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Education briefing - The Schools White Paper – Key Points for Academy Trusts

  • United Kingdom
  • Education - Briefings


On 28 March 2022 the government published the long awaited Schools White Paper titled ‘Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’. The White Paper comprises of four chapters, with the fourth concentrating on the aim of creating a stronger and fairer school system in England. The government aims to achieve such a system by moving to a “fully trust led system,” so that all schools will be within a strong multi academy trust (“MAT”) by 2030 or with plans to join or form one. Readers will remember that there have been previous government pledges to require all schools to academise by a set deadline. What this White Paper provides is an appraisal of current state of the system with, for the first time, some details around how the government sees its objectives being achieved.

A full analysis of the whole white paper is beyond the scope of this briefing but the key points on academisation can be summarised as follows:

Single academy trusts (“SAT”): will no longer be permitted, although in reality very few SATs have been allowed to come into being in recent years. That said, an allowance is going to be made for high quality 16 to 19 free schools to open, initially as SATs, in areas where they are most needed. How approval mechanisms will work where there is already successful 16 to 19 provision in an area is not specified.

MAT size: is not prescribed within the White Paper, although it does state that MATs typically “start to develop central capacity when they have more than ten schools.” The government is expecting that most MATs will serve a minimum of 7,500 students or run at least ten schools -so the objective is fewer, larger MATs. There is recognition that the government has not systematically supported the strongest performing MATs to grow, nor have they been adequately incentivised to work in areas of the country where they are needed most. Financial incentives and support are proposed. The additional funding is surely welcome. The mechanism by which the funds will be allocated is, however, not specified. Trusts considering operating outwith their locality for the first time will also need to be mindful of the additional challenges of operating over wide geographical areas, particularly if challenging schools are being taken on.

Two other points to note: firstly, the proportion of schools in a local area that can be run by an individual MAT will be limited - presumably to avoid monopolies developing. Secondly, the White Paper states that MATs should have local governance arrangements. Most MATs do generally already have such arrangements in place. Nevertheless, some clarity on what the government considers to be best practice would be helpful to trusts who have found challenges in making local governance effective. Recognising this point, there are to be consultations about the implementation of local governance arrangements with the sector.

Role of the Local Authority: interestingly it is proposed that local authorities will have the ability to establish MATs where too few strong MAT exist. According to the White Paper this will enable “high performing schools with a track record on local partnerships to formalise their relationship and add expertise and capacity to the MAT system”. Permitting local authority MATs may have been regarded as a lever by which to convert a number of schools that have avoided forced academisation and who, so far, have not seen sufficient benefits in relinquishing maintained status. Local authority MATs will apparently be regulated in the same way as any other MATs but it is not clear what exactly the authority’s role will be following their establishment.

As an alternative, a local authority can request that the Secretary of State brings their maintained schools into the academy system where this is part of a local authority’s strategic plan. The White Paper emphasises that local authorities remain at the heart of the system and that they will “coordinate across local services to improve outcomes for children” which will be backed by “new legal powers to match these responsibilities”. What this will actually look like remains to be seen. One can only hope that the changes will provide clarity on the current disjoint between a local authority’s statutory obligations as regards education and how they discharge them in an academy led sector.

Collaboration: there is a proposal for a new collaborative standard requiring MATs to work constructively with each other, local authorities and third sectors. This will require consultation with the sector through wider regulatory review as the details for this collaborative standard are developed. In this new structure, trusts will continue to act as their own admission authorities and will be expected to act inclusively.

Regulation: a single regulatory approach is planned given that the sector that has evolved over the past ten years is acknowledged to be “messy and often confusing” with schools, trusts and local authorities having “unclear - and often overlapping - roles and responsibilities.” The government proposes the creation of new academy trust standards which will aim to bring together new and existing requirements which are currently set out within legislation and funding agreements. New statutory intervention powers will underpin these standards, providing a framework for tackling any MAT which fails to achieve the expected outcomes. A regulatory review is to be launched in May 2022 considering accountability and regulation, including how MATs will be held to account in the future. As part of this the government plans to formally define “strength” in order to allow transparent assessment of MATs.

Church and faith schools: support will also be provided for Church and faith schools when they join or form MATs, with the government to bring forward legislation to ensure that the statutory freedoms and protections that apply to Church and faith maintained schools also apply to academies with religious character.

Education Investment Areas: the White Paper sets out the government’s plans to invest in 55 Education Investment Areas over the remainder of the Parliament. The EIAs are cold spots around the country where literacy and numeracy outcomes are poorest. An investment of up to £86 million over the next three years will be made to strengthen and support the strongest MATs, with particular focus on the EIAs. Support will also be provided for a sub-set of the EIAs, 24 Priority Education Investment Areas which have some of the highest rates of disadvantage in the country - £40 million of additional funding has been pledged to address local needs in these areas.

Regional Directors: will be the new name for Regional School Commissioners, to reflect the new nine Regions Groups that will be created by summer 2022. These Regions Groups will have the aim of bringing together functions currently distributed across the DfE and the ESFA and will be given the task of driving improvements, expanding the reach of the strongest MATs and proactively intervening where MATs are not providing the relevant standards.

Academisation following Ofsted inspections: consultation will shortly take place on the use of Ofsted reports to determine which schools are in need of action. It is proposed that schools that have received two consecutive below ‘Good’ judgements will be moved into MATs. This approach will begin in the EIAs, before being rolled out across the rest of the country.

Training: training and support is proposed for all school staff from trainees up to senior leaders. By way of example, a multi academy trust Chief Executive Officer Development Programme will be launched for established leaders such as executive headteachers and senior staff members. Such a programme will be valuable to the sector in the event that it facilitates the sharing of best practice and provides support for school leaders who have not always benefitted from investment in training as they make the transition into management roles.

The White Paper clearly indicates a number of important changes are on the way for the school system. Many of which are not controversial and are likely to be welcomed. Much of the detail about implementation is not present. Only when this information is available will it be possible to judge the prospects of delivering on the stated goal for all schools to be in a strong multi academy trust or with plans to join or form one by 2030.