This guidance is for senior leaders, trustees and governors of local-authority maintained schools and single academy trusts in England as they consider the future of their school in a system likely to consist largely of academies in multi-academy trusts (MATs). It is designed to help school leaders, trustees and governors to better understand the current policy landscape, to consider their options and to make the best long-term decision for their school.
This paper links to two other guidance papers: Staying in Control of your School’s Destiny: joining a multi-academy trust and Staying in Control of your School’s Destiny: forming a multi-academy trust (both publishing December 2016).
This paper will look in more detail at the following:
The national context for schools in England is changing at a rapid pace. As more schools convert to academy status, the role that local authorities play in providing school improvement and other services is decreasing, and schools are increasingly looking to each other for support and challenge.
The white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, published in March 2016, set out the government’s vision for a fully academised system and their ambition that, by the end of 2022, all schools would be academies. Crucially, the white paper also proposed that most schools would form or join MATs (groups of academies under a single governance structure). This would, according to the white paper, enable “schools to operate in strong, resilient structures that work to drive up standards so that external intervention is only necessary in exceptional circumstances”1, and allow “proven educational models to be scaled and the system’s best leaders to run more than one school”2.
Much has changed in the short period since Educational Excellence Everywhere was published. Responding to concerns about the compulsory elements of these proposals, the government announced a few weeks later that it would not legislate to bring about the blanket conversion of all schools. And of course, we now have a new Prime Minister and a new Secretary of State for Education who have moved quickly to propose some far-reaching changes to the education system, including an expansion of selective schools.
There is nothing, however, in these more recent developments that suggests a change of direction on academisation and school partnerships (though the 2022 deadline appears to have been dropped). While the government may have had second thoughts on the mechanism by which it planned to achieve full academisation, it did so while reaffirming its “continued determination to see all schools to become academies”.
In the consultation document Schools that work for everyone, Theresa May and Justine Greening stated categorically that their new proposals “complement our wider approach to school improvement and our drive to build capacity in the system through MATs”, making it clear that it “remains the Government’s ambition that all schools ultimately benefit from the autonomy and freedom to innovate and to meet the needs of their community that academy status brings, and we will be supporting schools to make this transition”. And in her speech to the Conversative party conference in October 2016, the secretary of state praised the ‘academy reforms’ of her predecessors, and committed to build on these by encouraging schools to work together, with “great schools helping others to get better too”.
The government thinks that, to quote the white paper, “a system in which all state-funded schools are academies will deliver better results for children through:
a) empowering great teachers and leaders – autonomy and accountability will better position people to succeed and provide more effective leadership structures
b) better responding to changes in performance – the system will prioritise responsiveness and clear accountability over an arbitrary requirement for all schools in a local area to be run by the same entity, regardless of its effectiveness
c) sustainability – schools will operate in more sustainable groups, and we will end the dual system of running schools which is inefficient and unsustainable in the long term
d) a new role for local authorities – local authorities will move away from maintaining schools and focus on championing pupils and parents”3
There is no evidence to suggest that academisation in itself leads to better outcomes for children and young people. There is, however, an increasing body of evidence4 that formal collaborations between schools, particularly those in federations or MATs where collaboration is consolidated through cross-school governance arrangements and shared accountability, can bring substantial benefits. These include the following:
Shared accountability can lead to better progress and attainment for pupils, and help schools meet rising expectations.
School leaders and teachers can share thinking and planning to spread expertise and tackle challenges together.
Governors and trustees can work more strategically, especially during challenging times.
School leaders, teachers and other staff can be shared across more than one school, enabling schools to find different solutions to recruitment challenges, to retain staff by providing new opportunities within the group and to plan succession more effectively.
Groups of schools can find it easier to find and fund specialist expertise (both specialist teachers and specialists in areas such as data analysis, finance, health and safety), and provide richer curricular and extra-curricular activities.
Shared professional development can more easily be arranged, whether led by staff from one of the partner schools or an outside body.
At the time of writing (September 2016), the most up-to-date information is as follows:
28% of schools are academies or free schools (21% of primaries and 67% of secondaries).
The language used to describe different school types, forms of collaboration and bodies with an oversight role in the state sector in England can be confusing. This section sets out to define these terms, before moving on to consider specific collaborative models.
Types of school
Maintained schools are overseen, or ‘maintained’, by the local authority (LA). Maintained schools must follow the National Curriculum and national teacher pay and conditions. There are four main types of maintained school:
Community schools: the LA (through the school’s governing body) employs the staff, owns the land and buildings and determines the admissions arrangements.
Foundation or trust schools: the governing body employs the staff and sets admissions criteria. The land and buildings are usually owned by the governing body or a charity.
Voluntary aided (VA) schools: set up and owned by a voluntary board, usually a church board, largely financed by the LA. The governing board employs the staff and controls pupil admissions and religious education. The school’s buildings and land (apart from playing fields) will normally be owned by a diocese or charitable foundation.
Voluntary controlled (VC) schools: nearly all VC schools are Church of England (C of E) schools. They are funded and run by the LA. The LA employs the staff and sets admissions criteria. The C of E may own some of the land and buildings, and usually forms a quarter of the governing body.
Academies are publicly funded schools, independent of the local authority, and held accountable through a legally binding funding agreement with the Department for Education (DfE). Staff are employed by the academy trust. Academies have more control over curriculum design and staff pay and conditions. There are three different routes to becoming an academy:
Sponsored academies: Underperforming maintained schools taken out of local authority oversight and given to an academy sponsor to provide support in improving pupil achievement and attainment. The first academies were all sponsored academies. Examples of sponsors include other schools, universities, businesses, individuals, charities and faith communities. While early sponsors were initially asked to provide schools with financial support, the role is now primarily based on providing school improvement support.
Converter academies: These are schools deemed by the DfE as performing sufficiently well that they can choose to opt out of LA oversight and become an academy (either on their own or as part of a MAT).
Free schools: Free schools are essentially new academies, and this is now the only way in which new schools can be created. Free schools can be set up by groups such as charities (including MATs), universities, community and faith groups, parents or businesses. Sometimes these groups are invited to tender to set up a new school by a local authority as a way of meeting the need for more school places in their area.
Types of collaboration
A federation is where a number of maintained schools come together with formalised cross-school governance under one governing body. Historically, the term ‘hard federation’ has sometimes been used for groups with a formalised single governing body, and ‘soft federation’ for more informal partnerships in which schools retain separate governing bodies. The legal definition of a federation is based on the former, where “at least two governing bodies propose to federate”, thus forming one governing body.
Federations have much in common with MATs. Indeed much of the existing research showing the benefits of formal collaboration is based on the advantages of being part of a small and local federation. The main differences are that federations don’t need to be set up as charitable companies, and they continue to be overseen by their local authority. While the government preference is clearly for schools to join in formal partnership as part of a MAT, federation continues to be a valid option for maintained schools wishing to come together.
Joining or forming a MAT can seem like a huge challenge for schools, especially where they have not previously worked in close collaboration with other schools and are anxious about formal collaboration. Schools can potentially access the benefits of a formalised group by federating before they take the more complicated and permanent step of converting to academy status and either forming or joining a MAT. This can enable governors and school leaders to focus on forming relationships between schools without having to focus on the legal costs and pressures of forming a MAT.
This approach will not necessarily be right for everyone, and the government, for now at least, is continuing to reaffirm its “continued determination to see all schools become academies”. For this reason, the rest of this paper concentrates on MATs. School leaders and governors wishing to find out more about federation can do so via the in-depth guidance contained in the NGA 2016 Federations Q&A in the Federations section of the NGA Guidance Centre.
Academies can operate as standalone schools (known as single academy trusts or SATs), or as part of a group of academies within a MAT. In either case, the academy trust is a charitable company (of a particular type, known as an ‘exempt charity’ as they are not registered by the Charities Commission), which enters into a legally binding agreement (called a funding agreement) with the DfE to run the school(s).
It is important to recognise that, although a MAT is responsible for more than one school, it is a single organisation. Being part of a MAT therefore brings an intrinsic change to the accountability structure of its individual schools which, despite retaining their own DfE number, no longer exist as an individual legal entity.
Academies are accountable to their trust board, which is in turn accountable to the Secretary of State for Education. This oversight is exercised through the National Schools Commissioner and eight Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs). The RSCs’ responsibilities include taking action when an academy is underperforming, making recommendations to the DfE on new free school applications and brokering agreements between underperforming maintained schools and academy sponsors.
As charitable companies, academy trusts, whether SATs or MATs, are required to agree and abide by memorandum and articles of association based on a model prepared by the DfE. These are legal documents that set out the governance composition and procedures for the trust.
Academy trusts are required to have at least two groups of people to govern the trust (members and trustees) and an executive leader. Some also choose to create additional committees to focus on specific issues or schools.
This section should be read in conjunction with the Academies Financial Handbook, which sets out in more detail the financial framework for academy trusts, reflecting their status as companies, charities and public bodies.
The members of the trust
When the trust is established, the signatories to the memorandum are the first members of the trust (usually there will be between three and five members). The role of members is significant, as they act as the guardians of the governance of the trust. They are responsible for agreeing the trust’s first articles of association and approving any future changes. They are usually able to appoint a number of the trustees.
The members will, in a hands-off manner, monitor the work of the trust (including through reviewing its yearly audited accounts and annual report). If the trust is underperforming, and therefore not fulfilling its purpose, the members may choose to appoint different or additional trustees.
While members are allowed to also be trustees, the number that take on both roles should be limited to deliver clear differentiation between these two distinct layers of governance. This separation of powers is an important part of the objectivity of the group, to avoid power becoming concentrated in the hands of a small number of people.
The board of trustees
The board of trustees is the accountable body of the trust, and is responsible for the conduct and standards of all the schools within it. The board must fulfil the following three core governance functions, as described in the Governance Handbook:
Ensure clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction.
Hold the executive to account for the educational performance of the schools and their pupils, and the performance management of staff.
Oversee the financial performance of the trust and make sure its money is well spent.
The senior executive leader
The Academies Financial Handbook makes it clear that all academy trusts must have a senior executive leader, and that this should be a permanent role, not a rotating one (ie proposals for models in which, for example, leaders in the trust each take on the role of senior executive leader for a year at a time will not be approved). This person should also be nominated as the trust’s ‘accounting officer’, a role which includes personal responsibility for the financial resources under the trust’s control.
This is relatively straightforward in single academy trusts. Most of these, like most maintained schools, have a single headteacher or principal supported by a senior leadership team. The only real difference is that in an academy, the headteacher or principal also becomes the trust’s accounting officer.
Within the parameters set out above, MATs can adopt a number of different leadership structures. In a small MAT, for example, the senior executive leader can retain the role of substantive head of one of the schools alongside their role as CEO or executive head of the trust:
In other situations, the senior executive leader may be the substantive head of all the schools in the MAT, with day-to-day responsibility delegated to heads of school:
Academy trusts may choose to establish additional committees to support the main board, and to which they can delegate some functions. There are two main types of committee: board level committees (which focus on issues such as standards or resources across the trust as a whole5) and school-based committees (which focus on issues specific to an individual academy). MATs with an annual income over £50 million must have a dedicated audit committee at board level (smaller MATs may choose to include the functions of an audit committee within its main board or another committee).
School-based committees are often known as local governing bodies, but they do not govern in the way that maintained school governors do because they are committees of the main board, rather than governing bodies in their own right. In the models 1 to 4, we refer to such committees as ‘academy committees’.
