Compulsory MAT status?

Posted on May 7th, 2021

We considered this in our answer to a Do you know? question earlier this year: But since then, things have moved on. The question was:

How likely do you think it is that the government will revisit its previous intention of getting all schools into MATs?

At the time, our reply went back over government statements about academisation to the White Paper in March 2016 (Educational Excellence Everywhere’) which proposed that all schools should become either single academies or part of an academy chain by 2022. Chapter 4 of the White Paper strongly emphasised the advantages of the formation of multi-academy trusts (MATs).

The White Paper was not translated into legislation and no specific bill was put before parliament for the next three or more years, largely, we suspect, because of financial pressures at the time. Instead, the emphasis shifted to marketing the advantages of schools belonging to a MAT – alongside a statutory requirement that schools judged inadequate by Ofsted would automatically be required to join a MAT. Up to 2021, the government concentrated on using persuasion and incentives to join MATs. Ministers have sought to increase participation by providing growth funding for MATs and through moves to re-broker struggling small academies into larger groups.

At the time we answered the question, signs were that the government still wanted to see far more schools in MATs. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, made two significant speeches in early March 2021. In the first of these he said that by 2025 the government wanted to see ‘far more schools residing in strong families than we do today and we are actively looking at how we can make that happen’. A few days later Mr Williamson repeated that he was proposing to promote to school leaders the benefits of membership of a MAT. But he also said that there were currently no plans to legislate to force schools to join MATs. So the response we gave to our enquirer was that we thought that there would be increased pressure to join MATs but not compulsion.

This has turned out to be the case. The government is clearly committed to making it as easy as possible for schools to join MATs this summer. On 28 April, the Education Secretary said that strong and effective governance is a characteristic of MATs as well as a ‘focus on what they know will improve outcomes for pupils and think beyond their own schools’. He went on to announce:

  • A ‘try before you buy system’ for maintained schools and single academy trusts to become temporarily attached to a larger MAT to ascertain the benefits of joining a MAT permanently.
  • A fund of £24 million in the 2021/22 financial year to help grow ‘strong MATs’.
  • £1.25 million for a new turnaround Catholic Trust for schools in need of intensive support.
  • A partnership with the Church of England and the Catholic Church to set up new Church. academy trusts.

Details would be confirmed in due course and the DfE will consult fully with the sector before making these changes. Mr Williamson also confirmed that this is a vision and schools will not be compelled to join a MAT.

DfE guidance on ‘Building strong academy trusts’ was published alongside this speech.

Reactions to this vision

Reactions to the vision have been mixed. There are organisations that believe there are alternatives to ‘MATs for all’. One such is the EDSK think-tank, that proposed back in 2019 that the academies programme, rather than being continued, should be replaced by a single unified school system and that MATs should become ‘national school trusts’. While the National Governance Association (NGA) in principle supports the concept of ‘a formal group of schools governed by a single governing board’, it agrees with the Education Secretary that schools should be persuaded by the evidence to join a MAT, but not compelled to do so. The NGA also supports the idea of regional schools commissioners making a commitment to working with more of the smaller trusts and considering them first as a destination MAT rather than always taking the option of recommending the bigger better known trusts.