A surge in termination warning notices has led academy leaders to question whether the policy is still appropriate as schools “live with the long tail of Covid”.

Department for Education figures show regional directors have sent 157 warning letters (TWNs) – which tell trusts they face losing an academy – since the start of last year.

The number issued in 2022 (89) is a 493 per cent rise on the 12 months before and is more than at any point since 2016. 

The introduction of “coasting” powers, intervention in schools with successive ‘requires improvement’ ratings, and the return of inspections after the pandemic are likely key factors.

‘Issues don’t disappear after academy switches’

Steve Chalke

But Steve Chalke, the founder of the 54-school Oasis trust, said the letters were an “unhealthy practice” that ignored the “wider, bigger, deeper and more complex” picture. 

“Every school is living with the long tail of Covid, the mental health crisis and lack of funding,” he said.

“If you terminate a trust’s licence to run a school, the issues don’t go away, they’re just passed to someone else.”

The DfE issued a TWN to Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey in Kent last year. Chalke said secondary education in the area “has struggled for more than 50 years”, as the “socioeconomic issues on that island are huge and long term”.

Steep rise in TWNs

Fifteen warning notices were sent out in 2021. The figure then leapt by almost five times to 89, outstripping the 4.5 per cent rise in academies that year. A further 65 notices have been issued so far this year (see table below).

DfE guidance states notices can be given if a “trust has breached the provisions of its funding agreement”, when the “safety of pupils or staff is threatened” or if there has been a breakdown in management.  

A “policy presumption” in favour of a notice is in place if Ofsted has rated an academy ‘inadequate’. The power to issue notices to “coasting” schools was introduced in September last year.

Last month, Dixons Academies Trust – one of the country’s most successful turnaround trusts – was issued a notice over Dixons Unity Academy in Leeds.

Ofsted rated the school ‘inadequate’ in June after finding low attendance rates and a high number of suspensions.

Fears academy notices ‘do more harm than good’

A Dixons spokesperson said the trust believed in the principle of accountability, as “it is vital there is a standard procedure so that the DfE can be sure that the right plans are in place to improve schools”.

Paul Tarn

But they said the inspection was “flawed”, adding the secondary was progressing “very positively…[and] our plan will ensure that this improvement is sustained”.

Paul Tarn, the chief executive of Delta Academies Trust, said it was “encouraging news that TWNs are up” as “the number of schools in need of intervention is much higher”.

But he warned that “if the Ofsted framework isn’t going to relay outcomes for children to the inspection judgment, there will continue to be trusts that get dreadful outcomes”.  

The chief executive of another large MAT, who did not want to be named, said notices did “more harm than good” because they conflated inspection grades with a judgment of a trust’s capacity to turn a school around.

Staffing concerns amid ‘periods of instability’

They said there could be months, “even years”, between Ofsted visits, the issuing of notices and the agreement of follow-up actions that might include re-brokerage.

“During this period, the level of instability, stress and anxiety caused to schools, school leaders and trusts has the opposite effect of that sought,” they said.

“A school with a TWN is a school in limbo. It is hard to recruit excellent leaders and other staff with the job insecurity created; it is difficult to convince staff of the urgency of school improvement when a new trust may lead the school on a different path; and it creates instability for communities.”

The DfE has been approached for comment.