Creating the perfect mix - leading and governing groups of schools

11 May 2015

Hard partnerships between schools are likely to proliferate in the next few years so what basic principles should they be built on? Leora Cruddas explains ASCL’s guidance.

In the current economic climate, we will need to think seriously about sustainable school structures and groupings. ASCL has said very clearly that a new government will need to move quickly – very early in the new term of Parliament – to sort out a National Fair Funding Formula.

However, we need to do our part. The ASCL blueprint advises that schools will need to develop a shadow financial model that calculates and then demonstrates the minimum cost of providing a good education for all students. So you would model a curriculum, based on a set of design principles, to provide a good education for all, and then cost it.

If school leaders are to stay in control of the school’s destiny, then serious consideration will probably need to be given to forming or joining a formal partnership. We cannot and should not expect government to continue to fund the status quo.

So, formal partnerships of schools in the form of multi-academy trusts (MATs) and hard federations may offer a solution. But this is not just a financial imperative. There is now evidence that formal partnerships make the most difference in relation to improving outcomes. This is, at least in part, because of the clarity of the accountability arrangements.

I should state at the outset that, in a self-improving system, soft federations such as teaching school alliances also have an essential role to play. These kinds of alliances help to build system capacity.

So, both hard and soft partnerships are necessary in a self-improving system. Both types of partnerships have the scale and capacity to take on system roles that individual schools cannot always do, like the capacity for initial teacher education, sustainable professional learning within and across schools, and research and development.

The benefits of hard partnerships

Hard partnerships in the form of federations and multi-academy trusts have the following benefits:

  • financial sustainability and efficiency

  • clear accountability for school improvement

  • stronger governance

  • support to other schools who cannot or do not wish to convert independently

  • a profession-led response to addressing weak provision in the system

To help school leaders consider why and how to set up a hard partnership, ASCL has produced guidance on leading and governing groups of schools, jointly published with the National Governors Association (NGA) and Browne Jacobson (law firm). The guidance is for headteachers and principals, senior leaders, governors and trustees who are considering growing their stand-alone academy trust and/or establishing a multi-academy trust or federation. It is intended to be a general guide, not a comprehensive list covering every consideration.

The guidance is set out in six sections. The first outlines the rationale for converting a stand-alone academy trust or establishing a multi-academy trust or federation. Section two contains general information about governance, including academy governance. It explains the roles and responsibilities of members and trustees. It also gives information about the roles of governors, the skills required and principles of public life and the importance of the chair. It is not specific to multi-academy trusts or federations but is necessary general knowledge underpinning governance.

Governance in groups of schools is a different affair from governance of single schools. Section three provides an overview of the regulations and legal frameworks for multi-academy trusts and federations. It gives a description of the characteristics of different types of MATs and sample governance structures. It also outlines the size and stages of growth of a MAT. For completeness, it outlines umbrella trust configurations but it should be noted that, in the current climate, umbrella trusts are unlikely to get approval. The Department for Education’s (DfE’s) preferred model is the MAT model, even for large groups.

Leadership models in federations and MATs are dealt with in section four, which contains information about executive leadership. It differentiates between the executive head and the chief executive officer (CEO). Models of executive leadership are offered. The role of the executive head/CEO as the accounting officer is outlined.

Section five starts with an exploration of vision and values. It includes advice for governing boards about setting the strategy. It prompts boards to consider their motivation, capability and capacity to grow. But there are some absolutely key decisions that leaders and governors will need to take. This section outlines the decisions related to the business and growth model, professional and pedagogical models, people and leadership, governance and delegation. It concludes by offering just one approach to delegation, which should not be viewed as normative or prescriptive.

Section six is the ‘how-to’ section. It offers guidance on how to convert your trust and the actions you need to take to change your existing stand-alone trust into a MAT. It offers a definition of sponsorship and outlines how you become an approved sponsor. Crucially, it offers guidance on due diligence – the activities that it is essential to carry out before signing a contract. You will want to ensure that you understand exactly what you are acquiring and that the transferring body has the legal right to transfer such assets. You will wish to know the full extent of any liabilities for which you will become responsible.

There are two version of the guidance – a shorter version that sets out the principles in linear text and a longer version using a ‘presentation-style’ format. We are keen to receive feedback from members as to which of these versions is the more helpful. The presentation format is available on request as a PowerPoint should members wish to use it with staff or governors.

Leora Cruddas is ASCL Director of Policy.


A vision set in 2020

Schools are now funded sufficiently, equitably and sustainably. In the period before 2015, school funding was distributed inequitably. Some schools and groups of schools faced financial failure.

The new government acted quickly in 2015 to work with the profession to develop and implement a national fair funding formula, which incorporated weighted funding for disadvantage, was equitable at the point of delivery, and was sufficient and sustainable. It was not easy – there were winners and losers – but it was done fairly and it was carefully planned and implemented over a three-year period.

In 2015, formal partnerships of schools in the form of MATs and federations began to proliferate quickly. This was an explicit feature of the drive to subsidiarity and based on the evidence that formal partnerships make the most difference.

Formal partnerships also have the scale and capacity to take on system roles which individual schools cannot always do, like the capacity for initial teacher education, sustainable professional learning within and across schools, and research and development.

However, the problem of scale and sustainability of small stand-alone institutions, particularly small primary schools, in a tightening fiscal climate was unresolved. Schools had to make some changes. Small schools (both primary and secondary) realised that they were not sustainable as stand-alone institutions – whether local authority maintained schools, academies, foundation, voluntary-aided or controlled. Schools are now in sustainable formal partnerships, be that MATs or federations, single phase and cross-phase.

This is an extract from ASCL’s blueprint for a self-improving system.