The 'growing pains' of academy trusts

Academy trusts are at the centre of the government’s plans for a self-improving school system. But trust leaders often talk about the ‘growing pains’ associated with effectively recruiting and incorporating new schools. Nicola West Jones, head of market research at The Key, teases out some issues facing trust leaders

In January 2019, the government reported that more than 50 per cent of children in state-funded schools in England are taught in an academy, and that standards are rising faster in these schools than in similar maintained settings. At the time of writing, there are 1,512 trusts with two or more schools in England, many of which have their eye on expansion in the coming years.

Such trusts are at the centre of the government’s plans for a self-improving school system. But trust leaders often talk about the ‘growing pains’ associated with effectively recruiting and incorporating new schools, and at the same time building up central operations. And with such a focus on growth, just how manageable is it to drive school improvement, and to provide the level of support for teaching and learning that is so pivotal to that?

Earlier this year, we set out to uncover the current state of affairs in the academy trust sector, as well as leaders’ plans for the future and the decisions and challenges they face. The Key has always had a big focus on continuous market research, as a way of staying on the pulse of the sector, and our members’ needs. Despite having conducted research into academy trusts in the middle of 2018, with the pace of change increasing, we were aware that research was quickly becoming out of date. So in early May 2019, and in partnership with Forum Strategy, we began qualitative analysis amongst trusts with at least two, and up to 30+, schools, to tease out some of the big trends impacting their day to day. From here, these trends were pulled into a survey which was completed by some 179 trust leaders in July 2019 of this year. The findings are summarised below.

Growth dominates trust leaders’ priorities

For more than half (53 per cent) of respondents, “improving budgets” and / or “raising income" is their highest priority for the coming academic year. Similarly, 39 per cent named “adding schools” and/or “merging” as a top three priority. Growth is largely considered to be a necessary facet of trust life – albeit one treated with caution. Indeed, findings further indicate that just 12 per cent of trust leaders have “no concerns” over their financial viability over the next three years, which could explain these growth-focussed priorities.

Trusts aren’t finding it easy to grow

Over half (54 per cent) of the leaders we surveyed are currently trying to grow, and are either actively looking for new schools to acquire (25 per cent), in the process of acquiring schools (24 per cent), or planning to merge with another trust (five per cent).

However, only a small percentage (11 per cent) are finding it easy to attract new schools, 27 per cent are finding it difficult, and 12 per cent very difficult. While leaders agreed that acquiring more schools will lead to better school improvement, financial sustainability, and collaboration – overwhelmingly, they also shared that they don’t want to lose their “family feel” by growing too big.

The findings also reveal that it's not typical for trusts to have control over, or proactively lead on, decisions about adding schools either. Only 13 per cent of the survey respondents usually approach schools they think will be a good fit, while 24 per cent find that other schools typically approach them. For a further 19 per cent, the regional schools commissioner usually comes to them with a school to take on.  

For a trust that’s focusing on growth, a merger would seemingly provide a quick win. However, we found that overwhelmingly, 77 per cent of trusts are not considering mergers. Many leaders fear their trust would lose its ethos; others have concerns around a merger being, in practice, more like a ‘takeover’, with smaller or worse-performing trusts being swallowed up by larger ones. However, with the recent introduction of funding to support mergers from the trust capacity fund, could this be set to change?

Trusts have concerns about growth

Indeed, the research uncovered that most trust leaders have concerns about growth. In picking their top three worries, more than half (53 per cent) of leaders said they are concerned about spreading out their trust’s area of operation too far geographically, and 51 per cent feel that growth could have a negative effect on existing schools in the trust and their ability to support them.

With a focus on financial viability, it’s clear that trusts feel they need to grow in order to survive, despite their concerns. This conflicted view about growth is mirrored in respondents’ biggest personal drivers - more than four in 10 (44 per cent) are driven by ensuring the schools in the trust are supportive and inspiring places to work and learn, and a similar proportion (41%) are driven by securing strong outcomes for pupils. Only two per cent said they are personally driven by growth.

While it's not hugely surprising that a leader’s personal and professional drivers would differ, this stat is worth noting given the climate of external scepticism about the motivations of trust leaders.

The benefits of being in a trust

Putting these challenges to one side, we heard many positive stories about what it’s like to be part of a trust - and indeed, how many leaders are breaking new ground despite limited guidance and an acute sense of accountability. With no blueprint for trust leadership, respondents said that they are regularly working together to share best practice (87 per cent) and striving to build their trust into something incredible for the benefit of their students, staff and communities.

Given that supporting staff and pupils is clearly a big personal driver, we probed trust leaders about how they’ve worked towards becoming an employer of choice. We found that many trusts are focusing on offering good CPD (44 per cent) and enhancing career pathways (35 per cent) to attract and retain staff.

In particular, they believed teaching staff benefit from being part of a trust through opportunities for sharing best practice with peers (92 per cent) and career development (81 per cent). Meanwhile, school office staff can focus on the day to day (66 per cent) and the areas in which they’re trained (49 per cent).

Looking ahead

Some trusts are realising the opportunity that being in a group provides when addressing strategic priorities and big sector issues – such as reducing workload, using economies of scale to maximise resources, flexible working and enhanced community engagement. Others, however, will firstly need to get their central services to sufficient scale and financial viability, which, as we’ve seen comes with a myriad of considerations.

What is clear from our research is that trust leaders are pushing through the pain barrier, and it’s important to recognise the phenomenal amount of work that trust leaders put into making sure they’re scaling up as effectively as they can, while not losing focus on their altruistic aim of delivering better outcomes for their pupils.

Nicola West Jones is head of market research at The Key, a provider of up-to-the-minute sector intelligence and resources that empower education leaders with the knowledge to act.