Go North and multiply, academy sponsors are told

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
They bid for £10m fund to boost expansion in northern regions

The government is trying to tempt more of England’s biggest and most successful academy sponsors to expand in the North, as part of the next stage of its shake-up of the schools system, TES has learned.

Sources have revealed that the Department for Education has begun talks to persuade Ark, which predominantly runs schools in London, to take on struggling schools in the Manchester region. No immediate move is expected from the hedge-fund-backed academy chain. But the policy is already bearing fruit in other areas.

Today, Reach2 – the largest primary-only academy chain with about 50 schools – announced that it had created a new trust, Reach4, which is expected to take on about 20 primaries and secondaries in South Yorkshire in its first year.

Meanwhile, England’s eight regional school commissioners (RSCs) are pushing to be given more control over school improvement funding as the new education landscape takes shape.

Academy chains have been bidding for a share of a £10 million pot of extra Treasury money intended to aid expansion in the North. TES understands that chancellor George Osborne will soon announce that a series of sponsors have been awarded the funding to take over scores of underperforming schools, as part of his “Northern Powerhouse” plan.

Cities such as Manchester and Sheffield are expected to be among the first to benefit. Existing northern chains such as Outwood Grange, which has more than a dozen academies, are also potential suitors for the region’s struggling schools.

Last week, speaking at a summit in the North East, Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw questioned why “so few of the high-performing and well-respected academy chains [have] gained a foothold in this region”.

But the head of a leading academy chain, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were “surprised” that providers were being offered cash to expand in the North. “The move would represent a departure from the DfE’s approach to academy sponsorship over the last few years, which has not been about giving the stronger sponsors more money,” the source said.

And Sir John Townsley, executive headteacher of the Gorse Academies Trust, which has eight schools, questioned whether larger sponsors had the capacity to improve so many schools across such a wide area. “There are one or two who can be big and successful,” he said, “but I think a trust of eight to 12 schools is best in terms of working effectively.”

‘Desperate’ situation

The head of another successful academy chain, who also asked to remain anonymous, described a recent RSC meeting in the North as “pretty desperate” in terms of the calibre and number of available sponsors.

The RSCs now want to have greater say over school improvement funding, particularly as their remit will soon be expanded to oversee so-called “coasting” schools.

“RSCs have been putting up a bit of a fight in terms of having more control over where the school improvement money goes,” a well-placed source said. “If a school goes into special measures, they can’t just spend a couple of grand and send specialists in to take a look. So they are putting pressure on the department to give them a pot of money they can work with to turn schools around.”

An Ark spokesman said the chain had “no immediate” plan to move north but was always interested in helping communities to improve schools.

The Treasury and the DfE were both offered the opportunity to comment.

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