What does the Schools Bill mean for Multi-Academy Trusts?
The Bill proposes new powers for local authorities to apply for some or all of their schools to become academies and join a multi-academy trust, in addition to the existing powers that individual school governing bodies hold. Local authorities will not need the consent of the governors of a maintained community school to apply, but the agreement of trustees and the body responsible for appointing foundation governors will still be needed if those schools are foundation or voluntary-aided. Grammar and faith schools will be able to retain their current status when joining multi-academy trusts. There is little in the Bill on local authorities establishing their own multi-academy trusts as set out in the Schools White Paper.
The Bill also sets out a framework for a new, legally enforceable, set of standards for multi-academy trusts so that parents will know what they can expect for their children’s education. Currently,
multi-academy trusts are regulated by legislation, guidance and their funding agreements with the DfE, the latter of which vary depending upon when they were entered into. The new standards will be a consistent across multi-academy trusts with new requirements on attendance, local governance and complaints.
The draft legislation also gives the DfE new intervention powers from September 2023 which will allow the DfE to direct multi-academy trusts to meet the new standards, improve or impose financial restrictions if required. The DfE will also be able to direct the appointment of trustees, replace the board of trustees with an interim board or appoint additional trustees if there is no progress, and ultimately terminate a multi academy trust’s funding agreement.
As all schools join multi-academy trusts under this Bill, the new statutory academy standards will help make sure those trusts all remain effective and uphold public confidence. Should there be a failure in a trust (which the government hopes will be rare given the new powers accompanying the standards), there will be a clear and consistent approach to deal with them.
Attendance is also a key focus of the Schools Bill. School attendance policies will be mandatory and should set clear expectations for staff, pupils and parents. There will be new requirements for multi-academy trusts and local authorities to work together to increase attendance. Local authorities will also be required to maintain registers of children not in school and support home-educating families to ensure consistency in education and learning.
These are all interesting developments given that one of the original ideas of academising schools was that they could perform more effectively with more autonomy.
There are measures in the Schools Bill for independent schools to be aware of and consider too. An independent school will need to apply for government consent if there is to be any change to its ownership; location; age range, or a maximum number of pupils; whether the school is single sex or co-educational; or whether it offers accommodation. The Schools Bill contains new registration rules for organisations offering full-time education requiring them to be registered as a school if they provide full-time education to five or more children, or one or more child in certain circumstances. The Schools Bill also aims to ensure that any appeal against the deregistration of an independent school is heard and resolved quickly, so that schools cannot continue to be open for long periods of time while those appeals are heard and the matter settled.
The Schools Bill is still in the process of being shaped with debate in the House of Lords currently taking place. Proposals to amend the Bill have been made, such as removing the proposals to terminate existing academy funding agreements, creating new “compliance direction” powers and notices to improve, and the power to impose new trustees, and there has been much debate and comment on the proposed academy standards, which have led the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, to make assurances that the proposed standards will not contain “any new burdens” that would restrict the “freedom” of academies. We look forward to seeing how the Schools Bill develops as it continues its course through parliament.
In the meantime, please do get in touch with our Education team if you would like to discuss how the Schools Bill may impact your academy, multi academy trust or independent school, or if there are any points that you are keen to review or develop as the Schools Bill progresses.