What are local authorities’ views on the Government’s latest academisation plans?

By Megan Lucas, NFER Research Manager

Tuesday 31 January 2023

This article was first published in the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) on Thursday 26th January 2023.

Last year, the Government set out its ambition to rapidly transition to an all-multi-academy-trust (MAT) school system.

The 2022 Schools White Paper outlined proposals for all schools to be in a ‘strong’ MAT with at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils by 2030 and to allow local authorities (LAs) to establish new MATs in areas where too few ‘strong’ trusts currently exist. While the Government has dropped the legislation intended to support the Schools White Paper targets, they remain committed to transitioning to an all-MAT system and the system is likely to become increasingly academised. In this article, we draw on evidence from our latest NFER report to explore LAs’ views of the plans.

LAs are largely ambivalent about transitioning to an all-MAT school system

In September last year, NFER conducted a survey of directors of children’s services in all LAs in England. This gathered new insights into LAs’ views on the Government’s White Paper academisation ambitions and proposals to allow LAs to establish new MATs, as well as the wider challenges they are currently facing in relation to education.

Among the one in five (33 out of 152) LAs who responded to our survey, the proportion actively in favour of the Government’s ambition to transition to an all-MAT system was low. Only six per cent were in favour of all schools being in a ‘strong’ MAT of at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils by 2030, while 39 per cent of LAs were against this proposal. The remaining 55 per cent of responding LAs said they were neither in favour or against the proposal.

LAs are interested in being able to establish their own MATs but have concerns about specific aspects of the proposal

A key policy announced in the White Paper was for LAs to be able to establish their own MATs, which would subsequently operate independently of the LA. Unlike the Government’s wider academisation plans, most (65 per cent) responding LAs were in favour of LA established MATs. However, a substantial proportion of the LAs who were interested in establishing their own MAT felt it was unlikely they would begin the process within the next three years. This is, at least in part, due to LA concerns about the feasibility of and proposed restrictions for LAs establishing MATs.

Specifically, almost half (48 per cent) of LA respondents disagreed with proposals outlining that LAs should not be allowed to set up LA MATs where there is sufficient existing capacity among ‘strong’ MATs in their area, as shown by Figure 1. Furthermore, over two-thirds of responding LAs did not feel they had sufficient funding and resource to set up an LA MAT. The majority of responding LAs also wanted more clarity and information about what establishing an LA MAT would entail.

There are wider considerations and challenges for LAs

Our survey findings indicate that academisation is not a current priority for most LAs. LAs voiced concerns that renewed efforts to drive rapid, widespread academisation may divert resource and attention away from other pressing educational priorities, such as the ongoing Covid-19 recovery. Furthermore, surveyed LAs are concerned about the implications of Government proposals on their responsibilities and powers in future and want more clarity about their roles going forward. Finally, responding LAs highlighted the risk of some schools not being attractive to existing MATs or particularly struggling to find a suitable MAT to join. Four-fifths of the surveyed LAs were concerned that some schools in their area risked being left behind because MATs would be reluctant to take them on.

The future of the Government’s White Paper academisation proposals is uncertain

While the current Government has committed to pursuing the ambitions outlined in the 2022 Schools White Paper, it is not yet clear to what extent this will be supported by new legislation. The Schools Bill, originally introduced to provide the legal basis for these plans, proved to be controversial and has now been dropped. With a general election expected by January 2025, it is also not clear to what extent the next Government will be interested in pursuing the 2022 Schools White Paper ambitions.

What next for LAs and the Government’s academisation plans?
If the Government continues to pursue its ambition to rapidly transition to an all-MAT system, they may wish to reconsider the current design of their plans for LA established MATs, alongside providing greater clarity to LAs on what will be involved. More broadly, the evidence suggests that appropriate resources and policy solutions, as well as time to build sufficient MAT capacity, are needed to facilitate the transition to an all-MAT system. This includes the Government ensuring that LAs have the powers needed to fulfil their ongoing responsibilities effectively in an increasingly academised system.