Federation First is a national campaign developed in 2016 by the National Governance Association to raise awareness of the advantages of federations to school improvement.
The government promotes multi academy trusts (MATs) as the best way for schools to work together, but it can be an enormous change for maintained schools, so why the one-way narrative? Instead of missing out on all the benefits of being part of a group of schools, why not consider federating first?
What’s a federation?
A federation is where a number of maintained schools come together under one governing body. The schools’ individual governing bodies are disbanded and a new single over-arching governing body is formed. This becomes the accountable body for all the schools and sets the strategic direction for the group. This is sometimes referred to as a “hard” federation as opposed to a “soft” one, which is in effect a collaboration; we do not use these terms as they can cause confusion. Federation is not to be confused with collaboration, which is a less formal arrangement in which the governing bodies remain separate but establish a joint committee(s) for a specific purpose. The latest figures suggest that just over 1000 schools are part of a federation in England.
Federation can be a very effective group structure, providing maintained schools with the opportunity to form a group - without incurring legal costs - in order to improve the education of pupils. This enables governors and school leaders to focus on forming relationships between schools first, and then joint leadership, governance and business management. This can be done while still remaining a maintained school, so the process is much more focused on relationship building and producing tangible outcomes for pupils, instead of being dominated by legal changes in charity/company status and land ownership.
Federations are often formed to fast track school improvement or to improve capacity for small schools. The three main reasons for forming federations, identified by Ofsted in its report Leadership of more than one school, were:
- stronger schools supporting weaker schools, often at the suggestion of the local authority
- small schools banding together to increase capacity and protect education provision
- federation across phases to strengthen education provision across the education community
Federations have the following advantages:
- Better, broader offer for pupils – both curricular & extra-curricular
- More opportunity to employ specialist staff
- More CPD for staff
- Better recruitment, succession planning & retention of staff
- Moderating and benchmarking: same systems of assessment, data and finances
- Learning from each other
- More capacity for innovation
- Efficiencies – joint services
- Stronger governance (especially with well federated structures)
These benefits result in improved outcomes for pupils.
Federation also places schools in a much stronger position to subsequently convert to become a successful MAT. MATs and federations are not competing models; a federation can be a useful “stepping stone” to a MAT because:
- They are a way of giving smaller schools with limited resources the opportunity to form a MAT in stages by first forming a federation and then creating the capacity (e.g. in financial management) to become a MAT.
- They are also a way for schools which are anxious about formal collaboration with joint accountability to experience its benefits and develop confidence, whilst operating within familiar structures and the continued support of the local authority.
- There is only one governing body (that of the federation) which has to make the decision to academies, as opposed to having to convince half a dozen governing bodies.
- There are two distinct processes required to becoming a MAT - (1) the winning of hearts & minds of all the schools on coming together into one organisation and (2) the legal processes. Federating does involve this first step, which can be time-consuming and requires very clear and careful communication. However, because forming a MAT also requires the second step it means that both sets of arguments and all messages have to be communicated at the same time. It is a simpler process to form a federation first than attempt a MAT in one fell swoop.
What is the NGA doing and why?
There’s an increasing push for schools to form formal partnerships in which multiple schools come together under a single governing board. The government promotes multi academy trusts (MATs) as the best way to do this, but maintained federations can be just as successful, as well as being much easier to set up than MATs. Many schools overlook federation, or simply don’t understand what it involves. What’s more, current government legislation relating to the constitution of federated governing bodies is unwieldly: where there is no executive headteacher, the need to have the headteacher of each school on a federated governing body means that they can be large and inefficient.
The campaign aims to:
- raise awareness of federation as an important option for school improvement;
- improve practice by encouraging governing bodies to think strategically about their school structure – both governance and leadership - and what would be most effective for pupil outcomes;
- continue to lobby for further flexibilities, so that federation governing bodies are not overly large in order to accommodate multiple headteachers sitting on the body which is holding them to account.
What we’re not doing
We are not suggesting “federating first” is the only route or the best option for all remaining maintained schools; it will depend on a number of factors including the size of the school and the local context. It may be preferable for a school to join an existing local MAT or federation rather than find partner schools for a new federation. The choice should lie with local schools as to how and when they wish to work together, but they need to have access to good information, which is currently sparse.
There is now considerable information to help you begin your conversation with your own governing body and other governing bodies:
- NGA’s guidance on federations
- Ofsted’s 2011 research report, Leadership of more than one school: An evaluation of the impact of federated schools
- NGA’s research report, The road to federation - the report looks at what motivates governing boards to consider federation and aims to learn more about governors’ experiences of the federation process.
Speak to the NGA advice team
NGA Gold members can contact the GOLDline for bespoke and specific advice on federating.
Get help from an NGA consultant
We offer support for governing bodies considering federation through our Consultancy Service.