Revealed: Academy trust group’s fears over ‘stricken duck’ schools

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A group of influential multi-academy trusts issued a warning to government that its policies were encouraging “vulnerable” schools to join inexperienced MATs willing to “bet the farm” in order to grow, it has emerged.

The Queen Street Group (QSG), which operates on a mainly invitation-only basis, also called for more support for academy trusts taking on “stricken duck” schools, in briefings to the Department for Education last year.

The concerns are revealed in the group’s annual report, released today, which sets out its overall objectives for the coming year, including supporting smaller MATs; addressing barriers to potential female leaders; and the development of MATs as wider-community leaders.

The QSG, formally established in 2018, is made up of 17 trusts but said this week that it has grown to 35 members. It is chaired by Steve Taylor, of Cabot Learning Federation, and vice-chaired by Rowena Hackwood, of Astrea Academy Trust; Mark Jordan, of Creative Education Trust; and Dame Maura Regan, of Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust.

Its formal objective is to “advance education for the public benefit”, including by developing the expertise of senior staff and sharing insight between trusts.

While it tends not to make policy statements as a collective voice, its annual report contains several briefings produced by the group in the past year, giving an insight into how it is working to shape decisions behind the scenes.

The report also reveals that, of the nine QSG CEO group meetings during 2021-22three were attended by Rory Gribbell – former Number 10 education adviser and now special adviser to education secretary Gillian Keegan – and two were attended by academies minister Baroness Barran.

The group’s briefings include one prepared for the government’s review of the Education Skills and Funding Agency (ESFA), which reported back in February.

Academy bosses warn over ‘stricken duck schools’

The briefing warned of “a lack of realism in ESFA’s attitude to the financial costs of on-boarding failing schools.”

It explained that “prudent and experienced MAT boards are reluctant to take on large revenue deficits, restructuring costs and capital liabilities that have been incurred by previous managers”.

The briefing concluded that the consequence “over time of ESFA’s approach” was that “the most vulnerable schools” were likely to be allocated “to the least experienced operators who are willing to ‘bet the farm’ in order to grow their portfolio”.

In a separate briefing prepared ahead of March’s Opportunity for All Schools government White Paper, the group warned the DfE that officials must “secure adequate funds for the transfer of the remaining ‘stricken duck’ schools to established and well-run MATs”.

Speaking to Tes about today’s report, the group’s future direction and the challenges facing members, Ms Hackwood said there were “really significant questions” about trusts’ capacity to take on struggling schools with large deficits in the current financial climate.

However, she added, “schools are continuing to want to join trusts and trusts are continuing to want to take them on. I think [the financial climate] probably means that the level of due diligence that we do is significantly increased.”

Tes revealed earlier this month how trusts were pausing expansion plans in light of the budget pressures they were facing, with some saying they would not take on schools with financial deficits.

Funding boost eases ‘cliff edge’ position

While funding continued to be a concern for QSG members after last week’s surprise announcement that schools would receive a £4.6 million boost over two years, Mr Taylor said that “maybe some of the cliff-edge position has changed, and we’re not necessarily thinking with such a degree of urgency as we were before”.

However, he added that the financial situation would vary between trusts and schools.

Mr Taylor said the group had lobbied senior officials for more cash for schools by showing case studies of “really well-respected trusts who have a reputation for strong academic performance but also being really well run” that were “going to find the next few months really difficult” due to the energy crisis.

“I think that was really helpful,” he added.

For next year’s financial planning for schools and trusts, he said he hoped pay decisions would be made before budgets were submitted.

In agreement, Ms Hackwood said that the timing of this year’s increased teacher pay award had been “hugely problematic”, pushing her trust from a planned £1 million surplus to a £3 million deficit.

She added that there will also be staff retention concerns if pay awards are limited to 2 per cent next year, as has been reported.

QSG membership ‘not a tap on the shoulder’

Today’s annual report states that members join the QSG on an invitation basis, with criteria including “adherence to specific ethical requirements” and whether a trust complements “the overall geography, diversity, size and characteristics of existing member trusts”.

A disproportionate number of the 310,013 schools in the QSG’s trusts are sponsored academies.

Asked about the ethical requirements, Ms Hackwood said: “By dint of the kind of schools that we have within our organisations, we tend to be more likely to be strongly ethically driven, strongly aspiring to be transformative of educational outcomes and in deprived communities.”

The group aims to represent a variety of regions and MAT sizes, and had accepted some members who had approached them directly, she said, adding: “This is not a tapping on the shoulder kind of exercise”.

The QSG is not aiming to grow further but there was “absolutely nothing to stop like-minded people” from enquiring about joining”, Ms Hackwood added.

Asked whether there was anything that could result in a member being removed from the group, such as criticism for off-rolling or lack of pay restraint, Mr Taylor said this had never come up, but that the group would support members through difficult times.

Members range from four-school trusts to those with 60 schools, making it a “good cross section of the types of organisations that you currently find in the landscape”, Mr Taylor said, adding: “And I suppose that makes us interesting to each other. But also it makes us interesting as a conversation partner to influence policymakers.”

Unlike the Confederation of School Trusts, to which many QSG members also belong, “we don’t purport to speak as a single sector voice”, Ms Hackwood added.

Pledges

The group has set three “pledges” for 2022-23:

1. Establishing a programme to support the development of smaller MATs “drawing on the collective experience of QSG”.

2. To address “the practical and perceptual barriers to women moving into leadership roles in education, and encouraging authenticity in leadership, both male and female”.

3. To develop “practical ways in which MATs can work with multi-agencies in their local communities to enhance wider provision for children”.

One of the ways the group hopes to help women into leadership posts is through creating networking opportunities.

Female leaders “don’t feel that they need to be mollycoddled or handheld through their leadership journey”, said Ms Hackwood.

“They just need to know more about who knows what, develop their network, understand their pathway, be able to connect up with people who can help them to go on that journey,” she added.

Ms Hackwood said the group needed to be ready to discuss “the triumphs and tragedies of the development of the MAT system”.”

“We’ve got to make sure that we don’t repeat some of the horror stories of the past and that we learn from the real success stories,” she added.