Shrinking council support has prompted primary schools to band together and launch academy trusts, as experts warn local authorities are reaching a “tipping point”. 

Prospective chains with as many as 13 schools have cited “diminishing” town hall help as a factor in their moves to academise, Schools Week analysis has found.

A consultant who works on conversions also said maintained schools had opted to shop around for support from existing trusts – rather than local authorities – leaving them feeling like academies in all but name.

Jeff Marshall added many maintained schools had been left wondering “what’s the point of being with a local authority if they don’t offer the support we need?” 

“The reason up and down the country for most of the MAT applications is because support from local authorities has diminished over the years.”

Marshall is working on the launch of six-school chain The Link Education Trust in Salford, which was given the green light by the Department for Education last month.

He said the primaries decided to make the switch because they were already “finding their own school improvement support outside their authority”.

Would-be trusts cite ‘diminishing’ services

In consultation documents sent to parents, the 13 schools looking to launch The Leaf Trust in South Gloucestershire noted the council “is significantly reduced in its capacity”.

Meanwhile, the Collective Learning Partnership, which consists of six primaries in Bury, told parents it felt it needed to academise partly because of the authority’s “diminishing” services and provision.

Between 22 per cent and 37.5 per cent of schools in Salford, South Gloucestershire and Bury are academies. The figure stands at 48 per cent nationwide. 

Marshall said council officials had told him it was “game over” once two-fifths of a district’s schools convert. The “authority then changes its relationship with institutions to one of a client-service provider”. 

Sir David Carter

Former national schools commissioner Sir David Carter believes councils across the country have reached a “tipping point”.

“There was a sense following the government’s release of the schools white paper last March that local authorities were saying to schools ‘we just don’t have the staff capacity to support school improvement beyond our statutory responsibilities’. 

“Certainly, some schools have been thinking about joining a strong trust because of this and that is a sensible and proactive way to respond to this.” 

Responding to the claims made by The Leaf Trust, a South Gloucestershire Council spokesperson insisted “we have not made any significant changes to our capacity to support schools in recent years”.

“We are working closely with all schools: primary and secondary; urban and rural; large and small, to understand their preference to convert to academy or remain LA-maintained. We do not have concerns about the ability of any particular sort of school to be able to access the support required.” 

The spokesperson also said the authority does “not receive any financial assistance from the DfE to create the capacity required” to fulfil its legal duty to enable conversion. 

Schools buy support from existing trusts

Marshall added that councils have lost large numbers of staff “through no fault of their own”, leaving maintained schools buying support in from existing trusts.

For instance, in Stourbridge, Fairhaven Primary has been working with St Bartholomew’s CE Multi-Academy Trust “on school improvement”. It is expected to join the MAT in the summer. 

It is understood six schools in the north-west forked out £80,000 between them for council HR advice. But they expect to pay half the price from an alternative provider. 

Marshall added that the cost of service-level agreements, which detail the services councils provide to schools, had “gone up while the quality has gone down”.

“I’m working with a five-school group in the Midlands, who are in the early stages of academisation. They’re saying ‘we’ve been finding our own SLAs for years because the authority just don’t have the facilities to support us’.” 

The £50 million-a-year government grant for local authority school improvement activities was scrapped this year, with councils expected to top-slice school budgets instead to fund such work.

Schools Week also revealed in 2019 how councils were raiding school budgets to the tune of 10s of millions of pounds to make up for the scrapping of the education services grant, which was slashed in 2017.

Bury and Salford Councils were approached for comment. 

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