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Julie McCulloch is Primary and Governance Specialist, Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). In this guest blog for BlueSky, she outlines the key issues for school leaders and governors to consider when exploring the options of working in formal partnerships with other schools
Stay in control of your school's destiny: form or join a multi-academy trust
Keeping up with the fast-moving world of education policy can feel like a full-time job at the best of times, but the last couple of years have been a particularly unpredictable rollercoaster ride. Schools were first told they would all have to become academies; then that they would only have to do so if they were in an 'underperforming' or 'unviable' local authority; and then that, while full academisation remains the government's ambition, it will not be compulsory for any school that is performing well.
So what does this mean for schools? Particularly for primary schools, only a quarter of which have become academies so far.
The move away from compulsory academisation has been almost universally welcomed. With the threat of being forced into a change now having receded, many school leaders and governors are considering what role academisation and formal partnerships might play in helping them to address challenges such as raising standards and operating on diminishing budgets. They are using the space and time the shift in policy has afforded to think carefully about their ethos, values and vision, to find out more about how their local landscape is changing, and to consider the best way to safeguard the future of their school.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), working with the National Governance Association (NGA) and education law firm Browne Jacobson, last year published three guidance papers to support schools in thinking through their options. These papers explore the potential benefits of working in formal partnerships, such as federations and multi-academy trusts (MATs). They outline how academies and MATs are led and governed; summarise what we know so far about how effective federations and MATs operate; and suggest a process for schools to follow when considering their options or planning to join or form a MAT.
Key issues for school leaders and governors to consider are:
- 1.Staying as you are isn't really staying as you are
Many schools are cautious about making any decisions at the moment, and are waiting to see what happens over the next couple of years. This is completely understandable, particularly given the number of policy changes in this area. It's important to recognise, though, that the landscape is continuing to shift around you. The local authority team that you draw on for support may be disappearing as council budgets shrink. The school down the road that you've vaguely thought about partnering with may decide to join a multi-academy trust that you don't think is right for your school. It's completely right that school leaders and governors don't rush into any decisions they may later regret – but they need to ensure they're keeping an eye on how things are changing, and regularly reviewing their plans.
- 2.The case for collaborating with other schools is becoming stronger and stronger
There is no evidence to suggest that academisation in itself leads to better outcomes for children and young people (and such evidence is even more scant in the primary sector). There is, however, a growing body of evidencethat formal collaborations between schools can bring substantial benefits. These include the opportunity to think strategically together, to share expertise, to recruit and retain staff more easily and to tackle budget challenges through collective purchasing and other economies of scale. None of these benefits is automatic, but strong partnerships can create the right environment to tackle some of the thorny issues schools are facing.
- 3.Choosing the right partners is crucial
Joining or forming a MAT or federation is a big decision, and one that is very difficult to reverse. Choosing the right schools to partner with, or the right MAT or federation to join, is therefore critical. Important questions to ask of any existing or potential group of schools include:
- Does this group share my school's ethos, vision and values?
- Does this group have the capacity to provide the support and challenge my school needs?
- How is the group (or will the group be) led and governed?
- Is the group (or are the schools planning to form the group) in a strong and sustainable financial position? If not, how do they plan to tackle this?
- Are you energised and motivated by the idea of working with the people in these schools/group?
- Do you think being part of this group would enable your school to improve and flourish?
Most school leaders and governors now, thankfully, have the opportunity to step off the rollercoaster, to consider these issues at their own pace, and to make their own decisions about the right long-term future for their schools.
Further information and support
The three guidance papers can be found on the ASCL website: