Don't force schools into big academy chains, DfE told

By John Roberts on 23 March 2021

Governors challenge the DfE on whether it wants all multi-academy trusts to be big in the future

The Department for Education is being urged to consider moving more schools into smaller academy trusts rather than taking the “easy option” of brokering them into larger “better known” multi-academy trusts (MATs).

This call has been made in a new report from the National Governance Association, which says regional schools commissioners should be open to considering smaller trusts as a “first destination MAT” when looking for organisations to take on academies.

NGA chief executive Emma Knights has also challenged the department to set out what its long-term aim for multi-academy trusts is and asked whether the government wants all MATs to be big in future.

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Ms Knights was responding to comments by education secretary Gavin Williamson, who said he wanted “far more” schools in MATs by 2025.

She said: "We are challenging the DfE to engage in discussions about where they want the sector to end up. Is this latest announcement a bit of tidying up after [former education secretary] Michael Gove’s original conversion of single schools, or can we have an evidence-based discussion as to whether their aim is to end up with every MAT a large MAT?

Big academy chains 'can seem very distant'

"Although there is a school-led system, individual trusts are unlikely to consider the sustainability of the whole system – and even if they do, they have little influence upon it. Their legal responsibility is for the education of their pupils and not for other children and young people in their communities, but we can urge moral purpose.”

The report notes that MAT expansion is more likely to take place in larger trusts.

In the NGA's annual survey, 42 per cent of respondents reported that their MAT had grown in size within the past year, and those that reported expansion tended to be larger already (running more than 10 schools).

An NGA spokesperson said: "Over half of pupils are now educated in MATs and the communities served vary significantly from MAT to MAT, and sometimes from school to school within a trust, especially larger and more dispersed trusts.

"There remains a concern in some communities that large MATs headquartered elsewhere can seem very distant with little or no local input into decision making.

"As a MAT grows, the distance between the board of trustees who make decisions about the schools and those most affected by the decisions widens.

"The report suggests that large MATs that have dispersed clusters of schools could enable them to ‘float off’ as a new, separate MAT when they are stable and well-led to provide smaller, autonomous MATs that fit their local context. This should mean trusts can better serve local communities and engage in civic life, improving local knowledge and local accountability.

"The report also calls upon regional schools commissioners – with the help of their headteacher boards – to examine the local economy for schools, and proactively work with smaller trusts and consider them first as a destination MAT for schools being brokered and re-brokered, rather than defaulting to expanding larger trusts."

The DfE has been contacted for comment.