Converting to Academy Status: Rationale, Key Considerations and Dates
In this blog, education writer and adviser Matt Bromley, who has over 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership, provides an expert insight into the government’s MAT agenda, including an overview of the academy conversion timeline.
The government’s white paper, Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child, published in March 2022, sought to demonstrate how the education system could deliver on the government’s priority to ‘level up’ across the country. The paper set out a case for a fully trust-led system to help every child fulfil their potential by ensuring they receive “the right support, in the right place, at the right time”.
In the paper’s foreword, then Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, said that the government’s vision was simple: “to introduce and implement standards that will improve children’s education, deliver the right support if they fall behind and give them the tools to lead a happy, fulfilled and successful life.”
Progress already made
The government accepted that some progress towards this goal had been made, for example:
- the white paper, citing 2019 data, said that, since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012, the percentage of Year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard had risen from 58% to 82%, with 91% achieving this standard by Year 2 in 2019 (please note, however, that in 2022, only 75% of pupils met the expected standard in Year 1 and only 87% did so in Year 2, a fall of 7 percentage points and 4 percentage points respectively)
- in 2019, 65% of key stage 2 (KS2) pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths, a 7-percentage point increase in reading and 9-percentage point increase in maths since 2016 (again, note that in 2022, this had fallen 6 percentage points to 59%)
- the disadvantage gap at key stage 4 narrowed by 9.1% between 2011 and 2019 (but note that, in 2022, the gap had widened once more to 3.84, the highest level since 2011/12).
But they said there is still much to do. And they’re right …
- In 2022, 41% of pupils did not meet the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths at key stage 2
- Furthermore, 55% pupils with 5 or more GCSEs A*-to-C (including English and maths) completed a degree versus 6% of those with fewer
- 15 years post-GCSE, they’re also 16 percentage points more likely to be employed, earning on average £9k more per year
In the white paper, the government committed to a number of actions, such as:
- access to world-class, evidence-based training and professional development at every stage of a teacher’s career
- specialist training to drive better literacy
- a new arms-length curriculum body
- better behaviour and higher attendance through more effective use of data, including an annual behaviour survey and a national data system
- up to 6 million tutoring courses by 2024, with action to cement one-to-one and small group tuition as a permanent feature
But chief amongst them was a promise to “spread the benefits of the best multi academy trusts so that every child learns with the benefits of a strong, supportive family of schools”. This, the government said, would “ensure that the school system as a whole raised standards for children, making sure improvements were felt fairly across England”, whereas now, outcomes vary between different pupils and regions.
The government’s further actions
In terms of tangible actions, the government committed to delivering the following:
- a fully trust-led system with a single regulatory approach, which will drive up standards through the growth of strong trusts and the establishment of new ones, including trusts established by local authorities
- a clear role for every part of the school system, with local authorities empowered to champion the interests of children and a new collaborative standard, requiring trusts to work constructively with all other partners
- Education Investment Areas to increase funding and support to areas in most need, plus extra funding in priority areas facing the most entrenched challenges
The government also set a target for all schools to be in strong multi-academy trusts, or have “plans to join or form one”, by 2030. Further, ministers said they “expected” most trusts to work towards serving at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils. The proportion of schools a trust could run in a particular area will be capped, they said, though no cap will be imposed on trust size overall.
Alongside this, the government said there will be clearer expectations for trusts in relation to providing high-quality, inclusive education, school improvement, financial management, parental engagement and workforce deployment, training and retention. Academies will also face new statutory duties to work collaboratively with other trusts, councils, and public bodies, and follow the admissions code.
The government will “consider” bids for high-quality, standalone, trust-free schools, but “avoid converting schools as standalone academies”. Councils, meanwhile, will be able to launch MATs, but the focus will be “where too few strong trusts exist”. Ministers will have powers to mass convert all a council’s schools at their request.
The advantages of MATs
The government claims that “the highest performing trusts use their collaborative structure to deliver outstanding literacy and numeracy outcomes for their children. They train, retain, and deploy excellent teachers where they are needed most, develop and share ambitious curricula and deliver targeted support to raise standards”.
Another benefit of the MAT system, according to the government, is that “teachers and leaders in strong trusts can form communities of practice, sharing evidence-based approaches and benefitting from high-quality professional development to improve outcomes for children. Strong trusts also achieve economies of scale, sharing resources, centralising functions, and ensuring robust financial governance, in order to build resilience and save time and money to reinvest into education”.
The disadvantages of MATs
It's worth noting that, whilst the government claims MATs deliver better outcomes for students, the data shows a more complex picture. Indeed, as Ofsted acknowledged in its April 2023 report on multi-academy trusts’ involvement in inspections, there is little evidence that schools in MATs outperform maintained schools or vice versa:
“Although some MATs are very successful, the levels of variation in academic performance between MATs were greater than differences between MATs and local authorities (LAs). The picture is further complicated by the fact that while many of the highest-performing school groups at primary and secondary level are within MATs, MATs are also overrepresented among the lowest performing school groups.”
There are other drawbacks to MATs, too. As well as negative effects with regards to financial arrangements and the centralisation and loss of decision-making power – in some cases leading to slower decision-making in centralised structures – the sharing of good practice is not always done efficiently or effectively either. Here’s Ofsted again:
“The second most common drawback associated with belonging to a MAT was the logistics of working together. Getting everyone in the same place can be costly, time-consuming and frustrating, particularly if a school is an outlier in a MAT or the geographical spread of a MAT is wide. Other schools feel that within their own MAT, they do not have much in common with some of the longer-established schools. They therefore look outside the MAT for expertise.”
