Last month we held our first governance leadership forum, for those governing and leading single academy trusts (SATs). Some SATs have told us they feel isolated and forgotten in comparison to the more prominent multi academy trusts (MATs) and maintained school sectors, so we were keen to give SATs their own space where they could share experiences with their peers. Three SAT trustees joined our panel to lead the discussion – our thanks to Isobel Tooley (a SAT vice-chair) and SAT co-chairs Karen Sadler and Catie Colston. We were delighted to receive positive feedback from the 100 leaders in attendance.
The focus of March’s forum was the future of SATs. The Department for Education (DfE) is no longer approving the creation of new SATs, and is often encouraging existing SATs to merge or join an existing MAT. With the Secretary of State for Education’s statement at the FED summit in March that schools becoming part of a MAT is “something we [the DfE] want to see more of”, many SATs are understandably unsure of their future place in the evolving school system. The forum therefore focused on encouraging delegates to share their plans, hopes and worries for their trust’s future.
The clear dominant view from attendees was that the SAT structure worked for their school, and so they were keen to conserve it. Given that most SATs were formed in the early years of academy conversion, there were more secondary leaders at the event, proud of their school’s performance. However, the forum heard a range of perspectives, sizes and contexts, including primary and special SATs, converter and free school SATs, and selective and comprehensive SATs. Across this diversity of contexts, delegates consistently emphasised the benefits offered by the SAT structure for their school and expressed frustration at the lack of hard evidence for the MAT structure. They had heard the arguments for MATs on many occasions but had not been convinced by what they had seen.
Leaders were very open about the challenges posed by operating as a SAT. Examples included the burden on boards of handling the complexities of pay awards, headteacher return to work processes, and company law compliance without the support of a central trust or local authority. Some leaders also shared frustrations on the lack of togetherness and support networks which they considered to be more of a feature of the MAT structure. However, the overriding message was that SATs are working with other local schools in all sorts of different ways, from supporting a weaker school or working across phases on transition to running a Teaching School hub. Delegates were keen to stress that SATs can and do collaborate closely with other schools, and that informal partnerships should not be overlooked or forgotten.
NGA has written for many years about the array of benefits a formal group of schools (a MAT or a federation) can bring from economies of scale to shared learning, and – especially for smaller schools – access to central specialist staff, whether business staff, subject specialist teachers or pastoral support. Our chief executive Emma Knights, chairing the session, asked whether financial savings might be a driver for some SATs, but the clear response was they wanted to see more evidence laid out as it was not clear what the savings could be.
Despite their challenges, a delegate still characterised joining a MAT to be “marriage without the possibility of divorce”, and the spirit of this message was widely shared by those in attendance. For delegates, the irreversible nature of a decision to join a MAT meant there was usually more to be lost than gained from a change of this kind. The school lost its legal identity and the board no longer had responsibility for its performance and its cultural identity. The trustees needed to be convinced it was the right thing to do for their pupils and future pupils.
Attendees highlighted the benefits of operating as a SAT, such as control over their school values and ethos, and the retention of community links and local collaboration. SATs were not being expected by a MAT to collaborate in one way while wanting to collaborate in another locally. Their school’s context really mattered to our SAT leaders, and their commitment to the pupils and the place shone through the discussions. For the leaders present, joining a MAT meant losing control of their destiny, and so potentially endangering these values and community links, without any recourse if they were unhappy about the new trust’s actions.
Given these fears, delegates were keen to discuss alternative pathways to merging with an existing MAT. Options put forward included several SATs coming together to form a MAT, or a SAT beginning their own MAT, and bringing across other local maintained schools. However, the experience of attendees was that it was very difficult to find a model which worked in practice. Those that spoke were very knowledgeable and experienced, and had explored options which had then been put aside for a range of reasons. Challenges included the need for Regional Schools Commissioner approval, and finding suitable schools. In many localities, the vast majority of schools were either already in MATs, or were intent on remaining as maintained schools. For some attendees, the strongest argument for joining or forming a MAT was that the available stand-alone schools were only going to keep declining, so it was best to act now than face a poorer choice in a few years.
Thank you to everyone who attended. These forums are incredibly valuable to us too, as they help us to understand the issues and challenges which are facing those governing, and as your representative organisation relay them to the powers that be. At the next forum you will be able to do that yourself directly.
Addendum – since publishing this blog, I have been contacted by a number of SAT trustees to offer a different opinion. These individuals shared experiences of poor governance in their SATs, and argued that the SAT model was uniquely ill-suited to resolving these problems. Unlike in a maintained school where the LA provides a degree of both support and oversight, or a MAT where the central trust oversees and supports individual academies, SATs do not enjoy this safety net. While this was clearly not the majority opinion at the forum, it is important to appreciate the varied opinions of the SAT model held by SAT trustees.
Trust Governance Specialist and South West Regional Officer
Michael specialises in trust governance, co-ordinating NGA's work with multi-academy trusts and producing tailored resources. He also leads NGA's work in the West Midlands, working closely with the region's trusts and local authorities.