Dear Mr Johnson, Mr Corbyn and Ms Swinson,
The Green Party launched its manifesto yesterday. I make no comment on the content other than to correct the erroneous assertion that schools are run by private companies. Instead, I offer this open letter in a bid to correct the many wrong assumptions about academies and multi-academy trusts. It is more important now than ever, in this pre-election period, that we are clear and factual.
Academy trusts are not private companies or profit-making businesses
Academy trusts are in fact education charities (charitable companies) that are set up purely for the purpose of running and improving schools. Trustees have strict duties under charity law and company law. Trustees hold public office – they do not run the trust for "private" interest but are required to advance education for public benefit. They are required to uphold the principles of public life.
Sponsors, trustees and/or members cannot make profits
As education charities, academy trusts are not allowed to make profits or distribute profits to trustees or members. All surpluses are invested into the front line to improve the quality of education.
Academy trusts are highly accountable
Academy trusts are held to account to a higher standard than maintained schools. The obligation of transparency and accountability is much greater than maintained schools. They are held to account by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), Ofsted and regional schools commissioners.
They are required to have an independent audit annually and to publish their accounts. They are also required to disclose pay in thresholds. If the ESFA investigates a trust, the investigation report is published on the government’s website. There is no similar requirement on local authorities to publish investigation reports or disclose headteacher pay.
Academy trusts are part of state-funded education
Like any other state school, academies are free to attend, inspected in the same way, and children take the same tests and exams. Academy trusts are state-funded – parents do not pay fees. They operate in accordance with their funding agreement with the Secretary of State.
More than half of pupils in England – 3.8 million – are educated in academy schools. This is seven in 10 secondary pupils and three in 10 primary pupils.
Land is not passed into ‘private’ ownership and trusts need permission to sell land – just like maintained schools
Academy trusts can have various tenure types, but most hold their sites on long leases from the local authority, for a nominal charge. There are controls on the disposal of academy and maintained-school publicly funded land. The Secretary of State’s permission is required for the disposal of publicly funded school land or school land that has been enhanced at public expense.
Academy trusts have the same legal responsibilities as maintained schools towards children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
Academy trusts are subject to most of the same direct statutory duties as maintained mainstream schools, in respect of children with SEND.
As such, mainstream academies must:
- Have regard to the statutory SEND Code of Practice.
- Use their best endeavours to make sure a child with SEND gets the support they need.
- Designate a qualified teacher to be the Sendco.
- Cooperate with the local authority in respect of the child.
- Admit a child where the school is named on that child’s education, health and care plan.
- Ensure that children, young people and their families are involved in decision making and planning.
Academy trusts must comply with the same law on admissions as maintained schools
The Department for Education’s model funding agreement for mainstream academies requires them to comply in full with the DfE school admissions code and the law relating to admissions.
So, why are trusts a good thing?
Trusts are specialist organisations set up to run and improve schools – this is why it is clearer to talk about school trusts rather than academy trusts. There are very clear lines of accountability in the school trust model.
Many academies now work together in a group of schools as one entity to improve and maintain high educational standards across the group. Where a trust runs a group of schools, it has the power to create a collaborative framework.
A group of schools working together in a single entity can do lots of things that are harder for standalone schools to do:
- Teachers work and learn together to improve the way they teach.
- Schools share practices that make a difference to the quality of teaching.
- Teachers and leaders can work together on the things that matter – such as curriculum and assessment.
- Failing schools can improve – only one in 10 schools that were required to join a trust were judged "good" or "outstanding" before they converted, compared with almost seven in 10 after they joined a trust (of those that had been inspected).
- It is more possible for teachers and leaders to move to another school to help improve the quality of education where that school is struggling – and these moves are more likely to be to schools with more disadvantaged pupils.
- It is more possible to be efficient – and thereby to invest money in supporting pupils to have wider opportunities.
School trusts are new civic structures
In summary, school trusts are new civic structures. Let’s work together across the civic landscape, including local government, to ensure the value of the child in society and the quality of education in every single locality in England.
Let’s not cast aspersions and trade in mistruths. Education is just too important.
Leora Cruddas is the CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts