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Education Secretary renews vision for all schools to be part of a strong multi-academy trust

Today (28 Apr) the Education Secretary @GavinWilliamson spoke at the Confederation of School Trusts 2021 #CST2021 conference and set out his renewed vision for all schools to be part of a strong multi-academy trust: 

An education at a Good or Outstanding school that is part of a strong multi-academy trust has today (Wednesday 28 April) been hailed by the Education Secretary as a key part in building back better from the pandemic.

In his speech to the Confederation of School Trusts annual conference, Gavin Williamson said the government’s vision is for the school system to continue to move decisively towards a single model built on strong multi-academy trusts as its foundation, bringing the current pick-and-mix system of local authority maintained and standalone academy schools to an end.

All schools have gone above and beyond through the pandemic, with all teachers and staff playing a vital role in the country’s frontline response. But the pandemic has brought to the fore the benefits of strong multi-academy trusts in providing outstanding support for both children and staff, through their collaborative approach and being able to pool resources and knowledge.

The Education Secretary also stated his ambition to bring schools with a history of long-term underperformance, which have had three consecutive Requires Improvement or worse judgements by Ofsted, into strong multi-academy trusts. He committed to consult fully with the sector on any such changes.

All schools will now have the option to ‘try the academy experience before they buy’ – associating with multi-academy trusts for a defined period to experience the benefits for themselves and their students, with no commitment.

A new National Behaviour Survey will also be launched to give parents a termly snapshot of the state of behaviour in schools, including disruptive behaviour and bullying. It will not be an accountability tool, but will provide parents and stakeholders the data they need to build a picture of behaviour in schools over time and improve the government’s ability to support schools with any challenges they are facing.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“I know from my own experience, that when parents set out to choose a school for their child, they want something very simple – a Good or Outstanding school with excellent teaching, in a wider school environment that supports their child to fulfil their potential.

“And this is exactly what parents can expect when their child’s school is part of a strong multi-academy trust. The vast majority of Requires Improvement or Inadequate schools that become an academy and join a trust go on to be rated at least Good the next time they are inspected.

“That is why I am determined to finish what we started and end the pick-and-mix approach to school types, building back fairer from the pandemic to make sure every parent has the certainty that their child is at a school that is backed by a strong trust.

“This is one of the most important things I can do to make sure every child has the opportunity to catch up on any education, development or emotional support they may have missed during the pandemic.”

The new National Behaviour Survey builds on the £10 million Behaviour Hubs programme, matching the best multi-academy trust leaders and academy heads with partner schools and trusts to help embed outstanding behaviour policies that support children to thrive.

Further new interventions to encourage and support schools to join a strong multi-academy trust include:

  • An expanded £24 million fund due to launch in May to develop more, and grow existing strong multi-academy trusts, providing more capacity for trusts to take on and support schools converting into academies
  • Updated guidance for trusts and prospective academy converters, published today, which sets out how strong trusts improve educational outcomes, how local authority schools can convert and the support they can expect to receive
  • A pilot programme, in partnership with the Church of England and Catholic Church, to set up new faith academy trusts, as well as a new turnaround trust to support Catholic schools in need of intensive support
  • An updated trust and school improvement offer, providing underperforming schools with leadership support to help drive progress

STEP Academy Trust, based in the South East, is amongst those already allowing prospective partner schools to ‘try before they buy’.

Mark Ducker OBE, CEO of STEP Academy Trust said:

“Working within a time-limited partnership arrangement gives both parties an opportunity to explore whether there is true alignment in their mission, vision and values before making a long-term commitment.

“For STEP, this has been the main benefit of such arrangements and it is why we favour this approach. It is our experience that, through the process, a genuine consensus emerges in how partners need to work moving forward if they are to become more than the sum of their individual parts.”

The government is due to set out further interventions in the coming weeks to make sure every child has the support they need to catch up on any learning missed during the pandemic and recover from any wider impact the pandemic may have had.

Hamid Patel CBE, CEO of Star Academies, said:

“The pandemic has shown us that strength and resilience are gained through collective effort and collaboration. Strong values-driven trusts with children at their hearts have the capacity to recover and to engineer their own futures in a way that standalone schools cannot. They have huge potential to transform pupils’ lives and those of the communities they serve.”

Lorrayne Hughes, CEO of Cumbria Education Trust, said:

“The true power of academies comes through their being in a single entity with other schools – the academy trust. Strong school trusts allow deep collaboration between staff, and the freedom for leaders to lead and teachers to teach, therefore creating the best conditions for a first-class education to be provided to children and young people.”

Jo Coton, CEO of NET Academies Trust, which runs six primary academies in Essex and Waltham Forest, said:

“I have long believed in the merits of academy trusts – groups of schools working together allow for the best sharing of good practice between colleagues and for excellent professional development opportunities. Together these drive great teaching, in turn delivering the best education for children. The trust model maintains excellence in good schools and is the best way to rapidly improve weaker ones.

“Covid-19 has shown the importance of being in a strong trust. The last 14 months have created unprecedented demands on all schools but our strong trust’s structure has allowed us to withstand these pressures, still deliver the best outcomes for our pupils, staff and parents, and mitigate the educational, social and health impacts.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“This is a disappointing but not surprising set of proposals which encapsulate the Government’s distorted priorities and evidence-free approach to education policy.

