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Trust leaders determined to grow this year, despite multitude of barriers

  • 78% of trust leaders surveyed say their trust is planning to grow this year
  • Yet most say they have experienced barriers to growth including ‘reluctance of schools to academise’ (48%) and schools needing to prioritise dealing with the impact of COVID-19 (42%)
  • Trust leaders’ growth plans driven by desire to ‘to allow more children to benefit from our work’ (76%)

Friday 4th March 2022:  In new findings released today by The Key, the majority (78%) of trust leaders surveyed say they are planning to grow their trust in 2022.

However, the process is proving far from straightforward, with only 9% of respondents reporting that their trust has not faced any barriers to expansion over the last 12 months. What’s more, a third of leaders surveyed (33%) reported they are finding it ‘difficult’ (25%) or ‘very difficult’ (8%) to attract new schools.

When asked about barriers to growth, leaders most commonly cited ‘reluctance of schools to academise’ (48%), ‘schools needing to prioritise dealing with the impact of the pandemic’ (42%) and ‘lack of capacity in the central team’ (35%). This highlights the complexity of the landscape that trust leaders are having to navigate in a bid to pursue their growth plans.

One trust leader commented:  “Without intervention from central or local government, good and outstanding headteachers – in schools with good reserves – see no reason to upset the apple cart and change the current structure.”

Another leader commented, “We are finding that non-academy schools are reluctant to discuss academisation .… when staff are exhausted and struggling due to COVID staff absence.” 

However, while we might naturally assume that the pandemic has hit trusts’ plans to grow negatively, this hasn’t necessarily been the case. While 40% of survey respondents said the pandemic has disrupted growth plans, 42% said it hasn’t.

One trust leader even commented that the pandemic “has accelerated school interest in joining a trust and being part of a community. So for us, it has been a catalyst for growth.”

Among their top 3 reasons for wanting to grow, leaders most commonly cited ‘to allow more children to benefit from our work’ (chosen by 76%) and ‘to be able to provide more opportunities for staff development’ (32%). This highlights a shift in the driving force behind expansion plans compared to pre-pandemic[1] – when similar research found that growth was primarily driven by the quest for financial viability.

Indeed, a combined total of just 15% of trust leaders said they are ‘concerned’ (12%) or ‘extremely concerned’ (3%) about the financial viability of their trust in the medium term[2], with almost half (43%) reporting they are ‘not at all concerned’. This marks a significant change from 2019[3] when over half (57%) of trust leaders reported they were ‘concerned’ (23%) or ‘extremely concerned’ (34%).

‘To reach economies of scale’ also featured among the most common reasons for growth (chosen by 59%) – which, broader than cost savings, demonstrates that things such as workload efficiencies and the ability to employ specialists across the trust, are highly valued by trusts.

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic many trusts have fared well, and the benefits they deliver for schools have really been brought to the forefront,“ comments Nicola West Jones, head of market research at The Key. “For those trusts who want to grow, this has created a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm, with leaders resolute in their desire to help more pupils. But these findings indicate that trusts will also need to show patience in the coming year. Schools have got a lot on their plates from the pandemic, and while it’s clear joining a trust could well provide some solutions, many are not yet ready to engage in a meaningful way.”

In terms of current approaches to growth, 39% of those surveyed said their trust is actively looking for partner schools, 26% are in a trust that’s in the process of acquiring new schools and 21% are in a trust that would take the opportunity to grow ‘if the right schools came along’. Only 4% of respondents said their trust is planning to merge with another trust, suggesting that bringing on board individual schools is preferable and likely less disruptive than joining forces with another entity.

The most popular ideal size of trust was found to be 6 to 10 schools (chosen by 28%), which has remained the same since we surveyed trust leaders in 2019[4]. Just 8% of leaders chose more than 31 schools[5] as their optimum size – suggesting that most trusts are either very far from being this size or that there is limited appetite for reaching ‘supersize status’.

[1] The Key carried out a similar survey in 2019; see the press release for this, here

[2] Question specified ‘medium term (3 years plus)’

[3] Referring to The Key’s 2019 research; see the press release for this, here.

[4] Referring to The Key’s 2019 research; see the press release for this here.

[5] Percentage given is combined total for the responses ‘31 to 40 schools’ (5%) and ‘41+ schools’ (3%)

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