Select Committee on Education and Skills First Report

3  Trust schools

45. Although Trust schools were not proposed in the Five Year Strategy or in the Labour Party manifesto, foundation schools with similar powers were discussed in the Five Year Strategy.[43] They now appear to be central to the Government's strategy for the development of the school system.

46. The White Paper says that

"To spread innovation and diversity across the whole school system, we will promote the establishment of self-governing Trust schools… Trusts will be not-for-profit organisations, able to appoint governors to the school, including where the Trust wishes the majority of the governing body, as in existing voluntary aided schools. The governing body, which can be as small as 11 members, will also include elected parents, staff governors and representatives from the local authority and the local community… The governing body of any existing primary or secondary school will be able to create its own Trust, or link its school with an existing Trust."[44]

47. Trusts will also enjoy the freedoms that foundation schools currently have:

"As well as the drive and direction brought to the school by Trust-appointed governors, Trust schools will have the freedoms and flexibilities that self-governing (Foundation) schools currently enjoy. They will employ their own staff, control their own assets and set their own admissions arrangements. Trusts will also be able to apply to the Secretary of State for additional flexibilities: any granted in this way will apply across all of the schools supported by the Trust. This could include additional curriculum flexibilities and freedoms over pay and conditions, where the Trust can demonstrate that these will raise standards."[45]

Although Trust schools are promoted in the White Paper as a radical innovation in school governance, it is important to note that these freedoms and flexibilities are already available to schools under the power to innovate under section 2 of the Education Act 2002.

48. These then are the Government's plans and aspirations for Trust schools and, as we also discussed in the introduction, there are many who have concerns about them. Some of those concerns are that:

  • An increase in the number of schools which act as their own admissions authorities will lead to more schools choosing their pupils, which in turn will result in children from poorer backgrounds finding it harder, not easier, to gain entry to the best performing schools, reinforcing rather than reducing social segregation.
  • Outside bodies which form Trusts may act in ways which are considered undesirable, by disposing of school assets or insisting on subjects being taught in a particular way, without any effective means of dissuading or preventing such behaviour.
  • Giving schools more independence may discourage them from collaborating with others, creating a series of individual schools rather than a school system.
  • All new schools will in future be Academies, Foundation schools or Trusts. There will be no new community schools.
  • The office of Schools Commissioner, as proposed in the White Paper to act as "a national champion for the development of Trust schools",[46] may be used to coerce reluctant schools to become Trust schools.

49. The Government says that it is pursuing this route because of the success of specialist schools and academies, which it argues derives from their independence and the positive effect of external partnerships. The evidence in support of that claim is certainly not clear. Our predecessors, in their report on diversity of school provision in 2003, commented that:

"..we have tried to establish the extent to which the impact of the specialist schools programme, the process of application and designation together with the creation of a subject focus within a school, can be distinguished from the effect of the significant injection of cash that follows designation together with the recurrent specialist premium on per pupil funding. In 2002-03 the specialist schools programme cost £145.3m. Specialist schools receive a capital grant of £100,000 to add to the £50,000 raised through sponsorship and an additional £123 per student per annum.

"Given the scale of this additional investment it was therefore a surprise to us to learn that no evaluation has taken place on this aspect of the programme. The effect of this investment is important because it may be that it is the process leading to designation, rather than the funding or the specialist focus, that is the key to school improvement."[47]

50. There are conflicting views and a lack of compelling research evidence on whether sponsorship of schools is directly responsible for the raising of standards. One witness who had experience of working with a trust considered that it brought real advantages. Dr Elizabeth Sidwell, Chief Executive, Haberdashers' Aske's Foundation told us:

"We have two schools within our trust. I have always had a trust. What it gives schools is the Haberdashers' brand, it gives enormous experience from my trustees and my governors, and it enables us to leverage on their experience. It is a real benefit to our schools within the trust to have the Haberdashers behind us".[48]

The evidence of achievement is also limited for academies, because of the small number that are as yet up and running, and because pupils taking GCSEs in Academies so far will have spent most of their secondary education in other schools. No causal link has been demonstrated between external partners and the success of a school, or between the independence of a school from local authority control and its success.

