The Blunkett Review advocates Community Trusts, but it uses the term to mean several very different things. (Thanks to David Pavett for pointing this problem out.) One meaning, referred to in my initial response, is as an umbrella term for a permanent collaborative grouping of schools with the legal status of a Trust (usually a non-profit company with charitable status). Many such Trusts already exist, including the more than 500 schools in Co-operative Trusts and those in Multi-Academy Trusts. Collaboration among schools has been shown to be the most effective way to raise standards, and the proposed Community Trusts are one possible form of permanent collaborative structure. The only objection would be if LAs put undue pressure on schools to join a Trust if they were performing well and chose not to.
The Review speaks of:
the creation of Community Trusts to bring together small primary schools where they are not already part of a sponsor or partnership structure. (p6)
Where a large number of secondary schools in a Local Authority area have not chosen to take on academy status, it would be open to them to combine into a Community Trust in order to foster the collaborative approach set out in this paper. (p11)
The Community Trust modelCommunity schools not currently part of a federation, multi Academy or sponsor framework should be encouraged to join a partnership, including through the creation of our Community Trust model. This review recommends that, where this does not already exist (or where the school in question cannot demonstrate alternative forms of partnership working), the Local Authority should broker the combining of all community primary schools into broad Community Trust arrangements. Much as arms‐length management organisations have been a model adopted in relation to social housing, Community Trusts would be established in partnership with the relevant Local Authority. This proposal is set out in detail in the chapter on ‘Best Practice’. This would clearly meet the needs of very small schools and would help protect them from the threat of closure. (p10)
But the ‘Best Practice’ section of the review contains two very different models of what it regards as a Community Trust.
The first model comprises various and rather different forms of collaborative partnerships.
One is the Wolverhampton Schools’ Improvement Partnership, which is an authority-wide voluntary partnership of schools to foster collaboration for ‘school improvement’. There is no ‘Community Trust’, though a charitable company limited by guarantee could well be set up, as it has in other authorities with similar partnerships.
Another example cited is the Bradford Partnership. This is an authority-wide not-for-profit organisation open to all the secondary schools in Bradford, owned by its member schools, with LA involvement, with the purpose of coordinating collaborative support. Similar schools-led authority-wide partnerships have been set up in a number of authorities.
Another case cited is Wigan, where ‘the Local Authority assisted in brokering collaboration of 130 schools through eight consortia.Each has developed its own leadership and is commissioned to deliver school improvement on behalf of the authority, which in turn holds the consortia to account.’ (p22). But there is no ‘Community Trust’, just clusters of schools working together.
Also cited is ‘Challenge Partners, a group of 180 schools focused on improvement in London, which grew out of the London Challenge’ (p22). This is a charitable company limited by guarantee comprising a nation-wide collaborative network of schools, currently 230.
But the other two examples given of Trusts are very different: they aren’t collaborative networks of schools, they are service delivery organisations providing traded support services to schools. This is the model referred to by the Review on p15: ‘A Community Trust model has worked in many areas effectively, in both providing the right services to raise standards, conducted in line with the best possible procurement practice.’ The Review gives two examples of ‘Best Practice’ of this model:
‘Herts for Learning (HfL) is a not-for-profit schools company established between the Local Authority and Hertfordshire schools providing a wide range of school improvement and business support services.’ (p22)
The second example is the Hackney Learning Trust. The Review says: ‘In 2002, the Hackney Learning Trust took over education services. Learning Trust staff were staff of Hackney Council – a devolved department, with its own freedoms and flexibilities, but still very much part of the wider organisation.’ (p22). But this is only half the story. What it fails to say is that, to quote the Hackney Learning Trust website, ‘When The Learning Trust contract expired in August 2012, Hackney Learning Trust assumed responsibility for education services in the borough…’. The Trust is now just the name given, for the sake of continuity, to the education department of Hackney Council. Far from being an example of the handing over by a local authority of education policy, services and support to the schools it is an example of a local authority taking them back in-house from a Trust.
What are the key points to take from this confused picture of one of the Review’s principal policies?
First, that the authors of the Review have a very poorly worked out idea of what they are proposing, based on inadequate knowledge of what is actually happening.
Second, that collaboration among schools should be supported, and it can take a variety of organisational forms.
Third, that the key issue is where does the responsibility for the local strategic vision and plan lie? There is a grave danger, exemplified by a number of local authorities including Birmingham and Liverpool, of LAs handing over this responsibility, which should be that of elected local government in partnership with the schools and other stakeholders including parents and governors, to local headteachers alone.
Finally, on a different issue: schools being free to leave academy chains and other sponsors. There is a huge obstacle: the majority of governors are appointed by the sponsor. It is likely to require campaigns by parents and staff to force them, similar to those against becoming academies in the first place.
6 May 2014