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Commissioning High Quality Multi-Academy Trusts – DfE Guidance

Teenagers walking to school in uniforms

Many of you may have read the Department for Education’s latest guidance over the summer about how the DfE’s Regions Group, created last year and led by Regional Directors with the support of their teams, takes decisions about the creation, consolidation and growth of MATs.

After a decade of rapid expansion in some areas, the DfE’s focus is on the next phase of development for the academies sector which will be an important one. The DfE considers the commissioning of high-quality MATs to be one of its key levers for driving quality in the system.

Who is the guidance for?

The guidance is relevant for MAT and school leaders considering applying to join, create or grow a MAT. As the DfE point out, it is also publicly available online for parents and carers seeking to understand how decisions are made about their school.

What is the purpose of the guidance?

Quality of education is always the DfE’s primary concern and the guidance ultimately sets out what the DfE wants high-quality MATs to deliver and the basis for ‘quality judgements’ in terms of future MAT growth and how commissioning decisions are made.

By being transparent about how commissioning decisions are made, the Department for Education will support trusts to direct their own self-improvement activity so that together we can collectively grow capacity, capability and choice across the system.”

Overview of the guidance

The following is an overview of the key points from the guidance:

  • By working collaboratively with MATs, schools, local authorities and dioceses, the DfE is looking to grow the number of high-quality MATs across all areas of the country to build a strong and resilient school system and for all schools, over time, to be part of a high-quality MAT.
  • In deciding which MATs are commissioned to run which schools, the DfE’s aim is to identify the right MAT for each school within their local context.
  • The Academies Regulatory and Commissioning Review heard that there are benefits to MATs developing geographic clusters, so the Regions Group will work with local partners to identify the needs of each local area – the starting point will be an assessment of strategic need, building on the idea of Trust Development Statements in the 55 Education Investment Areas (EIAs).
  • MATs looking to grow, or schools looking to convert and establish a MAT, are encouraged to engage early on with their Trust Relationship Manager at the DfE to discuss their plans. An initial conversation might help in understanding the Region Group’s strategic approach to the local area.
  • A short section is dedicated to commissioning decisions about Church schools and the importance of always including Diocesan representation in the process.
  • The Regions Group will perform an initial financial performance and governance compliance review for any MAT under consideration for growth. MATs that fail to meet these initial conditions would be ruled out for further growth for the time being.
  • A more detailed assessment of MAT quality will then be undertaken, based on 5 Pillars of MAT Quality: (1) High-Quality and Inclusive Education; (2) School Improvement; (3) Workforce; (4) Finance & Operations, and (5) Governance & Leadership.
  • An evidence-based assessment will be undertaken against each pillar. A range of metrics will be used to provide a holistic picture of MAT quality and a MAT’s historical track record and future trajectories:
    • headline metrics to help to build hypothesis and prompt further questions;
    • verifiers to provide more in-depth data for a richer understanding of the MAT; and
    • qualitative evidence to explore areas where data is not easily available or does not tell the whole story.
  • The Regions Group will go on to reach a recommendation by considering both the data and strategic need to help inform decisions about the right MAT to manage a school, or the best MATs to grow within an area.
  • The DfE are removing the need for MATs to obtain designated sponsor status. From September 2023, MATs will no longer hold sponsor status (although the term ‘sponsor’ is likely to still be used informally). “To get there, we will back strong trusts that have the capacity for growth, especially those that accept the risks and challenges of supporting schools facing the most challenging circumstances.”
  • The Regions Group will be identifying a longlist of MATs with the expertise and track record in delivering high-quality and inclusive education (pillar one) and with the capacity to rapidly transform the performance of any school that is underperforming or in need of intervention.
  • The Regions Group may take any decision to the Advisory Board for advice. The guidance clarifies that the Advisory Boards advise, the Regions Group make the decisions. A review of Advisory Boards will be undertaken into their wider purpose before the next election.
  • The DfE will be exploring ways to promote opportunities for parents, carers and members of the public to make representations.
  • Meeting notes will be made available once the key stakeholders (MATs and schools) have been informed of the decision and have had the opportunity to respond.
  • The new commissioning guidance says it replaces the previous ‘Building Strong Academy Trusts’ guidance and ‘Regional Director Decision-Making Framework’. The ‘MAT Assurance Framework’ is still a voluntary tool for MATs to assess their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • The DfE is in the process of updating its significant change guidance to ensure any significant change proposals (such as any proposed school expansion or closure) aligns with the needs of the local area and ensures questions around MAT quality and capacity are taken into account.

What effect will the guidance have?

How the guidance will alter the course of the growth of MATs and the number of academy conversions in the coming years is yet to play out.

  • Will it slow down decisions being made particularly in the pre-election period, or will it help speed the process up to ensure all schools convert and join high-quality MATs sooner?
  • Will it cut down on the amount of back and forth between the DfE, MATs and schools during the application process, and reduce the number of conditions to be met?
  • Is it only intended to evidence how commissioning decisions have been made, or to help MATs achieve high-quality status?
  • Will the DfE perhaps move towards early consultation pre-application to ensure that the MAT’s proposals align with the local context?

How can we help?

We know that not every academy journey is the same and we are here to help support you throughout the process. Particularly within the last year, we have heard from a lot of MATs and schools about their experiences of applying to the DfE and a greater sense of focus by the DfE on those MATs looking to establish themselves or grow.

We can help guide consultation, particularly where there might be some expectation of challenge. We can also provide due diligence support and scope ideas with you in terms of your strategy and an approach to the DfE to create, consolidate or grow your MAT.

Further Information

For further information or advice, please contact Andrea Squires or Anna Shadbolt.

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