51. We asked the Secretary of State whether evidence from the United States on Charter schools had informed the White Paper, and she told us "Absolutely not".[49] The Minister of State told us that "the key point about this White Paper is that it is grown in this country and it has grown from our experience."[50] We find it surprising that the Government has not drawn on the experience of Charter schools, as they came about from parental involvement with the aim of raising attainment, which obviously has parallels with trust schools and other proposals in the White Paper.

52. On the basis of the evidence we have received it appears that there is no widespread enthusiasm for Trust schools. John Dunford of SHA told us that "if the proposal for trust schools does not appear in the Bill, there will be no tears shed in secondary schools amongst secondary school leaders."[51] Gillian Windass of the National Governors' Council said that

"We do have concerns that much of the document has very little evidence in terms of the idea that every school would wish to become self-governing or become a trust school and that this would improve teaching and learning. There is no evidence provided in the document to substantiate that fact. Trust schools would not necessarily improve things and they would definitely reduce the elected parental representation on the governing body where in the rest of the document we are talking about increasing parental influence".[52]

Professor Adams of the National Association of School Governors said that "My guess is there will not be any dramatic changes as a result of this. One or two individual schools, of course, in particular circumstances but I do not think it will be a seismic shock to school governing bodies around the country".[53]

53. Dr Mary Bousted of the ATL spoke for many critics of the Trust schools proposal when she said:

"We think [the Government's] proposal for trust schools and the idea that trusts will spread good practice is Government doing what it said it would not do in 1997, which is becoming too interested in structures rather than standards. We cannot answer the question how trust schools are going to affect the learning opportunities for pupils. We cannot answer the question how trusts are going to deliver a better 14-19 curriculum for pupils. And we are concerned that many of the very, very supportive and strong commitments to social justice, the ideas in the White Paper, are undermined by the belief that a quasi-market will improve delivery of education."[54]

Some witnesses appeared inconsistent on this issue. They doubted whether Trust schools would bring change, but opposed them anyway.

54. It also seems that there may be difficulties in finding external organisations which are willing to form Trusts and support schools. Press reports indicate that few firms which act as sponsors for specialist schools and academies have an interest in establishing Trust schools. Dame Mary Richardson, chief executive of the HSBC education trust which sponsors more than 100 schools across the country, is quoted as saying "The trusts are a good opportunity for universities and for livery companies, but I do not think that a bank has the right educational expertise". It is also reported that of the seven organisations explicitly mentioned by the DfES as helping develop the Trust school initiative at least three have said they do not plan to set up Trust schools themselves.[55]

55. When we put this problem to the Secretary of State she answered in part by saying that the Department was currently working with "a lot" of universities, although she considered that it would be inappropriate to name them at that stage.[56] In her speech to the North of England Education Conference on 6 January she was prepared to name three—Exeter, West of England and Portsmouth[57]—and we will be interested to see whether others will come forward. We recommend that the Government should publish a list of bodies it considers appropriate to act as Trust sponsors. It should also publish details of those organisations which have been approved by the DfES.

56. One witness who spoke strongly in favour of Trusts was Dr Melvyn Kershaw, head teacher of Haybridge High School at Hagley in Worcestershire. He told us:

"My school is a high-performing specialist school. We have other nearby schools with which we work as a collaborative. We are working as closely as possible to plan a common timetable in a couple of years' time and to employ a development officer jointly, but to take those next steps we need a stronger framework that will help us to move forward and the trust framework would be ideal for us. If we could have some sort of trust it would appoint governing bodies for our collaborating schools and I think it would form a body that would have considerable strength to move forward, that would take over lots of functions that we now do separately and do them together and plan our future jointly. There would be an attitudinal change amongst us. I must say my colleagues over a range of schools, two in very challenging areas, one special school, were all very keen on taking those next steps. It is quite difficult to do that now. It depends upon us sitting round and talking as headteachers whereas we would rather like a little more structure."[58]

57. This model of a federation or collaborative group of schools coming together to form a Trust appears to us to be more likely to have an attraction than having a Trust for an individual school. Indeed both in the White Paper[59] and in the Trust Schools Prospectus there is considerable emphasis on Trusts bringing schools together or operating as a group. We believe it is essential that Trusts do operate in a collaborative fashion and that Government embeds in any legislation requirements for this to be monitored at local and national level. We make specific recommendations elsewhere for mechanisms to effect this. The prospectus says that Trusts will enjoy the benefits of collaboration "in a much simpler, more sustainable way".[60] It does not offer any hard examples of how it will be simpler, although it does speak of economies of scale and efficiencies in administration, finance and purchasing.

