Why academy growth is a priority for Zahawi

The deputy CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts outlines why the new education secretary should focus on academies

Steve Rollett

Turning schools into academies: Why academy growth should be a priority for Nadhim Zahawi

The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end” – you may recall that the band Semisonic said it, too, but Seneca got there first.

And so it is that the end of Gavin Williamson’s time as education secretary marks the beginning of Nadhim Zahawi’s tenure. It will be a challenging brief.

Uncertainty remains about the path that the pandemic will take and the potential for further disruption to education – and exams – remains.

And on that point, there are key decisions still to make on exam contingencies and the grade profile.

The importance of academy trusts

Given this, some might say that with so many issues affecting schools at the moment, structures (ie, whether a school is maintained by a local authority or is part of a school trust) are just a distraction.

They’re only half right – the warning holds true only if one takes the view that the structure is the end goal in itself. But to take that view is to expose a misunderstanding of school trusts.

You see, school trusts don’t exist only to exist. They exist to educate children. It’s written into their articles of association that they are there to advance education for the public good.

Indeed, school trusts are leading the way in the very pockets of deprivation that are of most concern to educators and politicians alike. 

The real-world impact 

Take North Shore Academy, for example, whose Ofsted report was published recently. This is a school in an area of significant disadvantage that had been "inadequate" or "requires improvement" for a long time.

It’s now an "outstanding" school under the leadership and support of Northern Education Trust, which used the capacity and expertise that it possesses across the trust to support the school to deliver for its pupils.

Don’t tell the families of Stockton-on-Tees that structures don’t matter. 

Strong school trusts are not simply legal entities, they are knowledge-building institutions. Look at the knowledge about school culture that Dixons is bringing to bear on towns and cities in the North.

Look at what Turner Schools is doing to develop curriculum knowledge across its group of five schools in the South.

These are hive-minds of teaching expertise at opposite ends of the country that are helping to share and operationalise high-quality teaching. The structure of a school trust facilitates the outcome. 

Building on strong foundations

This is something that more teachers, parents and pupils are learning, with more than half of all children and young people already taught in academies.

More than 40 per cent of all state schools are already part of a school trust, with that number growing each month, and, depending on which local authority you are in, that number could be significantly higher.

Given all this, it is perhaps no surprise that we see the way forward for education is for more schools to become part of a school trust.

At our annual Confederation of School Trusts conference in April, then education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the Department for Education wanted more schools to join a school trust because they “are the best structure to enable schools and teachers to deliver consistently good outcomes for all their pupils.”

We look forward to working with the new secretary of state, Nadhim Zawahi, and hope he shares this view.

Finish the reform journey 

We will be arguing that we must now complete the reform journey of supporting all schools into becoming part of a school trust. We won’t be arguing for a definitive date for its completion – that would be rather arbitrary.

We won’t be arguing for school trusts of a particular size, because we know what works in rural Devon might be different to what works in central London.

But we will be saying there is strength in a group. We will be explaining why the robust governance arrangements of a trust, rather than a looser structure, are in the best interests of children. 

Most importantly, like many of you, we know that post-pandemic recovery is a top priority.

We will be arguing that the power of the school trust structure itself will actually help to drive forward recovery over the long term, because that’s what the collaborative nature and range of expertise within school trusts does day-to-day.

We will do this in part by setting out why and how school trusts are already "levelling up" education and opportunity for children in this country. 

In the secretary of state’s new beginning, this matters. 

Steve Rollett is deputy CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts

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