What does the White Paper mean for rural schools across Cumbria?

The recent Government White Paper “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” proposes changes which it intends will reach every corner of England. So what is it likely to mean for predominantly rural areas such as Cumbria with a network of small rural schools and comparatively few multi-academy trusts?

The Government’s aim is for all schools to be in a strong multi-academy trust by 2030. Cynics may argue that education policy and secretaries of state change with such regularity that such a long timeline creates no urgency or pressure on schools or education authorities to engage with the plan or indeed change how they have always done things. Furthermore, what constitutes a strong multi-academy trust? Financial strength? Ofsted rating? Whilst we can expect more clarity on how trust strength will be measured the suggestion that trusts will be expected to serve at least 7500 pupils or run at least 10 schools does not appear to recognise the unique challenges in this corner of England.

For many rural schools, the prospect of operating or joining a trust of this size is likely to be daunting. The white paper does recognise that it cannot be a one size fits all approach. While DfE’s preference may be for strong trusts to continue to expand the reality is there are simply not enough strong trusts in existence across Cumbria or indeed the North-East for schools to join. For the first time therefore, local authorities will be permitted to set up their own multi-academy trusts where too few strong trusts exist. There is some irony in this suggestion bearing in mind the whole political driver behind academies was a move away from local authority control of education. I attended a meeting almost decade ago where a local authority asked a DfE adviser if the local authority could sponsor a new academy trust. The response was strikingly curt with the suggestion that the local authority was the problem not the solution! How times have changed.

The timing of the White Paper and this proposed solution is not necessarily helpful to Cumbria either as it grapples with the challenges of creating two new unitary councils, a massive undertaking in itself. Perhaps the long timeline recognises this challenge? We are yet to find out exactly how any local authority multi-academy trust would work in practice and how it will differ in practice from a current local authority-maintained school structure. Nevertheless, a local solution of this type may provide the best option for small rural schools to join a trust which understands the unique challenges of rural education. From a practical perspective small rural schools not be attractive to established strong multi-academy trusts in any event.

If the aims of the White Paper are implemented the real challenge over the next 10 years will be how to use the new trust model to support existing, dedicated and hard-working staff to enhance and improve delivery of education across Cumbria.

The White Paper also restates the existing presumption against closure of rural schools and maintains the statutory freedoms and protections currently offered to faith schools. Existing Diocesan multi-academy trusts will no doubt be at the forefront over the next few years as diocesan education policy is implemented.

Tony McPhillips is Head of Education at Muckle LLP.  Muckle have supported more than 350 schools across the North of England with conversion to academies and acts for a large number of established multi-academy trusts. If you have any queries about what the proposed changes could mean for your school  please contact Tony or any of the Muckle education team.

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