58. There are a range of issues here. The White Paper says that "the governing body would first consult parents" if it wishes to join or form a Trust, but which parents? Those of children currently at the school? Those of children who might go to the school over the next two or three years? Or all parents/residents of the local authority area? The local authority can object to the adjudicator if it considers the governing body has not taken account of the view of the majority of parents, but what about on other grounds in relation to school provision in the area? If, for example, a school which is not a faith school joined a faith-based Trust in an area which already has a significant number of church schools, that would impact on the authority's duty to promote choice and diversity, so would it not be reasonable to allow an objection on those grounds? If schools come together under one Trust, how will that affect their relationship with the local authority? If all the secondary schools in an area are part of the same Trust how would that affect the authority's role of ensuring appropriate provision?

59. Another proposal that has been criticised is that the governing bodies of Trust schools should only have one elected parent governor, although one-third of the governing body will be parents, the others being appointed by the Trust. We consider that this reduces parental influence rather than increases it. If Trusts are formed, it should be a requirement that all parent governors on a Trust school governing body should be elected by parents of children at the school.

60. The lack of clarity over what a Trust school is and what it can do has not helped the Government. In the Five Year Strategy the talk was of independent specialist schools (that is, foundation schools), but that document explicitly said that there would be no new types of school.[61] Just over a year later, the Schools White Paper was published containing the proposal for Trust schools, apparently in contradiction of that statement. However, it appears that it is not a contradiction but another example of the confusion that has bedevilled this White Paper.

61. In evidence, the Secretary of State said that Trust schools were not a new invention but were foundation schools in everything but name. She said that she preferred the term self-governing school in trying to draw a distinction: "Foundation schools will all be called self-governing and foundation schools with a foundation will be trust schools".[62]Table 1: Maintained Primary and Secondary Schools: Number of schools by status, Jan 2005
Voluntary Aided
Voluntary Controlled
Primary 10,9613,754 2,561366 17,642
Secondary 2,193559 120513 3,385
Total 13,1544,313 2,681879 21,027
There are also 14 City Technology Colleges and 27 Academies

Source: DfES Statistical First Release, Schools and Pupils in England, SFR 42/2005, 28 September 2005

62. If the concept of a Trust School is used, therefore, simply to describe a sub-set of the existing legislative category of foundation school (i.e. those foundations schools with a foundation) it is unclear why new legislation is necessary to establish trust schools. The Government must provide urgent clarification on this point.

63. On the question of whether schools would be offered inducements to become Trusts, or be put under pressure to do so, the Secretary of State was quite explicit:

"We are certainly not trying to coerce or bribe schools to become trusts".[63]

Given that assurance, it appears that the decision for schools to become Trust schools will be a bottom-up process rather than top-down, the kind of example that Dr Kershaw gave us. Collaborations and federations have become increasingly common, as shown by the fact that the four headteachers who gave evidence to us at different points in the inquiry were all involved in co-operative arrangements of some sort. Some commentators suggested that other changes, such as the arrangements for reporting performance, might be rather more effective than Trusts in fostering further collaboration. We carefully noted the evidence given by Sir Cyril Taylor and Ms Elizabeth Reid, Chairman and Chief Executive respectively of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, who both argued that the Trust concept was primarily designed to increase collaboration between schools. We recommend, therefore, the model of a federation of two or more schools as the preferred option for the development of the Trust school concept.

64. Where, though, does this leave the role of the Schools Commissioner? The Secretary of State told us that the Schools Commissioner would be a DfES civil servant, advising her on the exercise of her powers in the way that all the officials in her department do. It is legitimate for the Department to provide advice and assistance to those schools who wish to form Trusts, but the title of Schools Commissioner implies a more executive role than that which the Secretary of State described.

