30 May, 2023
The Department for Education (DfE) has recently published draft set of "quality" descriptions for multi-academy trusts (MATs). It is hoped by the DfE that this new guidance, provides MATs and single academy trusts looking to expand, with greater clarity surrounding the DfE's expectations of "quality", before seeking its agreement to expand, consequently setting a benchmark for improvement and/or assessment against.
In March 2022, the Schools White Paper (can be read here) highlighted expectation that MATs and single academy trusts looking to expand should incorporate "effective and robust governance structure," by outlining five 'pillars of quality for MATs', these are:
This proposal was referred to in March 2023, within the Academies regulatory and commissioning review report (can be read here), in which the DfE committed to building on the five pillars, by setting out detailed descriptions of each. The DfE specified its aim that these descriptions should represent "a clear and ambitious vision for the academies sector."
This pillar is intended to focus on a number of key themes, including: culture; curriculum; student outcomes; accessible to all; inclusive pastoral support; enrichment; behaviour and attendance; destinations and collaboration.
As a central aim, the DfE highlights the importance of creating a culture "that is motivating and ambitious for all, including disadvantaged children and children with SEND, so that students can achieve their full potential."
From a governance perspective, this quality pillar demonstrates keen focus on creating justifiable and fair admissions policies, to allow wide ranging access to MATs for children across local areas. Moreover, this pillar focuses on proactive collaboration, which other schools, academy trusts, local authorities and dioceses to "ensure the delivery of statutory functions and acts in the wider interests of the local community."
This quality intended to surround the central theme of culture, in addition to school improvement models, transformation and system-led improvement. From a culture perspective, the DfE particularly wants to promote an ethos of continuous improvement, particularly through self-evaluation. This focus, should encourages MATs and other academy trusts to reflect on their internal processes for review, including staff review and appraisal and internal auditing processes.
A key element of the 'School Improvement' quality standard surrounds maintaining effective strategies for improving performance; indicate willingness and commitment to take on challenging schools to help bring about improvement; and, support the wider MAT network in sharing best practice and continuous improvement methods. This expectation undoubtedly adds a degree of pressure to existing MATs and those looking to become MATs, to create a continued record and sustainable system of improvement with underperforming and challenging schools. For single academies looking to become MATs, it creates a distinct expectation to account for the inclusion of underperforming and challenging schools within its expansion, which may be difficult in the short to medium term, despite obvious alignment with Government policy regarding MATs.
The DfE are also seeking to encourage MATs to consider the wellbeing and the working conditions of staff to ensure that they have been equipped with adequate resources. The DfE's intention is to create "high-performing cultures" and contribute to the "wider system by delivering training and/or placements" for more inexperienced staff.
This particular quality pillar will require MATs to reflect on all aspects of its employment relationships with staff, alongside its provision for staff wellbeing and support, including: recruitment policies; conditions of employment; appraisal policies; and, support for continual professional development. MATs are also expected to positively promote in equality and diversity in the workplace, which should be clearly reflected in practices, policies and procedures.
With regards to finance, the DfE's intention is to reinforce recognition of the importance of effective, and sustainable financial strategies, to promote effective use of resources, for the benefit of MAT groups as a whole, alongside the wider education system. This quality pillar puts a clear expectation on MATs to implement effective financial systems and controls, through unambiguous and robust policies.
The DfE proposes a culture that ensures:
"[t]he board and executive leadership team anchor the trust's strategy in the needs of its schools, the communities they serve and the wider educational system in line with its charitable objects. The Accounting Officer, board and leadership team create a culture of ethical leadership, including the Seven Principles of Public Life."
The guidance also reiterates that individuals appointed to the board of trustees should ensure that they "they have the necessary expertise" to serve the needs of the MAT, and that the board as a whole, works to ensure that it works to promote the charitable objects of the MAT. Whilst this is considered fundamental by most, the proposed guidance does provide an ideal opportunity for MATs and other academy trusts to consider the suitability of its current governance structure and seek advice regarding improvement, where required.
A complete copy of the quality descriptions is available here. It should, however, be noted that the guidance published is currently in draft format, the government is seeking to publish the finalised version in June 2023. In the meantime, MATs and other academy trusts are encouraged to that they are engaging with the guidance and providing opportunity to feedback where opportunity for improvement is identified.
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