Gavin Williamson sets out the government’s renewed vision for a stronger school system: what next for school trusts?

Tiffany Beck OBE

Senior Account Director - Head of Education

This week saw the annual conference for the Confederation of School Trusts, the sector membership body for school (academy) trusts in England. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson delivered a keynote speech on Wednesday announcing the government’s plans to bring more schools into strong school trusts.

The Minister promoted the growth of trust partnerships – a ‘try before you buy’ trial period for schools to experience life as part of a trust. According to the Department for Education, such a partnership should run for 12 – 18 months, before a permanent legal commitment is made.

Many trusts have already been offering this sort of partnership option to schools, encouraged particularly by then National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter back in 2017, but now this offer is the expectation.  Those trusts and schools which have utilised this option have found it beneficial as both parties are able to generate a clearer picture of what the other is about and use it as an in-depth due diligence opportunity.

However, one of the risks with this latest proposition lies within the suggested trial period running for 12 – 18 months. As Sir David Carter said in his piece, that partnership would not allow for access to the full potential of trust support. As the trust would not hold the governance, financial or employer accountability for the partner school, potentially essential changes that need to be made to improve a school cannot be made on that basis – for example, moving on an ineffective headteacher and putting in a leader who will drive the necessary improvement and collaboration.

Whilst in some cases this 12 – 18-month period might be viable, in other cases it would limit and slow down the potential for long-term, sustainable improvements to embed and deliver the full benefit to the children.

It could also, as trust governance expert Tomas Thurogood-Hyde posited, unintentionally foster a perception that a trust is an external school improvement partner. This would make it trickier and slower for leaders to align culture and integrate the partner school into the understanding of a trust as a single organisation and become fully collaborative members of one trust family.

There are excellent examples of trust partnerships out there, many of which ran for well under a year before formalising. The most appropriate time period will be heavily context dependent.

For those who don’t know the detail, academy trusts start with legal and structural changes – moving schools outside of local authority control into an academy trust, which is an education charity that exists to advance education for public benefit. But the fabric of a trust goes beyond mere legal and structural changes. A trust is a group of schools working in collaboration as one entity to improve and maintain high educational standards across the group.

Kate Green OBE, Shadow Secretary of State, in her speech to the CST conference on Wednesday, said that it is the quality of teaching, not structures, that matters most. Indeed, the quality of teaching in the classroom makes all the difference. But her statement is too simplistic and misses a crucial point: because trusts are structured differently, they are purpose-built to deliver to their staff high-quality, tailored professional development, deep collaboration, innovative career pathways and significant support, coaching and mentoring – all of which improves teaching and learning. That’s how you keep elevating that all-important quality of teaching, through structures designed to foster and drive it.

Beyond teaching, a strong trust will develop and build to provide HR, finance, health and safety, estates, governance and IT, amongst other areas of support. The people delivering these functions know the schools and staff well, understand them and are able to manage those areas quickly and effectively, allowing the headteachers to focus on the teaching and learning in their schools.

Whilst that is all brilliant, the school trust sector is certainly not without its detractors. However, despite dramatic headlines focusing on a relatively few high-profile examples of poor practice, academies are not rife with corruption and incompetence, and as a system are no more riddled with challenges than local authority schools – just ask any of the trusts who have taken on troubled schools from local authorities and invested significant time and resource to set them on a strong path. The reason you rarely hear about these cases, is because academies are subject to much more rigorous and visible statutory accountability measures than local authority schools, opening them up to easy scrutiny. This accounts for the seeming divide between challenges faced between the different types of schools.

To combat this pervasive perception, school trusts can help shift the narrative by finding their voice, telling their stories and sharing their impact. This isn’t about PR for PR’s sake. This is about collectively shaping the sector and sharing the stories that demonstrate the true potential and impact of the school trust sector.

The more individual trusts make their voice heard, the more the voices of trusts are heard and understood locally, regionally and nationally, the easier things will become. By sharing their stories, school trusts will build confidence and trust both in individual trusts and the system as a whole. Perceptions will start to change, and more and more people will realise that indeed, school trusts are education charities that run schools to give children a better future.

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