65. Given the Secretary of State's statement that schools will not be bribed or coerced into becoming Trust schools, and given the lack of enthusiasm we have found in the course of the inquiry for schools to become Trusts, we believe that the Schools Commissioner should perform a much less executive role in relation to the promotion and establishment of Trust schools than suggested in the White Paper. We do, however, make recommendations about some significant additional strategic responsibilities for the Commissioner later on in this report. We therefore recommend that the Schools Commissioner should not be or remain a serving DfES civil servant after appointment and indeed that it might be useful for Government to seek an appointee from outside DfES. The Commissioner should be established at arm's length from the Department reporting to Parliament through the Select Committee as well as to ministers in DfES. This will be essential to enable her or him to operate in a more independent manner and enjoy the confidence of all parties concerned.

66. The Secretary of State told us that the Government did not have targets for the number of schools it wanted to become Trusts: "This is something that schools will have to decide, whether it is in the interests of their pupils to take up this option".[64] This appears to be a very different approach to that taken when the White Paper was published when there was a sense that the majority of schools would be expected to become Trust schools. It may be that this was a misapprehension, but it was the source of much of the concern about the White Paper. Becoming a Trust school may be attractive to some schools, and the DfES should advise and assist those who wish to do so, but it should be one option in a pluralist schools system. The promotion of Trust schools should not be an overriding policy objective.

67. A related issue is the proposed ban on the establishment of new community schools, which has also been a bone of contention. The Government is aiming for a clear division between schools as independent providers of education and local authorities as commissioners, enablers and strategic planners. However, if, as our discussion of Trust schools has shown, there is a lack of enthusiasm for Trust schools and many current community schools remain community schools, local authorities are going to remain in their present position as providers of education (even though, as we discuss in the next chapter, that provision is for the most part at arm's length).

68. We have also heard concerns from a number of witnesses about the knock-on effects of school expansion on other schools in the neighbouring area if this is not done carefully and with close co-operation and consultation. This is an issue not just for Trust Schools but for existing ones. Many head teachers are themselves concerned that expansion might affect their ability to function on an optimum basis and spread good practice and work collaboratively with other schools in the locality. Sir Alan Steer, whose report has made a significant contribution to the White Paper on discipline issues, himself said he would not wish to expand his own school beyond its existing size. We urge Government to have due regard to these concerns and to implement mechanisms in the Bill to allay them. We make some recommendations to this effect later on.

69. It seems therefore that this clear division is not going to come about without the Government requiring it. If it is not going to require it, the rationale for preventing further community schools being established no longer applies. There is no reason why a local authority should not put forward a proposal for a new community school when a competition for a new school is to be held, given that whenever a local authority does put forward a proposal of its own the decision on the competition will be made by the Schools Adjudicator.

70. There is already a considerable diversity of school types in England, an issue which our predecessors considered in the last Parliament.[65] We see this diversity as a strength rather than a weakness, as long as all maintained schools abide by common rules on admissions, fair access and social composition.

43   Five year Strategy, Chapter 4, paras 21 to 24. Back

44   White Paper, paras 2.10 to 2.12. Back

45   ibid, para 2.16. Back

46   ibid, para 2.21. Back

47   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report, Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94, paras 122 and 123. Back

48   Q 421 Back

49   Q 767 Back

50   ibid Back

51   Q289 Back

52   Q 345 Back

53   Q 355 Back

54   Q 245 Back

55   Firms say no to trust schools, Times Educational Supplement, 25 November 2005. Back

56   Q 723 Back

57   Kelly tackles trust school fears, BBC News Online, 6 January 2006: Back

58   Q 424 Back

59   paras 2.17and 18 Back

60   Trust Schools prospectus, page 2. Back

61   Five Year Strategy, Chapter 4, para 3. Back

62   Q 717 Back

63   Q 731 Back

64   Q 709 Back

65   Education and Skills Committee, Fourth Report, Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Diversity of Provision, HC 94. Back

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