No turning back if you step over the welcome MAT

Choose a trust carefully, because once you’re in, it’s very difficult to get out, rueful governors are finding
12th May 2017, 12:00am
Magazine Article Image


No turning back if you step over the welcome MAT

“We’ve been let down. They should be working with us, not taking us over.”

The words of a member of a primary school governing body that was disbanded last month by an academy chain that the same governors had opted to join less than a year earlier.

The decision by the Astrea multi-academy trust (MAT), formerly Reach4, to replace the local governing body at Greengate Lane Academy in Sheffield, came as its members prepared to vote on seeking to leave the MAT.

The governors had run a successful school. But having had doubts about their chosen MAT, they found that they were not only powerless to change their minds, but were also facing the collective sack.

As school governing bodies across the country continue to grapple with academisation, the case throws into stark relief the finality of a school’s decision to join a MAT.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, warns that schools and governors have to be aware that they are “making a one-way choice”.

“The one thing people need to be very clear on is that once they join a MAT, the independent legal status of the school has come to an end and there’s no way they can themselves voluntarily leave the trust,” he says.

It is a point that David Wolfe, a QC with Matrix Chambers and a specialist in education law, made vividly last year when he said a school in a MAT had “no more ability to move to another MAT than a branch of Tesco can decide to become Sainsbury’s”.

For some schools, there are fears that the decision to join a MAT could even lead to their extinction. Barbara Taylor, secretary of the National Association of Small Schools, last year warned: “Quite often, if small schools join academy chains then [the trusts] may decide they’re not profitable and close them.”

The former governors at Greengate Lane are not the only ones to have felt regret over a decision they no longer have power to reverse. Hobby says he has “from time to time” spoken to people who regretted joining a MAT - sometimes because they made a hasty choice under pressure, or because the leadership or policies of trusts had changed over time.

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also says he has heard of cases where trusts had promised one thing before a school joined, but delivered something else once they were locked in.

Communicate well

For Gillian Allcroft, deputy chief executive of the National Governance Association, “the one thing you have to get through your head when you join is that, once you join that organisation, you are subject to the trust board’s decisions, and what’s in place today may not be in place tomorrow”.

Her worry is that some governors believe things will carry on as normal and that their powers will remain intact. For her, the nature of the change would be clearer if “local governing bodies” were instead known as “committees” of an academy trust.

Currently, an academy can leave a trust only with the agreement of the regional schools commissioner (RSC), and not of their own accord. So, given their lack of legal powers, what should an academy’s local governing body do if it has second thoughts?

Allcroft says that communication is the key - governors should discuss with the trust board why they think they made the wrong decision.

Last year, the government’s Educational excellence everywhere White Paper - which floated the idea of universal academisation - suggested the introduction of a mechanism that would allow academies to choose to leave a trust. It said the Department for Education would “consider how parents might be able to petition RSCs for their child’s school to move to a different MAT where there is underperformance or other exceptional circumstances”.

However, since the document was dropped last autumn, no more has been heard about the proposal.

Hobby says that he would support a way of allowing a school to decide to leave a trust, but struggles to see how it would work in practice. For example, if the school no longer exists as a separate legal entity, would there have to be a residual governing body to make a decision to pull out? Or how would any parental recall option work in practice?

“If you [the MAT] are making some really difficult choices to turn a school around and being strict on uniform or attendance, you are likely to become quite unpopular,” he notes.

“The last thing you want is to face a vote to leave before you have had a chance to turn the school around.”


You need a Tes subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newletters

Already registered? Log in

You need a subscription to read this article

Subscribe now to read this article and get other subscriber-only content, including:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive articles and email newsletters
Most read
Most shared