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Just 12% of academy trust leaders are confident about their financial viability

Trust expansion: overcoming growing pains

Pressure to grow in order to reach economies of scale governs trust-wide priorities, according to new research released today by The Key in partnership with Forum Strategy.

When asked to identify their top priorities over the coming year, over half (53%) of the trust leaders surveyed listed improving their budget/raising income in their top three; 39% will be adding schools or merging with another trust. 

Providing more context to their growth-focused priorities, just 12% of respondents  stated that they are “not at all concerned” about their financial viability over the next three years.

In fact, more than half (54%) of the trust leaders surveyed are currently trying to grow their trust in order to reach economies of scale, and are either actively looking for new schools to acquire (25%), in the process of acquiring schools (24%), or planning to merge with another trust (5%). 

However, the findings indicate that trust leaders are facing a number of big blockers in being able to achieve this growth. A combined 39% stated that they are finding it either “difficult” (27%) or “very difficult” (12%) to attract new schools. Only 11% of respondents claimed to find this process “easy” (7%) or “very easy” (4%).

The findings also reveal that it’s not typical for trusts to have control over, or proactively lead on, decisions about adding schools. Only 13% of the survey respondents usually approach schools they think will be a good fit, while 24% find that other schools typically approach them. For a further 19%, the regional schools commissioner usually comes to them with a school to take on.  

Mergers could be seen as a means to accelerate trust growth. But 77% of the trust leaders surveyed are not currently considering this, with the most commonly cited reasons being a desire to hold on to their own ethos, wanting to grow organically, and potential loss of control.

Indeed, the research uncovered that most trust leaders have concerns about growth. In picking their top 3 worries, more than half (53%) of leaders said they are concerned about spreading out their trust’s area of operation too far geographically, and 51% feel that growth could have a negative effect on existing schools in the trust and their ability to support them. 

This conflicted view about growth is mirrored in respondents’ biggest personal drivers – more than 4 in 10 (44%) are driven by ensuring the schools in the trust are supportive and inspiring places to work and learn, and a similar proportion (41%) are driven by securing strong outcomes for pupils. Only 2% said they are personally driven by growth.

“While it’s not hugely surprising that a leader’s personal and professional drivers would differ, this stat is worth noting given the climate of external scepticism about the motivations of trust leaders,” said Nicola West Jones, head of market research at The Key.

“Time after time, we heard from leaders who were striving to build their trust into something incredible for the benefit of their students, staff and communities.

“That concerns and cautions exist would be fine if trusts felt no pressure to grow, or only grew in absolutely ideal circumstances. But these worries become real issues because lots of trusts do see growth as a necessity for reaching economies of scale. The government’s new trust capacity fund is a clear step in the direction of encouraging growth, too.”

Despite the challenges of growth, trust leaders are overwhelmingly positive about the benefits for school staff of being part of a trust. Nearly all those surveyed (92%) said that, for teaching staff, a clear benefit is having opportunities to share ideas and best practice. Just over 8 in 10 (81%) highly rate the career development opportunities for teachers, and 59% believe opportunities to work simultaneously across different schools are a clear benefit. 

The picture is similar for staff in school offices, who are most commonly perceived to benefit from having a central team that means they can focus more on the operational day to day and work that they are actually trained for, as well as the career development opportunities that a trust structure affords.

The pace of change in education means there is no shortage of theory, opinion and advice on what leaders need to do and what they need to know. Leaders themselves are under huge pressure to make a difference with little time to plan, prioritise and learn.

In a world like this, ambitious and aspiring education leaders are in constant need of reliable, relevant and authoritative knowledge that’s ready to use.

About the research

The data quoted in this release is taken from ‘Trust expansion: overcoming growing pains’ – a new piece of research conducted by The Key in partnership with Forum Strategy. 

155 respondents completed the full survey between 13 June and 6 July 2019; a further 24 partially completed it. All respondents identified as being in leadership roles in 2 or more academy trusts – some lead schools and work in the central team, and 49 are CEOs.

About The Key: Cutting through the noise to provide up-to-the-minute sector intelligence and resources that empower education leaders with the knowledge to act, The Key serves more than 100,000 members. Our vision is to be an indispensable partner to education leaders determined to make a difference. 

About Forum Strategy: An organisational and leadership development consultancy, supporting chief executives and boards to ‘plan, grow and thrive’, Forum has worked with over 200 academy trusts, including through our 6 regional CEO leadership development networks, the #BeingTheCEO programme, external reviews of board-level governance, and more general consultancy.

Forum has led a range of influential policy roundtables, working with organisations such as the National Governance Association, Ofsted, the College of Policing, and others, to help inform policy development and practice in academy trusts and elsewhere.

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