The recent political upheaval has created significant uncertainty around the government’s proposed reforms to the schools system. Boris Johnson was prime minister, and Nadhim Zahawi was education secretary, when the schools white paper was published in March. Both were still in post when the Schools Bill was introduced in the House of Lords in May, and the regulatory and commissioning review began in June.
Since then, we have had a further two prime ministers and four education secretaries. It therefore raises the question of whether some or all of these reforms remain a government priority for which it will devote parliamentary time and political capital. At the time of writing, the picture is still unclear, but the likelihood appears to be the continuation of some reforms whilst others are scrapped. However, any Government will need to think about the shape of the school system and our survey represents the first time the voice of MAT trustees have been publicly reported.
In light of the debate around the reforms, and the uncertainty over their future direction, NGA conducted a survey in August and September which looked at many of the key questions surrounding the government’s vision. The survey was only answered by MAT trustees, as we were keen to understand the views of those governing the institutions which the white paper envisioned as being the leaders of the future schools system. We have taken on board the views of those governing in other settings through our annual governance survey and summer term leadership forums.
Over 100 trustees responded to the survey, and we are very grateful to everyone who gave up their time to contribute. Taken together, the responses we received provide notable and occasionally surprising insights into the views of trustees on the proposed reforms to the schools system.
Maybe most interestingly, only just over half (51.5%) of respondents supported the commitment to a fully academised system by 2030. This is despite the fact that the respondents were all MAT trustees, and so governed the organisations which could be perceived as “benefitting” from the vision in the white paper. Some trustees argued that a fully academised system was necessary to move past the “fragmented” and “inefficient” mixed economy in place currently. However, many were skeptical of the benefits of the government’s vision. One responded said “as the leader of a MAT, I don’t want to have good schools joining reluctantly and without commitment to the group.”
Trustees were also open to increased scrutiny and oversight of trusts, a clear majority agreed with the statement that “the standards used to hold trusts to account should be more stringent, and trusts should be more transparent in demonstrating how they meet these standards.” 54% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with this statement with just 21% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing . This gives a very different picture to many of the loud voices heard during the debates over what now appears to the doomed Bill.
There was also a clear majority (63.5%) in favour of the inspection and grading of entire trusts, although many trustees were aware this would require improvements to Ofsted if it was to work in practice. Taken together, these findings around the oversight of trusts show that those governing MATs are far more open to increased scrutiny than is often claimed.
Just 42% of respondents agreed with the Schools Bill’s proposals to allow both local authorities and diocese to request academy orders for their schools against governing body objections. Respondents were again concerned about the difficulties of incorporating schools into their trusts who had been forcibly academised without the justification of an adverse Ofsted outcome. There was also an emphasis on the importance of listening to governing bodies who best understood their school’s context and challenges.
There was no consensus in favour of the proposal that schools should contain at least 7,500 pupils or 10 schools. Trustees recognised the value of economies of scale for saving money and enabling support and expertise across a trust. However, there was also a recognition that many trusts’ values and ethos were tied to serving a particular community, which they might not want to expand beyond in order to fulfill a requirement for an arbitrary minimum size.
On the question of community, there was also no majority in favour of limiting the proportion of schools in a local area served by an individual trust. Some trustees recognised the importance of parental choice, and the danger of monopolies given the huge variety of trusts. However, many trustees saw their raison d’etre as serving their local community. They also argued that it was these community links which ensured a local accountability that would not be possible in a trust spread over a larger geographical area.
Respondents also saw accountability as being improved by local governance arrangements. The most definitive response in the entire survey was 87% of trustees agreeing that all trusts should have local governance, compared to just 7% who disagreed. This mirrors our findings from our annual governance survey, but is particularly notable because all respondents to this survey were trustees who, by definition, delegate functions to the local tier while retaining accountability for these functions. Trustees’ support for the local tier is therefore a significant vote of confidence, with one respondent arguing local governance “is vital if trust boards are to remain connected to the academies and communities they serve.”
Away from the multiple choice questions, respondents also provided valuable anecdotal feedback. Experiences of interacting with DfE regional directors (formerly Regional Schools Commissioners) were decidedly mixed, with some very positive experiences alongside some very negative views. Interestingly, there was lots of anecdotal evidence of trust boards discussing growth following the white paper. Even some trustees who disagreed with the government’s vision reported that their board was seriously considering growth as a result of the white paper, suggesting that the government’s proposals are already affecting practice on the ground.
We have published our full findings, which are available here. As always they underline that MATs are not a uniform sector, they take many forms and have different ethos. Taken together, there is clearly a lack of consensus from trustees for many of the white paper’s key proposals. This would suggest that the government needs to use this period of uncertainty to rethink their plans, or persuade the sector of why they are necessary.
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.