Recently, politicians at Lancashire County Council have reflected on the national picture regarding the ambition of the Department for Education, contained in the White Paper on Education and the subsequent Schools Bill. The Bill aims to move all schools to become academies and to allow councils to open a Local Authority-established Multi Academy Trust (MAT), although some would argue that this was technically possible before.
The government’s aim to ensure that by a notional target of 2030, 90% of pupils meet the expected standard in maths and reading at Key Stage 2, and that the national GCSE average grade in both English language and maths is increased from a 4.5 to 5. It sets out its strategy of delivery: “ensuring excellent teachers, supporting teachers deliver high standards for all pupils, deploying targeted support for those who need it most, and ensuring a stronger school system”.
Key policies to achieve this include the ambition that there will be a fully Trust led system with a single regulatory approach, through growth of strong multi-academy trusts. The Bill envisages the establishment of new multi-academy trusts (MATs), encouraging existing and new MATs to expand and allowing trusts to be established by local authorities. The notional ambition is, that by 2030 all pupils will be taught in a strong MAT, or their school will be planning to join one.
The White Paper was released in March 2022 and subsequent Schools Bill was introduced to Parliament in May 2022.
At Lancashire County Council, we have a good relationship with our local authority-maintained schools, with single academy trusts (SATs) and with multi-academy trusts (MATs). We have prioritised the core responsibilities for local authorities on promoting the children’s right to education in terms of admissions, challenging exclusions and supporting alternatives and working with our schools collaboratively on behalf of young people with special educational needs. We became even closer as a result of the challenges of the Covid pandemic. The Schools Bill, however, is a challenge for us, as at the time of writing, 560 of our 628 schools are local-authority maintained.
There are obviously options for us. Firstly, to continue the status quo and to let the market take its course. Secondly, to proactively manage the market by working closely with the new regional Department for Education teams to ensure that our local authority voice is heard as more schools are encouraged to join MATs and indeed, more MATs, as yet unknown to us, are encouraged to join our school landscape. Thirdly, to express our ambition to establish a local authority maintained multi-academy trust.
After much deliberation, including briefings and discussions with all our councillors, and close consultation with the regional office for the Department for Education, we considered that options 2 and 3 should be explored further. We are actively strengthening our existing relationships with MATs and trying to understand who the new players might be in our bordering geography of which, given the size of Lancashire, there will be many. We have also submitted an expression of interest to establish a local authority established multi-academy trust specialising in special education. We decided on the special education specialism as we have a high level of strength in that sector, and also an existing deep relationship on a pupil level with the children in those schools.
The outcome is yet to be decided but thinking about the next steps has brought us closer to key questions about our existing commercial activity with schools in our authority. Will the new MATs who take on existing county schools still buy our services, and if they do, in what volume, given the financial pressures ahead? How do we shape our local elected councillor involvement to ensure the democratic voice is heard, and how do we advise and support the multi-academy trusts so that they fully understand the community context of our local offer for the most vulnerable families and their children?
Time will tell, but this is potentially the most interesting change since the implementation of the 1988 Education Reform Act, which reduced the powers of local authorities over schools. As I was an education officer in Lancashire at the time, I can attest that it took enormous amount of goodwill from both councillors and officers to realign our systems and our structures so that our schools could get the best of that significant change. To think back on that time now, that schools previously did not have full control of their budgets, seems strange. I hope that another 30 years on from now, we will be able to reflect as positively on the changes ahead of us.
- Department for Education guidance for the LA-established MAT: Local authority established MATs – registration of interest (publishing.service.gov.uk)
- Department for Education Policy White paper: Opportunity for all – Strong schools with great teachers for your child (publishing.service.gov.uk)
- Governance Handbook – Department for Education: Governance Handbook 2019 (publishing.service.gov.uk)
- Academies Financial Handbook – Department for Education: Academy Trust Handbook – Guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- Implementing school system reform in 2022/23 – Department for Education: Academy Trust Handbook – Guidance – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
Edwina Grant OBE is Director of Education and Children’s Services for Lancashire County Council.