48.We heard throughout our inquiry that successful MATs are those which have expanded slowly and adopted either a regional cluster model or based themselves in just one region. Ark, one of the highest performing trusts, told us that “working in clusters of schools across four regions allows us to share resources and to take advantage of economies of scale”. They also said that their regional model allows them to “support peer to peer learning” and staff development.
49.Professor Merryn Hutchings, Emeritus Professor, Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University, told us that her research with The Sutton Trust showed that trusts “that are doing well have tended to have had slow expansion in a relatively limited geographical region”.
50.Several witnesses were critical of the Department’s initial encouragement for “speedy growth” of MATs. Lucy Heller, Chief Executive of ARK, told us:
I think the Department was certainly encouraging speedy growth. It seemed to me that when you asked the question about whether there is a link between school performance and speed of MAT growth, the answer is obviously yes.
51.E-Act’s Chief Executive David Moran admitted that his trust had suffered from focusing on taking on too many schools too quickly. This led to E-Act being the first MAT to go through the re-brokerage process, losing ten schools:
I think the speed of growth with a lack of strategy, a lack of a school improvement vision, a lack of an understanding of where the schools are, and a lack of transparent governance structures and systems and processes all combined to see the historic failure that was prevalent at E-ACT three years ago.
52.We asked Sir David Carter whether he thought MATs have been allowed to expand too rapidly across too wide a geographical area. He responded:
Yes, I do, and I think in some cases that has been a factor in underperformance—not in every one. As I said before, I think we need to be careful that we do not equate size and rapid growth with failure. I think there are examples where you can do that.
53.Sir Michael Wilshaw described this attitude towards MAT expansion as “pile them high, sell them cheap. Let’s empire build rather than have the capacity to improve these schools”.
Box 1: Case study: Eastbrook Primary Academy
As part of our inquiry we visited Eastbrook Primary Academy in Southwick, West Sussex on 1 November. The school converted to academy status in 2013 after receiving an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted rating. On conversion it joined Reach2 MAT, the country’s largest primary only trust. In September 2015 the school received an ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted.
During the visit we met Sir Steve Lancashire, Chief Executive of Reach2, Headteacher Julia Sherlock, Chair of Governors Dr Louise Askew and teaching staff.
Reach2 operates 52 primary academies across England. They are based in regional clusters. Sir Steve told us in oral evidence:
Our schools are in regional clusters, and that is very important because they can collaborate with each other, but it also means that we can absolutely build a team around them to make the kind of intervention that we would need to.64
During our visit we heard how staff from Eastbrook visit other Reach2 academies in their region to share best practice and also conduct mock inspections to learn from each other.
Reach2 has also developed strong regional governance structures. A three tier structure includes the Reach Academy Trust Board, Regional Boards and Local Governing Bodies. During our visit we talked about the school’s relationship with their local community and the emphasis the school puts on developing strong relationship with parents. They told us the importance of creating trust between the school and parents, especially during the academy conversion process.
We were particularly impressed with the strength of leadership in the school, particularly during their conversion to academy status and during the process of joining Reach2. The trust has a strong focus on continuous professional development (CPD) for its teachers and runs programmes centrally for academies in its network. We also heard how staff move across the trust, offering greater career development opportunities.
54.In its early enthusiasm for MATs, the Government encouraged trusts to expand too quickly over too large geographical regions. Schools which operate within close proximity to one another are best able to share resources and expertise and subsequently can most successfully take advantage of being part of a MAT.
55.In oral evidence in June 2016 Sir David Carter committed to the expansion of the “strongest” MATs. In a prior speech to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference in March 2016 he stated that 1,000 new MATs will be created by 2020. Lord Nash was more reserved in his predictions in November, but speculated that in 25 years’ time, there may be a MAT with “hundreds of schools in it”.
We now have 500 MATs of between three and 10 schools, and over the next few years many of those will be expanding to maybe double figures, 15 schools.
56.Several research reports over the last year have indicated that expansion on this level is not backed up by evidence that MATs are a successful route to school improvement. The Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) report School performance in multi-academy trusts and local authorities–2015 presented a mixed picture of the overall performance of MATs. The report stated:
There are undoubtedly high-performing multi-academy trusts that are sustaining high rates of progress for their pupils [ … ] but the picture is far from consistent and joining a trust is not guaranteed to drive improvement.
57.The EPI’s report compared the performance of pupils in MATs with those in local authority schools across the country. It found that “taken in aggregate there is not substantial or consistent evidence for MATs being more effective than local authorities or vice versa”. Natalie Perera, EPI’s Executive Director, cast doubt on Sir David’s forecast of a thousand MATs by 2020. She said that until we know what makes a strong and effective MAT we cannot say whether such figures are robust or realistic.
58.This lack of evidence for expansion was also discussed by Professor Toby Greany and Dr Melanie Ehren. They stated that there is “no robust evidence that MATs secure consistent or sustained impact”. They also described the problem of “designing in flight” which a rapid pace of expansion leads to and said this can create incoherence, uncertainty and risk.
59.As more schools academise and join or create MATs, local authorities will play a less significant role in the school system. Educational Excellence Everywhere outlined three areas where local authorities will continue to play a role in local education provision:
(1) Ensuring every child has a school place. The Government will continue to fund councils to manage school admissions and school transport;
(2) Ensuring the needs of vulnerable pupils are met. This includes provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND);
(3) Acting as champions for all parents and families. Local authorities should continue to support parents and students going through the admissions process and where necessary discuss underperformance with the RSC.
60.We asked the Secretary of State in September what she saw as the role for local authorities as MATs increase in number and size:
For local authorities, we have also finally seen the regional schools commissioners now take their place within this structure [ … ] Local authorities can play a role; it is making sure that they have the right role and it is making sure that local authorities, regional schools commissioners, MATs, headteacher boards, everybody has a clear sense of where they fit into this picture, what their particular role is and also how it relates to the other people in the schools ecosystem around them, if I can call it that.
61.The capacity for local authorities to fulfil the duties outlined in the white paper was questioned by Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT). He said:
That would seem to be a very sensible role for the local authority to fulfil as a champion of the most vulnerable children in their area, but as previous speakers have said, you have to give them the powers to match their responsibilities. That means powers across maintained and academy schools so that if they need to direct an academy to increase its places or to accept children with SEN needs, they can do so.
62.On the same panel Emma Knights said she feared that the system risked “haemorrhaging expertise” as those employed by local authorities leave the sector. She also highlighted the risks to inter-agency working within local authorities which could particularly impact vulnerable children and young people. This valuable part of the local authority remit was recognised by Oasis in their evidence:
The services currently provided by LAs that our academies, and the wider education sector, benefit from are numerous and multifaceted. For example, OCL does not currently have the resource to provide education psychologists or specialist SEN provision, or the ability to provide the multi-agency support necessary for vulnerable children.
63.Allowing local authorities to set up their own MATs has been suggested and several areas have explored this possibility. Barnsley Council published a paper which suggested that they may establish their own MAT. The document is reported as saying:
The council may also want to consider the option of establishing its own multi-academy trust, and the benefits and risks of that option in relation to the education outcomes, relationship with schools, viability and sustainability.
64.It is not yet clear under what circumstances or arrangements a council might establish a trust. The RSCs we heard from didn’t shed any further light on this but were positive about their relationship with the local authorities they work with.
I cannot comment on everybody’s, but I have cited Leicestershire, for example, where we worked incredibly closely with the local authority in terms of bringing schools together in successful clusters to form MATs, very much utilising the knowledge of the local authority in relation to the particular strengths of leadership that are there.
65.Jennifer Bexon-Smith commented on the impact which the “political complexion of the local authority” can have on their relationship. She told us that in the “vast majority” of cases she has a positive relationship but that “where they sit” can have an impact.
66.The following quote from Educational Excellence Everywhere implies that individuals from local authorities may be encouraged to use their expertise to set up MATs:
To retain expertise in the system and ensure children continue to benefit from the best talent in local authorities, we expect that some individuals working in local authority teams will leave to set up new trusts or join existing ones and become academy sponsors.
67.When we asked Nicky Morgan about the white paper’s content she told us that “we are absolutely open to the opportunities offered by those working in local authorities with schools to set up trusts”.
68.There remains a high degree of uncertainty around the effectiveness of MATs and there is not yet the evidence to prove that large scale expansion would significantly improve the school landscape. Only time will tell whether multi-academy trusts are more successful than local authorities at creating and supporting high-performing schools and tackling underperformance.
69.The Government must clearly define the future role of local authorities, particularly in areas with high numbers of academies. The current uncertainty about their place in the school system is not sustainable and making their role clear should be a priority for the Secretary of State. Their relationship with RSCs must also form a part of this and formal protocols between local authorities and the RSC structure should be established.
70.If the Government is to pursue the goal of further academisation, it will need to partner with and use the expertise of local authorities. Local authorities with a track record of strong educational performance should be allowed to use the expertise within their education departments to create MATs.
71.The transfer of schools from local authority control to MATs has placed pressure on the resources of the DfE and the EFA. Several witnesses cast doubt on the EFA’s ability to manage a significant expansion in the number of trusts. Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) concluded its written evidence by saying “we have some concerns over the role of the EFA as funder, controller and charity regulator”.
72.Professor Pam Stapleton and Dr Anne Stafford described the EFA’s resources as “very limited” and called their monitoring systems “light touch”. They also spoke of the reliance of the EFA on whistleblowers “to signal any concerns about financial probity and management”. NASUWT also included concerns about the role of whistleblowers in their submission:
In many cases, concerns about financial impropriety by MATs have only been addressed by the EFA once issues were brought to its attention by whistleblowers.
73.In 2014 the National Audit Office (NAO) published a report into related-party transactions at the Durand Academy Trust. The NAO reported:
The Agency’s [EFA] judgement on whether the disclosed related party transactions present a risk to public funds is often founded on other sources of information, such as whistleblowing reports or the Agency’s own register of academies of national concern. The Agency does not routinely follow-up with academies to ensure that related party transactions have been disclosed nor do they have the capacity to be able to carry out these checks. It does carry out a more detailed review at academy trusts where there is a cause for concern.
74.A significant expansion of MATs will place further pressures on the financial oversight capabilities of the Department and the Education Funding Agency. It is far from clear that the Department or EFA can cope with this degree of growth over the next five or six years.
75.The Department and EFA should outline the expected increase in MATs over the next five or six year planning period, and the likely resource implications that will result. Doing so would help allay our concerns that there is insufficient planning and resources to cope with impending developments.
76.Financial management in trusts has featured in this inquiry and in our ongoing work on financial management at the DfE. Twenty-five financial notices to improve were published to academy trusts in 2016, compared to seven notices in 2015. More notices were issued in 2016 than in any other since notices were first issued in 2012. The data also shows that 25 schools, in seven trusts, have been re-brokered due to financial mismanagement. Trusts which are issued with notices have restrictions placed on their spending and must meet certain conditions to avoid their funding being stopped.
77.During our session on financial management with Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General, he made the following comments on the nature of an academy system where schools are given a high level of autonomy:
It is fair to say if you want something that is going to be a very free system, if I can call it that—I am trying to use that for shorthand—what you are going to have to deal with is more turbulence because there are so many individual decision points and schools that can set their own style that some of them are inevitably going to do things that you might, as a parliamentarian, think, “It is not illegal but we do not like the look of it very much”. It goes with the nature of the system. There are probably benefits to that system. I am not saying that is only the disbenefits. There are benefits as well. I think it is a feature. Then you have to determine what level of oversight works with that. There is a lot of trial and error involved.
78.Despite a range of proactive and reactive measures taken by EFA to promote strong financial management in academy trusts, the Department has a long way to go in order to demonstrate that public money disbursed to academies is being used effectively.
79.In March 2016 although 75% of primary academies were part of a MAT, 82% of primaries remained under local authority control. The majority of MATs now include some primary provision. Two-fifths of trusts have no mix of phases and are entirely primary, secondary or special provision.
80.Small primary schools, particularly those in rural locations, are especially vulnerable to isolation as MATs spread in size and number. Witnesses told us that there is little financial incentive for these schools to academise and join MATs as the process can put a “huge drain” on the financial resources of a small primary school.
81.The Church of England education office told us that small primary schools are significantly less likely to join MATs:
It is also the case that secondary schools and larger primaries have been more likely to establish or join MATs while smaller schools (those with less than 100 pupils and particularly those with less than 50 pupils) have either been seen as not sufficiently attractive in financial terms to MAT or potential MAT leaders or are themselves less interested in MAT structures.
82.The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) commented that there is greater need for local authority support in the primary sector:
A reliance on existing local authority support structures may be one of the reasons fewer primary schools have chosen to convert to academy status than secondaries. It may also explain why the proportion of primary academies that are not part of a MAT is smaller than the proportion of secondary academies that are not part of a MAT.
83.We asked several witnesses whether they thought trusts operate better with a ‘vertical’ structure which includes primary and secondary provision, or ‘horizontal’ with just one type of school. Janet Renou, RSC for the North of England, told us that she prefers a “family” approach where MATs include schools from primary to sixth-form. Lord Nash said he believes both structures work but that “as we have only about 20% of primaries currently in academies, we will see increasingly more primaries come together in horizontal integration”.
84.Small, rural primary schools are vulnerable as trusts take on more schools and the MAT model is currently not attractive to them. There is a risk that the primary sector will be left behind as secondary schools academise and join or form MATs.
85.As well as low numbers of primaries in trusts in rural areas, there are also fewer sponsors in areas such as Northumberland, North Yorkshire and Cumbria. Chapter 5 of Educational Excellence Everywhere, spoke of the need for “high quality sponsors, where they are needed.”
We will ensure national coverage of high quality sponsors, building on the growth of great leadership in recent years from outstanding schools spreading their reach and support through MATs.
86.In order to build sponsor capacity the white paper says it will recruit more sponsors from business, charity and philanthropy and support existing trusts and sponsors to expand in a particular region. The white paper also refers to the Northern Sponsor Fund “a targeted intervention to build new clusters of sponsors in the north of England, particularly in areas without any high-performing sponsors at the moment”. The Government has also created the regional academy growth fund to support trusts to grow.
87.Lucy Heller commented on the disparity between sponsor capacity in London and rural areas:
It is not just about where the MAT has capacity but, equally, what the capacity is in that area. I am conscious that in London, for instance, there is a huge wealth of capacity of MATs who have the capacity, ability and desire to deliver school improvement. If you are looking particularly in rural areas and along the coast, there is much less of that, so I think in some cases the RSCs may simply be saying they have to work with what is there.
88.This was acknowledged by the RSCs we heard from. Rebecca Clark spoke of the challenges in her region of “finding solutions to build capacity on the reaches of Exmoor” compared to building capacity in Bristol.
89.There were also concerns from several witnesses over the quality of new and existing sponsors. Professor Hutchings expressed doubts over the rigour of the DfE’s vetting process for new sponsors. She said:
The record of the Government in accepting new sponsors and saying, “Yes, you can be a sponsor”, has been that most have been accepted. There does not seem to have been a very rigorous vetting process, and yet we need the new sponsors to hit the ground running.
90.In January 2017 Schools Week reported that 57 sponsors had at different times been put on the Government’s ‘pause list’ and instructed not to take on any more schools. Worryingly some of these trusts have “ducked the ban” and taken more schools on. Ofsted has recently given poor Ofsted ratings to academies in several high profile trusts. In January WCAT, a beneficiary of the Northern Sponsor Fund, had two schools rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.
91.RSCs are struggling to find or expand existing sponsors in rural areas of the country. There is a risk that this scarcity leads to the appointment of sponsors without a quality track record. The Department must prioritise support and funding to trusts which take on struggling schools in such areas. They must also focus on quality when finding and vetting new sponsors across the country. The Government should investigate any claims of trusts flouting bans on expansion.
56 Ark () para 2
57 () para 10
62 At a Westminster Education Forum event on 19 October 2016 Sir David said: “there’s this myth in the system that says something like this. It says some of our early multi-academy trusts grew too fast too soon and that’s why they failed. That’s a myth because it’s not true. Yes some of them did grew quite quick but because they grew quickly wasn’t why they failed”.
66 ‘1,000 new multi-academy trusts needed by 2020, says national schools commissioners’, Schools Week, 11 March 2016
69 Education Policy Institute, (July 2016) School performance in multi-academy trusts and local authorities-2015
70 (July 2016), p 32 School performance in multi-academy trusts and local authorities-2015
72 Professor Toby Greany and Dr Melanie Ehren, UCL Institute of Education ()
75 Department for Education, Educational Excellence Everywhere, , March 2016, p 69
76 Oral evidence taken on 14 September 2016, HC (2016–17) 196, Q249
80 Oasis Community Learning () para 12
81 “Barnsley Council may consider running its own group of academies”, Yorkshire Post, 28 June 2016
85 Department for Education, Educational Excellence Everywhere, , March 2016, p 83
86 Oral evidence taken on 27 April 2016, HC (2015–16) 402, Q102
87 Academies Enterprise Trust () para 2.28
88 Professor Pam Stapleton and Dr Anne Stafford () paras 3.3–3.4
89 () para 3.4
90 NASUWT () para 15
91 National Audit Office, Investigation into the Education Funding Agency’s oversight of related party transactions at Durand Academy,, November 2014
92 Department for Education, , accessed 11 January 2017
93 Oral evidence taken on 25 October 2016, HC (2016–17) 203, Q96
94 Department for Education () para 31
95 NFER () para 6
96 Education Policy Institute () para 17 (formerly known as Centre Forum)
97 () para 18
98 Professor Pam Stapleton and Dr Anne Stafford () para 1.4
99 Church of England Education Office () para 3.4
100 NFER () para 8
104 Department for Education, Educational Excellence Everywhere, , March 2016, p 80
105 , March 2016, p 81
106 Ibid, p 83
108 Department for Education, accessed 16 January 2017 ,
112 Schools Week, , 20 January 2017
113 this is a claim which the Committee has not taken evidence on.
27 February 2017