Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are a driving force behind the free school programme. To this end, NSN has produced a suite of resources aimed at ensuring MATs who are applying to open a free school can structure their governance in the most efficient way. But it’s also worth moving beyond the technical details, and taking a look at some of the reasons why a trust would embark on this process, and what they’d hope to gain from it.
One advantage of growing the MAT through creating a new school, as opposed to sponsoring existing provision, is the ability to expand the culture and shared values with greater ease. The leadership of the new school will be steeped in the ethos of the MAT, and will bring that to bear from the first day. This means that not only will they be starting with a blank page, without having to deal with legacy systems or any problematic baggage, but they can start implementing the wider MAT culture from the start.
Obviously this varies from trust to trust. The level of autonomy different MATs allow their schools is variable. There’s no right level here, trustees will have to decide how much of the overall trust ethos is most appropriate for their unique circumstances.
Of course, culture is not the only thing shared across the schools. A major advantage of the MAT model is the cost-saving potential of sharing services, and their associated expenses. When considering a free school proposal, you should work out which services it would be practical to share, and how this will affect your ability to offer the highest possible level of education to your students.
Trustees should also consider a free school bid as a means of staff development. We all know that the MAT structure can be highly beneficial for providing new opportunities for progression for your best teachers, moving staff between schools so they can take on a fresh challenge in a different role. The free school programme develops this concept even further, providing great staff with the chance to take on a new prospect from scratch. This not only opens up a plethora of new leadership positions for the most capable of your staff across the trust, but also provides challenges outside of the standard educational sphere. We’ve seen a number of trusts appoint a respected senior leader to a prospective headteacher role for their free school application, taking them far away from their comfort zone.
In reality, this means taking up a role that’s closer to a project manager position than anything in a traditional school. The Principal Designate – as the role is known – will find themselves managing site issues, teacher and pupil recruitment, curriculum design and the myriad other tasks that come with establishing a new school.
Even staff who join at a lower level will most likely find themselves taking on a wealth of additional responsibilities. The nature of the free school means that staff will build up over time, in line with the growing pupil body. This means teachers will have the chance to take on a wider range of duties if wished for, moving beyond the role and playing a vital part in establishing the school.
Finally, I’d argue there’s the potential for a moral argument here. If your schools are making a real difference to the students in their care, but there is a desperate need for better schools in the surrounding area, should you be the one to meet this?
Some of the free schools we’ve seen have the greatest impact have been set up by existing MATs, who are able to apply their experience and best practice from the start.
This is especially true in those areas that have underperformed for too long, and are struggling to improve by themselves. The most recent free school wave was focused on areas like these, and we’ve seen a plethora of academy trusts move into new regions in a bid to drive up standards.
While of course working to set up a free school won’t be a viable option for every trust out there, there are a number of reasons why they can prove hugely beneficial. This is a decision that has to be weighed up carefully, and it’s essential to make sure the new project won’t place your current provision under additional stress, but applying to open a free school can have a massive impact on existing staff and new students.
New Schools Network will be hosting discussion surgery sessions on Free schools: the basics at the Board Development Day in Leeds on Tuesday 4th December.