The proposals are at ‘very, very early stages’, but discussions are taking place between a group of ‘like-minded individuals and organisations’, who are considering setting up a multi-academy trust, or MAT, ‘with a shared ethos and common values’.
A report to councillors explained that this ‘would offer opportunities for schools to join a structure that is right for them and fits into the wider context of Northumberland’.
MATs, which run a group of academies under a shared funding agreement and a single governing body, are often seen as offering benefits in terms of driving improvement and helping individual schools remain sustainable – something which is a concern among Northumberland’s many small and rural schools.
The latest suggestion for a ‘home-grown’ MAT was first mooted as part of the discussions over the reorganisation of educational structures in the west of the county, where there are a number of small, potentially vulnerable schools that are running deficits.
Providing an update to the county council’s family and children’s services committee last Thursday (March 7), Andy Johnson, the authority’s former director of education and now project lead for the changes in the west, cautioned that ‘no one had formally signed up yet’.
“It’s very, very early stages, we don’t have any schools interested in it, we just have a few individuals who may be interested in forming a trust,” he said.
Nonetheless, the potential members are: Sir Alan Craft, Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust; Professor Diane Ford, Northumbria University; businessman Sir John Hall; Coun Wayne Daley, Northumberland County Council’s cabinet member for children’s services; David Hall, Active Northumberland; Alan Ferguson CBE, Fergusons Transport; and Dr Alan Lowdon, Port of Blyth Authority.
A meeting is taking place this month to discuss the next steps and if agreed, a period of publicity and awareness-raising would take place.
“We wouldn’t force schools to join, but it would be an extra weapon in the armoury for schools,” Dr Johnson added.
Earlier in the meeting, he had told councillors that he had been ‘disappointed’ by the response to letters he had sent out to all schools in the west back in November.
During the shake-up, one of the outcomes was to encourage the formation of federations or MATs to ensure small rural schools are both financially and educationally viable.
Any decision, however, remains with each school’s leadership and governors and, writing to find out what the 33 schools were planning to do, Dr Johnson has not even heard back from 18 of them, so will be writing again.
In terms of those which did reply, he added: “They have identified the problems, but they seem reluctant to see the federation or MAT approach as a solution to those problems.”
The council is also seeking clarity on how the two schools in Bellingham are planning to operate moving forward, given that the first school is set to become a primary while the middle school will now remain open following the intervention of the Schools Adjudicator.
Elsewhere in the west, it was revealed this week that Northumberland County Council has agreed to invest up to £2.5million in upgrading the existing middle-school site in Haltwhistle so that it can become a new primary school.
Following a recent consultation, WISE Academies, which run the current middle and first schools, have agreed that they will discontinue the middle academy and extend the age range of the first academy.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service