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Trust Partnership - the Alternative to Academy Conversion?

on Friday, 03 December 2021.

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently published guidance for maintained schools and academy trusts seeking to form partnerships.

Whilst the concept of a 'trust partnership' is not new, the guidance helpfully clarifies the DfE's expectations around its scope for use and both its benefits and its limitations. 

What Is a Trust Partnership?

A trust partnership is a time-limited flexible arrangement between an academy trust and a school to allow the partners to collaborate and to identify whether a formal partnership, through academy conversion, would be mutually beneficial.  

What Does a Trust Partnership Look Like?

Whilst flexibility is key, the DfE expects most partnerships to be limited to between 12-18 months long with the school's governing body giving due consideration to academisation during the partnership. As such, the expectation is not that trust partnership is a long-term alternative to academy conversion but that the arrangement will allow a trust and a school to 'test the waters' and ascertain whether that partnership is the right fit.

The focus of the partnership should be on teaching and leadership and, importantly, any such arrangement should be formally recorded and notified to the relevant Regional Schools Commissioner in advance. To this end, the DfE provides a model (SLA) covering areas such as services provided, charges made and confidentiality. This is key to ensuring that both parties are clear about the partnerships' objectives and the cost of the arrangement.

What Are the Benefits and Limitations of Trust Partnership?

The potential benefits will vary across different partnerships but the guidance suggests that these might include:

  • taking the time to assess the potential benefits which emerge from the partnership
  • sharing valuable networks and resources
  • improving a vulnerable school through access to a strong trust

At the end of the end of the arrangement, the trust and school can then determine whether it is mutually beneficial to opt for permanency through academy conversion.

As noted above, the key limitation is that trust partnership is seen by the DfE as a stepping stone to academisation, not an alternative, and it is not a long-term way of working. The guidance confirms that church schools or schools with a religious character should also consult their diocese or relevant religious authority prior to seeking a trust partnership and it is possible that consent may be withheld if there are any concerns about how the ethos of the school and its religious character will be protected in such an arrangement.

Where Has Trust Partnership Worked in Practice?

The guidance contains several case studies which we won't repeat in full here but broadly, this type of arrangement is likely to be beneficial where:

  • schools want to be certain that an identified trust is the right fit for them in practice and not just 'on paper'
  • schools have reservations about academy conversion generally and a trial period will allow them to experience, and be convinced, of the benefits
  • schools have financial and / or structural issues and trusts, understandably, want to be able to implement and embed certain changes before academy conversion to satisfy their boards and wider stakeholders of the decision to take on a vulnerable school

Can a Single Academy Enter Into a Trust Partnership?

Whilst the guidance is aimed primarily at maintained schools, it is clear that the benefits of a trust partnership are also likely to apply to single academies seeking to transfer into a MAT.

To discuss trust partnerships further, including advice on the DfE model SLA, please contact Jaime Hobday in our Charities team on 07467 220 552, alternatively complete the form below.