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Education reform | Unpacking the Schools Bill

Written by Simon Bellard on 4 October 2022

In May 2022, the government released a Schools White Paper – the first to be published in six years – detailing how it proposes to achieve a Trust-led system of schools in England by 2030.

The Schools Bill aims to “Make provision for the regulation of Academies; about school and local education funding; about the attendance of children at school; about the regulation of independent educational institutions; about teacher misconduct; and for connected purposes.”  

This article, however, will concentrate on the likely impact for schools and Academies with a Trust-led system of schools generally, and the changes relating to Local-Authority-established Trusts.

The aim

Through the new Schools Bill, the government’s stated aim is to raise education standards across the country via a range of measures, including supporting schools to join strong Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs).  

The Department for Education (DfE) has set an ambition for all schools to be in a strong MAT, or have plans in place to join or form one, by 2030.

To achieve this, in the first phase, the DfE will focus on creating education investment areas (EIAs), and priority EIAs, with the introduction of an area-based approach to commissioning Trusts. The idea of area-based commissioning is to enable the DfE to work closely with local partners to establish a coherent local organisation of schools based on strong Trusts, as well as address problems of sustained underperformance.

As part of the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, the DfE has currently created 55 EIAs; these are made up of Local Authority areas with the lowest rate of combined KS2 and KS4 attainment. They are also joined by existing opportunity areas, or those areas identified by the DfE as requiring additional school improvement. Of the 55 areas, a subset of 24 will be designated priority EIAs.

From September 2022, there will also be a widening of intervention powers, as those schools currently judged as “Requiring Improvement” (Grade 3) and judged below “Good” at their previous full inspection will be eligible for intervention and could face being converted to an Academy or, for single Academy Trusts and underperforming Multi-Academy Trust academies, being re-brokered into another, stronger Academy Trust. Interestingly though, the proposals only provide the Secretary of State with a power – not a duty – to intervene.

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The statutory framework

The statutory framework will allow flexibility for the Secretary of State (or the Regional Director acting on their behalf) to determine whether intervention is the appropriate course of action. 

Where intervention is judged necessary, a statutory Academy Order would be issued to eligible maintained schools, or a Termination Warning Notice may be issued to a Single Academy Trust (SAT) where they have received consecutive judgements below “Good”, or steps would be taken to transfer it to a stronger Academy Trust which the Regional Director determines would be a better fit. This power will extend to all schools, but it is seen that the EIAs will be prioritised.

It will be interesting to see how this takes shape, as this method will be dependent upon the consistency of inspection teams across the different regions and indeed from one school to another. An obvious question to ask is, should there be too many variants, could this call into question the subjectivity of the current school inspection system? 

New and bigger MATs

In order to be able to accommodate the change to a Multi-Academy-Trust-led system, the focus is likely to be on creating further new Trusts and extending the capacity of existing Trusts.

The DfE will no doubt want to avoid creating a system which will allow any one Trust to monopolise a given geographical area, even though the Schools White Paper has set a broad expectation of Trusts being on a trajectory towards serving at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils. This has to be the case, if the aim is to have a Trust-led school system which would require the capacity for a school to be able to move to an alternative Academy Trust in the event that it was struggling to meet expectations or to make the rapid changes required. 

For those Trusts who no longer have the capacity or space for further growth, the DfE will encourage them to focus on their existing practices or take a view on whether they should merge with another established Trust. This could provoke discussions within those more established Multi-Academy Trusts, as trustees may well question their future as to whether they will have a choice to stay as they are or whether there will be a push from government to consolidate and join a stronger MAT. This, however, will be welcome news for those Trusts with strong leadership, available resources and the desire to expand further.  

Reorganising regional ways of working

To support the DfE’s new strategic direction for schools, there is set to be a reorganisation of the current regional ways of working.

The DfE will introduce a new regions group from September 2022, which will be led by nine Regional Directors and replace the current structure of eight regional schools commissioner-led teams. The Advisory Board system will remain to support each Regional Director and shall become a single interface to enable the DfE to exercise its regulatory role.

The government will look to create new Local Authority MATs where too few strong Trusts exist, enabling schools with a track record of local partnerships to formalise their relationships and add expertise and capacity to the Trust system.  

Consider your future

To support the DfE’s new strategic direction for schools, there is set to be a reorganisation of the current regional ways of working.

The DfE will introduce a new regions group from September 2022, which will be led by nine Regional Directors and replace the current structure of eight regional schools commissioner-led teams. The Advisory Board system will remain to support each Regional Director and shall become a single interface to enable the DfE to exercise its regulatory role.

The government will look to create new Local Authority MATs where too few strong Trusts exist, enabling schools with a track record of local partnerships to formalise their relationships and add expertise and capacity to the Trust system.  

A changing landscape

So, the message to leaders, and those in governance roles within maintained schools and single Academy Trusts, is to consider your future.

It’s clear that the education landscape is, once again, set to change. The Academies Act 2010 was significant; however, this has only taken the government so far with its ambitions, and with the introduction of the Schools Bill, those ambitions are set to widen.

There will be many considering what the future of their school/Trusts will be. The Schools Bill continues to make its way through Parliament, but unless there’s a significant change in government, it’s clear that business as usual will no longer be the approach. As has been the case over the last 10 years, the next will be filled with challenges and new ways of operating within the education sector.

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