All MATs are required to produce and publish a ‘scheme of delegation’ which outlines what decisions are taken by whom, and at what level of the organisation.
Leadership and governance models
The National Governors’ Association has produced the following model leadership and governance structures, which schools might find useful. These are by no means exhaustive, but demonstrate some common approaches. Any scheme should be adapted for your own situation.
In every case, the responsibility for the actual performance of all the academies within the trust is delegated to the senior executive leader. However, it is important to remember that, while responsibility has been delegated, the board of trustees remains accountable for the trust’s overall performance. The senior executive leader of the trust, whether called a CEO or an executive head, is therefore managed by the chair of the trust, and held to account by the trust board.
Model leadership and governance structure 1
In this model the board of trustees has established board-level committees which focus on standards and resources across the trust as a whole. They have also chosen to delegate some functions to academy committees. These functions may include panel work (eg reviewing exclusions), monitoring the implementation of policies, monitoring standards and budgets, being consulted on trust-wide issues and feeding back to the trust on local issues.
Model leadership and governance structure 2
In this model, the board has chosen to establish school-level advisory councils, rather than academy committees. As the name suggests, these councils are wholly advisory, with their role focused on monitoring, although they may influence decision-making by acting as the eyes and ears of the school community.
As in Model 1, headteachers are line-managed by the CEO.
Model leadership and governance structure 3
In this model, for larger MATs, some of the governance functions (as described in Model 1) are delegated to a regional or cluster committee. Executive principals have been appointed to lead each cluster. The headteachers of each school report to one of the executive principals, and the executive principals to the CEO.
Model leadership and governance structure 4
It is also possible (and often desirable) to have different approaches to schools within a group, as shown in model 4. This provides an opportunity for the board of trustees to delegate more decision-making to high-performing schools than to struggling schools (sometimes referred to as an ‘earned autonomy’ or ‘asymmetrical local governance’ model).
In this example, the trust has been divided into two groups of schools. The schools in the group on the left have less delegated decision-making authority, with headteachers reporting to an executive principal and advisory boards with no delegated school-level governance functions. The schools in the group on the right have more delegated decision-making authority, with headteachers potentially reporting directly to the CEO, and local governing committees to which some functions have been delegated.
While there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for MATs, there is a growing body of evidence around how the most effective MATs operate. Each of these will be explored in more detail in the linked guidance papers Staying in Control of your School’s Destiny: joining a multi-academy trust and Staying in Control of your School’s Destiny: forming a multi-academy trust. However, drawing on this evidence and our own experience of working with MATs, the following characteristics emerge:
Vision, ethos and strategic plan
Successful MATs have:
a shared ethos and vision, which is focused on achieving the best possible outcomes for the children and young people in the MAT as a whole. This vision is clearly understood by, and embodied within, the schools in the trust. The main focus of the board of trustees is on the outcomes for pupils across the MAT
a clear strategy for delivering their vision. Any growth is in line with this plan, with carefully planned expansion taking into account capacity based not just on the number of schools, but primarily on the number of pupils within the trust
a limited number of non-negotiables (these may relate, for example, to floor standards or aspects of behaviour) that are understood by all
a culture of continuous review, adapting their strategy as events demand, recognising that they are part of an evolving system and seeing adaption not as failure but as a timely response to change in context and an opportunity to move on from outdated and ineffective structures and ways of working
the ability to recognise that their trust is part of a wider local and national education system, and a commitment to working for the good of all pupils, not just those in their schools
Diversity and geography
Successful MATs have:
a diverse group of schools. While there are examples of successful groups which specialise in particular types of schools, many MATs benefit from the experience and opportunity afforded by including both primary and secondary schools, special schools, schools with different socio-economic intakes, as just some of many possibilities
considered carefully the time and distance between schools. There is evidence to suggest that groups of schools within close geographical proximity are able to more effectively utilise the benefits of collaboration such as sharing staff and enabling staff to move between schools. Smaller MATs can achieve this by focusing exclusively on a particular area; larger MATs will often build local ‘hubs’ of geographically close schools, with a designated layer of governance and oversight
The right people with the right skills in the right roles
Successful MATs have:
diverse trustee boards with a range of skills, experience and views, the time and attitudes to govern well and a commitment to self-development
a clear understanding of the significant differences between governing a maintained school and governing an academy trust
appointed trustees and executive leaders with expertise in finance and commerce
a clear leadership structure, understood by all, with a single point of accountability and strong, distributed leadership below the senior executive leader
a strong commitment to developing staff, using the benefits of being part of a larger group to talent-spot individuals, move staff around schools within the group and retain strong staff through providing ongoing opportunities. There is a clear succession plan for the key posts within the MAT
School improvement and support
Successful MATs have:
a trust-wide school improvement strategy that recognises, in a timely manner, the different interventions needed by schools at different stages on the improvement journey
a systematic programme of school-to-school support that is focused on the needs of individual academies and which is quality assured for both quality and impact
Successful MATs have:
a clear framework for governance that makes the responsibilities of the members, the trust board, the executive leader and any academy committees explicit
clear performance management arrangements that ensure all staff understand how their role contributes towards how the trust achieves its vision, and are held to account accordingly
a real commitment to transparency and to building a culture of openness
Successful MATs have:
clear quality assurance systems which improve consistency and performance
a board which manages risk effectively, and balances risk and opportunity appropriately and effectively
Successful MATs have:
Whether to convert to academy status, to form or join a MAT or federation and, if so, with whom, are big decisions for any school governing board. And they are decisions that, once implemented, are either impossible or very difficult to reverse. There is no mechanism for an academy to revert to being a maintained school again, and moving from one MAT to another (generally known as re-brokering) is currently only possible if the RSC agrees.
The path to the right decision will be different for every school. Our work with hundreds of schools that have embarked on this journey, however, suggests that a process along the following lines can help to scaffold decision-making. Your discussions will undoubtedly be less linear and more iterative than this process implies, but most schools find the overall structure helpful.
Step 1: Horizon-scan: make time to discuss the changing landscape and the implications for your school at a full governing board meeting
Some trustees and governors will undoubtedly be more familiar with education policy and research than others. You might find it useful to share some of the information in this paper with them in advance. Questions you might want to explore in the meeting include:
What is our vision for our school?
What will be our biggest challenges in delivering that vision over the next few years?
How is this likely to be impacted by our funding?
Might partnering with other schools help?
What opportunities might this create?
What concerns do we have about this?
What might happen if we did nothing?
Are there other local schools that we might like to work more closely with, or existing MATs that we might consider joining?
What restrictions might there be on our school partnering with others?
Step 2: Set up a working group of interested governors and staff to explore possibilities
This group can:
research and identify different options open to you
consider the pros and cons of these options
consult bodies with authority over your school, such as your local authority and, for schools with a religious character, your diocese
meet potential partners, discuss whether they might be interested in partnering with you and, if appropriate, start to consider what a partnership might look like
consult informally with key stakeholders, including staff, pupils, parents and the wider community, to explore their views on possible options
You may wish to include your business manager in this group to provide input on how the ‘business’ of managing a school will change.
