Advice for those schools considering academy conversion

Written by: Leora Cruddas | Published:
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Schools across England will be considering what the government’s complete academisation ambition means for them. Leora Cruddas, an expert from the Association of School and College Leaders, offers some advice to help leaders reflect on this crucial issue

It has been a hectic few weeks in the Westminster bubble with a White Paper, a general rumpus and then a slight change of path.

It is certainly good that the secretary of state has responded to the concerns voiced by the profession and the Tory backbenches and made adjustments to the proposals for compulsory academisation for all schools. We put a lot of pressure on government to do so. The original proposal was out-of-kilter with a school-led system.

However, we need to be clear about the small print. It is true that the government has decided that it is not necessary to bring forward legislation for blanket conversion of all schools to achieve this goal.

However, education secretary Nicky Morgan has reaffirmed her commitment to every school becoming an academy by 2022, with new methods being proposed to achieve this – including targeting “underperforming” local authorities and those which are considered “unviable” because of the number of academies already open.

So the question of forming or joining a multi-academy trust (MAT) is high on the agenda for many school leadership teams and governing bodies. If you are thinking about taking this step or looking into it further, then the following best practice advice is aimed at helping you to reflect on this critical decision and decide whether to proceed.

Where are you on your journey?

  • Have you just started thinking about it?
  • Are you already working in a group and you intend to form a MAT together?
  • Are you planning to lead a MAT – in other words convert your standalone trust or your maintained school into a MAT, with the intention that other schools can join?

Just started

If you have just started thinking about it, don’t rush! Rushed decisions are likely to be poor decisions. It is absolutely imperative that leaders and governors make good decisions, based on an assessment of the options, the evidence and in the light of a robust due diligence process.

We recommend a four-step process:

  • Step 1: Raise the idea of partnering with one or more other schools at a full governing body meeting – or convene a one-off meeting to do this.
  • Step 2: Bring together a small working party of interested governors to explore possibilities.
  • Step 3: Convene a full governing body meeting for the working party to report back on its work.
  • Step 4: Talk to key stakeholders to let them know your plan and invite their comments.

We have published guidance – Forming or Joining a Group of Schools – with the National Governors’ Association and the legal firm, Browne Jacobson, to help you make these important decisions.

Already in a group

If you are already working in a group and you intend to form a MAT together, first – hold on to your group!
As the anthropologist, Margaret Mead, famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

There’s a four-step process for you too:

  • Step 1: With all the heads/principals in your group, discuss why you think it’s a good idea to work together. What values and principles do you share? Can you articulate them? What are the opportunities and what are your concerns about forming a group? What are the strengths and weaknesses of schools in your group?
  • Step 2: Bring together a small working party of interested governors across your group to explore possibilities alongside the group of heads/principals. Consider how governance will work. Who will be the members of the trust and who will be the directors?
  • Step 3: Feedback the results of the working groups to a full governing body meeting of each constituent school. Ask the individual governing bodies to give “in principle” consent to continue the work. This is not a formal decision at this stage.
  • Step 4: Talk to key stakeholders, including parents and the community, at an early stage to let them know your thinking and invite their comments.

If you decide to proceed, there are some key tasks and decisions to make together. First, based on your values and principles, develop your strategic vision and plan. You will need to design a clear accountability framework for the performance of the trust. Discuss and decide on quality assurance systems to improve consistency and performance.

Consider the delegated framework for governance at trust board and local governing body level – make sure the responsibilities of both the trust board and the local governing bodies are explicit. Discuss your school improvement strategy – how will you support each other based on a robust assessment of strengths and weaknesses? Encourage all schools in the group to see themselves as givers and receivers of support.

Perhaps most importantly, decide how you will use data to be accountable to parents and the communities you serve across your group of schools.

When you are ready, register your interest with the Department for Education (DfE). Once the DfE receives your registration of interest, they will get in touch with you and identify a DfE project lead. Your project lead will work with you throughout the conversion process.

Planning to lead a MAT

Your school – whether it is a standalone academy or a maintained school – will have its own vision and values. If you are thinking of converting to an MAT you will need to revisit the vision, values and purpose.

You will need to make sure these are suitable for an organisation with more than one school and that your vision and purpose can be communicated strongly throughout the organisation.

There are some key decisions you will need to make, like whether your MAT will have a shared, distinct teaching, learning and assessment model. How will you develop quality assurance arrangements? Will you delegate responsibilities and functions to local governing boards? What will your criteria be for which schools to join your group?

We have published a sister piece of guidance, also with the National Governors’ Association and Browne Jacobson, MATs and Federations: Leading and governing groups of schools.

Challenges or opportunities?

Many have argued that moving towards an academised system will be a distraction from the job of improving schools and securing good outcomes for children. Surely there are more immediate things that need our attention?

There is the here and now of the English Baccalaureate, Progress 8, changes to primary assessment, qualification reform, assessment without levels, massive funding pressures and now funding reform – a tidal wave of change.

So, yes, this is one more pressure on the already hugely pressured job of school leadership. We must not let it become a distraction. Instead, is it possible to use it to rethink the conditions for deep and mature partnership?

  • Leora Cruddas is director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

  • The guidance, Forming or Joining a Group of Schools: Staying in control of your school’s destiny, can be accessed via http://bit.ly/1VLIeP3
  • The guidance, MATs and Federations: Leading and governing groups of schools, can be accessed via http://bit.ly/1UyXKsv
  • ASCL is holding a seminar entitled Staying Ahead of the Game: Forming or joining a multi-academy trust, on July 5 in Leeds and is planning further seminars later in the year. Visit http://bit.ly/1RWPS2h


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