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Small academy trusts warned over asking for DfE advice

Small academy trusts have been warned against asking for government-backed reviews after one chair said the results were used against them to force a merger.

Nurture Academies Trust chair Pam Smith called in school resource management advisers (SRMAs) and governance professionals to help her bed into the role two years ago. 

She believes the MAT was pushed towards a merger by the Department for Education after checks threw up concerns later cited by officials among the reasons for it to make the switch.

Pam Smith

“The finance and governance reviews were a request from me to find out where things were needed, so I could do the job I was supposed to do,” Smith told Schools Week.

“They gave me the support I asked for, but then the DfE used that to say certain things weren’t right … they didn’t give me the time to do what was needed.”

Minutes from a meeting with officials in November 2022 show that Smith and Nurture’s CEO Wahid Zaman were told the department “had to deploy multiple support programmes urgently … due to issues” at the trust.

The DfE praised the MAT’s “willingness to accept support but stated that these external experts are highlighting serious weaknesses”.

However, the minutes show officials said that, “even without the concerns”, conversations “about the trust’s future strategic direction” would probably have been held.

‘Intimidating and threatening’

Officials pointed to the aim in the since-scrapped schools white paper for trusts to be on a trajectory to serve at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils.

The meeting notes show that Smith and Zaman told the department of their frustration that “requesting/accepting support had resulted in this situation”.

“The tone was very intimidating and threatening. It felt as though the chair of the trust and I were being bullied,” Zaman said.

 “The menace of, ‘if you merge voluntarily, you may have the choice of a partner otherwise one will be imposed upon you’ was palpable.”

Smith added that she “would not recommend anybody to go to the DfE for any help or support” as this would be used to “push them into big trusts”.

The minutes added that the Education and Skills Funding Agency had considered issuing Nurture with a notice to improve over prior financial concerns. A warning letter was sent instead as “the trust has been working with us and are trying to resolve issues”. 

Smith insisted that Nurture “didn’t have any problems in terms of financial viability – it was the process and procedures involved that required improvement”.

At the time, one of the trust’s academies, Victoria Primary in Leeds, West Yorkshire, was rated ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted.

Because it had been given the same grade before converting, it met the government’s criteria for re-brokerage as part of its crackdown on “coasting” schools.

‘Working to an agenda’

Zaman claimed officials were “insistent” that Victoria and another of the trust’s academies were unlikely to receive improved marks at a later visit.

“The fact that both schools did secure ‘good’ judgments in Ofsted inspections in autumn term 2023 … calls in to question the way in which the regional group conducted itself.

“It was evident that the regional group was working to an agenda other than school improvement.”

Unveiled in March 2022, the schools white paper set out the vision of then-education secretary Nadhim Zahawi. Among its 42 main policy proposals were targets for all schools to be in a MAT by 2030.

Zahawi also wanted most trusts to work towards serving at least 10 schools, or 7,500 pupils. Both plans were ditched the following year.

Despite this, Nurture opted to go ahead with a merger by joining another Yorkshire-based chain, Northern Star Academies Trust.

‘We remain optimistic’

Zaman stressed that the decision was made after seeing the economies of scale and bolstered school improvement that a merger would bring. The switch is expected to take place next month.

“Trustees and I remain optimistic that the trust we are merging with will bring positive benefits and strong moral purpose,” Zaman continued.

“It is a shame that the unique vision of [Nurture] … is not valued by the DfE, but I am hopeful that this will be continued in the Northern Star.”

The DfE said it has not received any formal complaints from the trust. Trustees are “voluntarily transferring the academies to a trust of their choosing”.

The department said its “role as regulator of academy trusts is to hold them to account… all decisions are made for the benefit of pupils”.

However, Confederation of School Trusts deputy chief executive Steve Rollett has previously said that, even when regional directors engage “constructively” with leaders, conversations “can feel … very high stakes”.

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