Step 3: Convene a full governing board meeting for the working group to report back on its work and to agree your preferred way forward
The agenda might include:
a presentation of the group’s findings, followed by an opportunity for questions
a recommendation on the way forward, with an explanation of the likely implications for pupils, parents, staff and governors
an explanation of why the group thinks this would be the best decision for your school
time for discussion and debate
There are six likely outcomes of this decision-making process. You might decide to:
stay as you are for now, see how things develop in your area, and revisit the discussion later
work more closely with other like-minded schools, with a view to possibly partnering with them at some point in the future
(For maintained schools) seek to convert to academy status as a single academy trust, with a view to possibly converting to a MAT and inviting other schools to join you later
seek to convert to academy status (if you’re currently a maintained school) and join an existing MAT
seek to convert to academy status (if you’re currently a maintained school) and set up a new MAT with other schools
seek to convert to academy status (if you’re currently a maintained school) and set up an ‘empty’ or ‘shadow’ MAT on your own, with the potential to sponsor other schools or invite other schools to join it later
The final decision on whether a school will be permitted to undertake any of options 3 to 6 above will be taken by your Regional Schools Commissioner. It’s worth bearing in mind that they won’t approve all applications, and that new single academy trusts or ‘empty’ MATs are now rarely being approved. The RSCs will take many factors into account when making a decision, and there are no set criteria used to do so. The following observations may, however, be helpful.
A school in an Ofsted category below ‘good’, or which has performance below the floor standard and/or within the ‘coasting’ definition, is highly unlikely to be able to convert as a single academy trust or an ‘empty’ MAT. In addition, if a school in this position plans to join an existing MAT or form a new MAT with other schools, the RSC will want to feel confident in the capacity of that MAT to support the school to improve. In some cases, the RSC may direct an underperforming school to join a particular MAT, or be sponsored by a particular sponsor, though they should always be willing to listen to a compelling alternative proposal.
A small school is unlikely to be judged as having sufficient capacity to convert as a single academy trust or an ‘empty’ MAT. For this purpose, ‘small’ is often used to mean schools with fewer than 1200 pupils. Groups of schools seeking to form a MAT which collectively have fewer than this number of pupils are also unlikely to be viewed as sustainable in the long term by the RSC, though they won’t necessarily be expected to reach this number immediately. Equally, when forming a MAT you will need to think about size and sustainability in terms of numbers of pupils across the MAT as a whole. Two large secondary schools each with 2000 pupils is very different to having five small primary schools with just 100 pupils in each
A school with a current or predicted deficit budget, or which is deemed lacking in financial expertise, is highly unlikely to be able to convert as a single academy trust or an ‘empty’ MAT. Schools in this situation seeking to form or join a MAT will need to talk to their RSC about how they can do so in a way which is fair both to them and to their new partners. The RSC will expect to see a credible recovery plan to address the deficit before approving the proposed change.
The DfE has agreed memoranda of understanding with both the Church of England and the Catholic Church which determine what options are available to schools with these religious characters. These documents include a great deal of detail, but the main message is that, in the vast majority of cases, Catholic schools will only be permitted to form or join Catholic-led trusts, and CofE schools will only be permitted to form or join trusts “with governance arrangements that reflect, at member and director level, no dilution of the level of church governance and involvement as it was immediately prior to conversion”. In most cases, for voluntary controlled CofE schools wishing to join MATs, this means the church will require a minimum of 25% representation among the MAT’s members and trustees. It is expected that voluntary aided CofE schools will usually join church-led MATs.
Schools interested in either joining an existing MAT or forming a new MAT can find detailed advice on the next steps they’ll need to take in the joint ASCL, NGA and Browne Jacobson guidance papers: Staying in Control of your School’s Destiny: joining a multi-academy trust and Staying in Control of your School’s Destiny: forming a multi-academy trust.
This section lists additional useful information and documents.
National Governors Association (NGA), Information on federations
DfE, Governance handbook
House of Commons Education Committee, Schools Partnerships and Cooperation
House of Commons Education Committee, Academies and Free Schools
1 Department for Education, Educational Excellence Everywhere, p.16
2 Department for Education, ibid, p. 57
3 Department for Education, ibid, p. 55
4 eg House of Commons Education Committee: School Partnerships and Cooperation, House of Commons Education Committee: Academies and free schools, and Ofsted: Leadership of more than one school and NGA: The Road to Federation
5 Some MATs also have to have an audit committee at this level, depending on their annual income.