit of a jumble, with the precise relationship between an academy trust and government depending on which model set of articles and funding agreement are in place. Now, it’s proposed that this is all tidied up into a neater set of statutory provisions including (ominously) new “intervention powers”. Whether that’s good or bad news at the level of an individual academy trust… we’ll have to wait and see.

Obviously all of this has potentially very significant implications for those in the maintained schools and academies space. But it’s also relevant to those operating on the periphery of the state education sector, particularly academy trust sponsors. What does this White Paper mean for them?

Sponsors are often charitable independent schools or universities looking to bolster their public benefit provision by engaging with the state sector. Formal sponsorship often means taking control of an academy trust in the sense of appointing a majority of the board, as well as having input and involvement in areas like curriculum, shared resources and staffing.

Closer engagement between these different elements of the education sector is beneficial for everyone, and it has been growing. But when it comes to sponsorship, working with a single academy trust has historically been the norm. One can see how this may be more attractive to a school or university, in representing a substantial but not overwhelming avenue for spreading their good influence; one school is an easier proposition than ten.

If the vast majority of academies are to be within MATs, will this type of collaboration still be available? The White Paper acknowledges that there can be a place for single academy trusts in the right circumstances, and there’s no sign of a cooling policy position towards sponsorship per se but, again, we’ll need to wait and see how things develop here.

The new statutory framework and those ‘intervention powers’ will be something to watch from this perspective too. The relationship between academy trust and sponsor has been quite a cosy one to date, usually without great cause for the Department for Education or Education and Skills Funding Agency to come knocking. Will the new arrangements make this all look less attractive to would-be and existing sponsors? Hopefully not. But watch this space for further updates, as we’ll be keeping an eye on developments.

If your organisation is interested in sponsoring an academy trust, or is an existing sponsor, do get in touch if there are any issues you’d like to discuss.