So, academies are not necessarily a panacea, and structural change rarely brings about lasting improvements. But the government has hitched itself to the MAT wagon, and thus we will explore the process of conversion.
Delivering school system reform
On 25 May 2022, the government published Implementing school system reform which sets out the next steps towards achieving an ambition of all schools being in a strong multi-academy trust, or having plans to join or form one, by 2030.
The document was intended to help schools, trusts, local authorities, and where applicable dioceses or other faith bodies think about what they should do next. In this first phase of reform, the government’s priorities were:
- Education Investment Areas (EIAs), including Priority EIAs, where the government will introduce an area-based approach to commissioning trusts. These are also the areas where the government will focus new powers of statutory intervention in underperforming schools, subject to the outcome of consultation and parliamentary approval. Area-based commissioning will see the government working closely with local partners to establish a coherent local organisation of schools based on strong trusts. This is based on their guidance on building strong academy trusts and addressing problems of sustained underperformance.
- Test and learn projects – a small number of projects to set up new LA-established MATs where they are needed; or to respond to local demand to complete the journey to a fully trust led system; or progress at scale, for example in areas where there are large numbers of rural primary schools.
Next steps for schools
On 5 May 2023, the government published its latest guidance on converting to academy status. This guidance sets out the final dates for schools to send documents and other information to their Department for Education (DfE) project lead and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) in order to become an academy before 1 November 2023.
The guidance also reminds us that there are several actions which schools must complete before converting to an academy, including:
- organising a transfer of undertakings (TUPE)
- holding a consultation
- getting any shared use agreements approved by DfE and set up with the academy trust
- getting any loans approved by DfE and transferred to the academy trust
- agreeing land arrangements - these can often cause delays to conversion, so we suggest that you prioritise these early on
Schools must also send the following documents to their DfE project lead:
- a fully completed land questionnaire, including a site plan for the academy
- draft memorandum and articles of association
- draft funding agreements and annexes
Where applicable, schools should also send the final draft of any leases or sub-leases that the academy trust plans to issue. This is where, post-conversion, an academy trust holding a freehold or leasehold interest in land intends to issue a lease or sub-lease to a third-party tenant. Schools then need to confirm the following via email to their DfE project lead:
- commercial transfer agreement has been agreed, along with responses to key questions from the DfE project lead
- main terms of any leases have been agreed (125-year lease from local authority to academy trust), including any sub-leases that the academy trust intends to issue
Next, schools must submit the following to their DfE project lead:
- a paper copy of DfE-approved and signed, but not dated, academy conversion funding agreements
- a paper copy of any supplemental agreements or supplemental academy conversion funding agreements
- confirmation that all parties have signed the leases and sub-leases
- confirmation that all parties have signed the commercial transfer agreement
Then, schools must send the academy’s bank details to the ESFA, allowing the ESFA to set up the mechanism to fund the academy once it has converted.
Academy conversion dates
Schools must meet the following academy conversion deadlines to able to convert on the date stated.
Schools converting to academy status on 1 June 2023 must complete the following actions:
- Send final fully completed documents to your DfE project lead by Monday 3 April 2023
- Confirm via email the commercial transfer agreement and terms of leases by Tuesday 2 May 2023
- Submit signed funding and supplemental agreements by Monday 8 May 2023
- Send the academy’s bank details to ESFA by Monday 15 May 2023
For schools converting to academy status on 1 July 2023, the above actions carry the following deadlines:
- Tuesday 2 May 2023
- Thursday 1 June 2023
- Tuesday 6 June 2023
- Monday 12 June 2023
For schools converting to academy status on 1 August 2023, the deadlines are:
- Thursday 1 June 2023
- Monday 3 July 2023
- Friday 7 July 2023
- Friday 14 July 2023
For schools converting to academy status on 1 September 2023, the deadlines are:
- Monday 3 July 2023
- Tuesday 1 August 2023
- Monday 7 August 2023
- Wednesday 16 August 2023
For schools converting to academy status on 1 October 2023, the deadlines are:
- Tuesday 1 August 2023
- Friday 1 September 2023
- Wednesday 6 September 2023
- Wednesday 13 September 2023
And finally, for schools converting to academy status on 1 November 2023, the deadlines are:
- Friday 1 September 2023
- Monday 2 October 2023
- Monday 9 October 2023
- Wednesday 18 October 2023
The National College provides further guidance for schools and settings to prepare themselves for conversion to academy status. A Teacher’s Guide to MATs: Essential Insight on Joining and Adapting Successfully provides expert guidance on what to expect when joining/becoming a MAT. Growing a Multi-Academy Trust: Essential Considerations and Expert Guidance provides insight into the essential factors that settings should consider when deciding whether to grow or develop and existing trust.
A guide to academy conversion: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/convert-to-an-academy-information-for-schools
Model documents to use during the conversion process: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/convert-to-an-academy-documents-for-schools
Key dates for conversion: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academy-conversion-important-dates
The White Paper - Opportunity for All: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/opportunity-for-all-strong-schools-with-great-teachers-for-your-child
Ofsted – MAT involvement in inspections: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/how-multi-academy-trusts-are-involved-in-school-inspections