Critics spooked as ‘ghost trusts’ bid to run schools

22nd April 2016 at 00:00
Approving academy sponsors with no track record is an act of ‘desperation’, union leaders warn

The government has approved scores of multi-academy trusts to sponsor underperforming academies despite their not having a single school under their control, TES has learned.

These “ghost trusts” have been created by groups across the country in the hope that they will be approached by the Department for Education to support failing schools.

According to officials, the DfE has approved 111 “unutilised sponsors” through its regional school commissioners (RSCs) since 2014. However, a source within the department said that the number was likely to drop as some trusts were “never used and never will be”.

Teaching union leaders have branded the idea of using the ghost trusts to sponsor schools as “desperate”, raising concerns about their “complete lack of a track record”.


In an exclusive TES interview, Tim Coulson, RSC for the East of England, described the trusts as “sponsors-in-waiting”.

“We have a number of trusts that are effectively would-be sponsors,” Dr Coulson said. “They tend to be schools or trusts that have set themselves up as sponsors, but they haven’t yet found the school for them to join.

“One of the biggest jobs we’ve had in the last 18 months is to say, ‘How do we grow the number of really good sponsors we’ve got?’”

Dr Coulson said that it was more common for RSCs to approach outstanding schools to become sponsors, but sponsors without schools were also approved.

One such sponsor-in-waiting is the West Midlands Academies Trust, which was named as a potential sponsor for the scandal-hit Perry Beeches Academy Trust in Birmingham, despite not running a single school. The trust was in talks with the DfE before Perry Beeches was investigated over its finances.

David Kershaw, a Labour cabinet member of Coventry City Council who heads Midlands Academies, told TES that it was likely to be “sponsor-ready” by January next year.

Another is the Northumbria Academy Trust, which has been established by the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, and is believed to be the first academy sponsor set up by an NHS hospital (see box, below).

The number of sponsors required to take over underperforming schools is expected to soar over the next few years. The Education and Adoption Act, which was passed into law this week, will force every school with an “inadequate” rating from Ofsted to be converted into an academy. This will be followed by the government’s even bolder plans to convert every school to academy status by 2022.

Dr Coulson sought to allay some schools’ concerns about a fully academised system, stating that if they were successful on their own they would not be forced to join a multi-academy trust (MAT).

“Where you are doing good you can remain as a standalone academy,” he said. “In terms of the future, we’re not saying by a certain time we expect you to be a MAT, but what we are saying is your strengths are useful in the system…[so] don’t be surprised if every now and then we come along and try to encourage you to think again.”

‘Leap into the unknown’

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said the government’s decision to approve “ghost trusts” was “desperate”.

“The obvious issue is what track record they have in turning around a failing school,” Dr Bousted added. “If they have never run a school before, what model of education will they adopt? It strikes me as desperation.

“We know [that the government doesn’t] have enough good MATs and so they are moving from established trusts – some of which are successful, many of which are not – to ‘Let’s take a leap into the unknown and use MATs with no experience’. ”

Her comments came in the same week as Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation – one of the country’s most prominent MATs – said that he was reluctant to expand his chain beyond London.

“Many of the good trusts don’t want to expand,” Dr Bousted added. “Because [the government has] these fundamental problems that risk being the fly in the ointment in their policy, they’re now having to take a leap into the unknown. It’s extraordinary.”


Hospital aims to bring its ‘public service ethos’ to education

An academy trust board that is thought to be the first to be led by an NHS hospital has been established in the North East, TES can reveal.

Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust registered the academy trust just before Christmas last year and does not yet run any schools. Northumbria Academy Trust’s directors include Paul Dunn, the NHS trust’s deputy chief executive, and Claire Riley, its director of communications and corporate affairs.

Ms Riley said the aim was to form a multi-academy trust that would bring the hospital’s “strong performance management” record and “public service ethos” to the education sector. It would help to support children interested in a career in healthcare, and carry out work to improve their health and wellbeing, she added.

The trust had wanted to set up a board quickly, so that it could take on schools as soon as this was approved by the RSC, Ms Riley said. However, its contracting plan with nearby outstanding schools to offer school improvement services was rejected, and it is now working on a new governance arrangement.

Candidate for chief inspector

As Sir Michael Wilshaw prepares to stand down, Tim Coulson, RSC for the East of England, has been tipped as a contender for Ofsted’s top job. But asked if he would change anything about the inspectorate, Dr Coulson was evasive. “We find the stuff we get from Ofsted very helpful,” he said. “Up to now we’ve been following up reports on academies, but we’re now beginning to talk about the poorest maintained schools and the extent to which we use any powers with them. Our relationship with Ofsted works very well.”

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