“Heads and teachers understand very well the importance of re-establishing the routines for good learning and behaviour. Teachers will wonder why the Secretary of State, instead of fixating on mobile phones or surveys, doesn’t talk about what schools need to help students make positive choices and learning habits – things like smaller class sizes, more funding for pastoral support, and releasing time for teachers to work with small groups and assess learning gaps. Teachers will also expect much more joined up thinking about the links between poverty, stigma, well-being and young people’s behaviour.

“The Education Secretary claims that the pandemic shows the benefits of collaboration and pooling of resources within MATs and that this should be the future of the school system. If anything, the pandemic response has shown us the vital role of local authorities, which have stepped up to co-ordinate partnerships and provide vital support to schools, not least around the provision of school meals.

“The English school system does not need further fragmentation into competing MATs. Study upon study has shown that academy reforms have reduced equality and equity in our school system while undermining accountability to parents and children.

“The Government’s priorities are clearly in the wrong place, announcing that £24m will be handed over to academy trusts to help them expand just weeks after cuts to pupil premium funding were revealed.

“The fragmented academy system has serious structural problems and contradictions which are entirely the fault of this Government. This is in some ways an attempt to paper over those cracks – with the idea that “strong” MATs will somehow provide the answers. We have heard this before, and some MATs, such as Wakefield City Academy Trust, which were previously lauded by ministers no longer exist, having collapsed and left schools and local authorities to pick up the pieces. What has changed that will make this latest push to academise all schools by boosting a new group of favoured chains less risky and damaging?

“The pandemic and the disruption it has brought to our education system is in fact far from over; now is not the time to begin forcing schools into irreversible changes based on dogma.

“What we need is greater coherence and investment in the democratic structures and support that bind schools to one another and to their communities.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

On academisation:

“Schools have been at the heart of the national response to Covid-19. We have seen how both LA maintained schools and Academies have gone above and beyond to keep children safe, fed and educated. Over the last year there have been many examples of different types of schools working together to ensure the best possible response to the crisis. We have seen how being part of a network of schools can be hugely beneficial and those networks come in a range of different forms, including working within a Local Authority.

“For some schools converting to academy status can be a positive step and we continue to support the right of schools to choose to convert where it’s in the interests of the school and the community it serves. But we remain strongly opposed to forced academisation. Now is not the time for the government to begin obsessing about different types of structures again – there is already enough to do without additional distractions. The most important thing the government could do now is to properly fund and resource all schools, regardless of the name over the gate, and to invest in and support all teachers to deliver great teaching in the classroom.

“There also needs to be recognition that nearly half of all pupils in this country are still taught in LA maintained schools, and while the government can choose to emphasise the benefits of one particular model and argue for Trusts over LAs, it cannot – must not – be to the detriment of all pupils being taught in non-Academy schools. Investment in schools must be fair to all, irrespective of governance structures.”

On intervention:

“Moving schools that are struggling from one form of governance to another can be costly and by itself is an ineffective solution for improving standards. This proposal could have precisely the opposite effect to that intended. Increasing the stakes of inspection further – by introducing a ‘three-strikes and you’re out’ rule – will serve only to dissuade good teachers and leaders from moving to work in the very places that need them most, thereby making the challenge of improving schools even more difficult.

“Schools are more often part of the solution not the problem. We need a concerted, cross-government commitment to improving the life chances of young people in our most marginalised and deprived communities, and addressing the root causes of under-performance. Rather than reaching for the same old solutions, it’s time for a fundamental re-think of how we support all young people in this country, irrespective of where they live, to achieve their full potential.”

On behaviour:

“Ofsted recently increased their focus and reporting on pupil behaviour, to give information to parents and provide precisely this national overview of effectiveness. These inspections show that the overwhelming majority of schools in this country are calm, orderly places, conducive to learning and where pupils feel safe. In the small number of schools where standards of behaviour fall short, Ofsted do not pull their punches in reporting this. If the government does not trust these judgements then it should say so. It is very hard to see the announcement of a termly behaviour survey as anything other than a stunt designed to secure some quick, easy headlines. It is likely to prove a costly and unnecessary distraction to schools.”

In May, further details will be provided in relation to:

  • The third round of our successful Trust Capacity Fund. This competitive grant scheme will provide up to £24m funding over the 2021-22 financial year (an increase of £7m on the 2020-21 round) to help strong trusts grow. We will publish detailed guidance about what the fund is for, who can apply, how to apply, and how applications will be assessed.
  • The commission for the regular behaviour survey, with the survey expected to launch as soon as possible next academic year.

Further information on the Catholic turnaround trust:

  • The government is providing £1.25m to support the setup of the trust in the North West to support underperforming Catholic schools.
  • Aside from the provision of set up grant funding, The Northwest Catholic Dioceses MAT will operate and be funded on a similar basis to other MATs but will have some additional special provisions built into their funding agreement that will, for the duration of the pilot period, require them to fulfil the specific role of a turnaround trust.
  • The MAT will act as a temporary home for Inadequate Catholic schools for which no sponsor match is available, whilst the dioceses work to build MAT capacity.

The government is also providing £800,000 of funding to support the costs of creating new, strong faith trusts for Church of England and Catholic Church schools at scale. Seven new trusts have been identified, with a further two in the pipeline.

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