The option to collaborate with outside partners is under-used — but it offers benefits that educators would be wise to take note of, as Richard Gold explains
T rust schools sprang to life in the Government White Paper ‘Higher Standards, Better Schools For All’ published in October 2005, intended to ‘harness the external support and a success culture, bringing innovative and stronger leadership to the school, improving standards and extending choice’.
So, there were high expectations when the Education and Inspection Bill 2006 was published. You would look in vain, however, for a discrete creation of trust schools — because it simply didn’t happen. Despite all the publicity and the use, then and now, of the expression by the DfES and all involved, ‘trust school’ as a phrase does not appear anywhere in the legislation.
Recommended resource: Take a look at our new book Leading a Faith School (2009) by John Viner – full of topical debate, practical advice and guidance, and a comprehensive history of faith schools
THE PRINCIPLE We have had schools that were supported by a trust since the origins of charitable schools. In fact, it is a defining characteristic of a voluntary -aided school that there be a charitable trust that holds land for the school and has the right to appoint foundation governors.
The trust may be a religious order, or a Diocese, or a long-standing trust for education that has supported a school or schools since, perhaps, Tudor or Elizabethan times. It may
- be supportive of a faith ethos or,
- as with the trust of which I am a trustee, supporting a single non-denominational secondary school, rooted in the Victorian utilitarian ethos.
The principle is the same, irrespective of the background: the trustees control the governing body through the power to appoint a guaranteed majority of governors. Even if the school is failing and the local authority exercises its right to appoint additional governors, the trust can still appoint additional governors to maintain the majority — and is entitled to be consulted on matters relating to the ethos of the school.
The School Standards and Framework Act 1998, in converting grant-maintained schools to foundation schools, provided a mechanism (little if at all used) for the former grant-maintained school to acquire a foundation, clearly intended to serve a similar purpose, but without the cushion of a majority of governors being nominated by it. It was never clear, though, just what the function of such a trust/foundation (the use of ‘foundation’ to describe both a trust and the status of a school that did not necessarily have a foundation was an unnecessary and confusing complication of terminology) would be, and that may explain why it did not catch on. No energy was put into developing the idea and the Government has clearly learned from this that merely creating structures will not create momentum for change. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998, in converting grant-maintained schools to foundation schools, provided a mechanism (little if at all used) for the former grant-maintained school to acquire a foundation, clearly intended to serve a similar purpose, but without the cushion of a majority of governors being nominated by it. It was never clear, though, just what the function of such a trust/foundation (the use of ‘foundation’ to describe both a trust and the status of a school that did not necessarily have a foundation was an unnecessary and confusing complication of terminology) would be, and that may explain why it did not catch on. No energy was put into developing the idea and the Government has clearly learned from this that merely creating structures will not create momentum for change.
WHAT, THEN, IS A TRUST SCHOOL?
Quite simply, it is a foundation school that has established a formal relationship with a charitable trust, which will then support the school in very similar ways to the way in which a diocese or charitable foundation supports a voluntary-aided school.
As with voluntary-aided schools, the trust will hold formal legal title to the school site and will have the power to appoint foundation governors. However, unlike with voluntary- aided schools, there are two options here: either the power to appoint a majority of foundation governors, so that the governing body closely resembles that of a voluntary-aided school; or the power to appoint a minority, which leaves the governance structure the same as for a conventional foundation school.
The process is simple and is entirely in the hands of the governing body. Schools that are not already foundation schools will first have to change category through the ‘fast-track’ procedure, which requires consultation and publication but to which no objection is possible. Acquiring a trust also requires consultation and publication of proposals — the processes can run in parallel — and here, although the local authority has the right to object to the adjudicator, the blocking power is very restricted, limited to a failure to carry out, or have regard to, the outcome of a proper consultation as set out in DfES guidance; or establishing that the proposal will have a negative effect on standards, which could be extremely difficult to demonstrate.
CHECKS AND BALANCE Majority rule brings with it a degree of check and balance in the requirement to have a formal parent council, constituted under new regulations that require, so far as practicable, that there be one parent for each year group plus representation of any pupil or groups of pupils that the governing body considers should be represented.
Parent governors will also be members of the parent council.
Parent council powers
The function and powers of the council have been left vague — or, more politely, general — the governing body must consult the council ‘on such matters and in such manner as they consider appropriate’ regarding the governing body’s conduct of the school and its exercise of its powers. The council has no executive power: all the governing body is required to do is to ‘have regard to any advice given or views expressed by’ the council. It is, in essence, a watchdog, but one with no teeth. A trust school that does not give its trust the power to appoint a majority of foundation governors is not required to have a parent council.
FORM OF THE TRUST The trust itself may take any shape or form: there are model precedents published by DfES for the documentation but there is no obligation to use these — and the composition of the trust, in terms of who the trustees will be, is left completely open.
Already, we are seeing a number of different models. The simplest version would be a single school setting up its own charitable trust — but there would be little point in doing this other than to secure majority rule. This could be one of the very few scenarios where the local authority might successfully object to the adjudicator.
More characteristically, the trust will be made up of one or more external partners — instances of partners that we have seen so far include a university, a primary care trust and, indeed, a local authority, presumably on the principle that it is better to be in the tent looking out than outside the tent looking in. Other not-for-profit organisations may be involved, as may commercial entities that see mutual benefit. The trust can support a single school or it could support a number of schools working together. The schools themselves can, and would probably be best advised to, have formal membership of the trust so as to have a seat at that table and bind the project together.
WHY DO IT? Trust schools are constitutionally foundation schools with no greater powers or resources. Both revenue and capital funding are the same as for ‘ordinary’ foundation schools: employment rights, admission powers are the same.
What changes is the opportunity to involve the outside world, not in an ad hoc way with a sudden and transient burst of enthusiasm, but in a close, structured and long-term relationship that will endure after those responsible for establishing the relationship have moved on.
Those schools investigating trust school status see it as an opportunity to generate energy and resources for the school: the prospective partners, especially in the not-for-profit area, see the relationship as adding breadth to their activities.
Another consideration, looking into the future, takes note of rumours that the trust school concept was significantly watered down, and the thought that there may, in future, be extended autonomy and freedom, perhaps with differential funding, for those foundation schools that have gone down the trust school road. The trustees of a trust school could be in a similar position to the sponsors of academies — able to exert influence over a school and help to steer its direction. For those external organisations interested in developing influence in the state education system, involvement with trust schools may be an attractive alternative to academy sponsorship. The probability is that the schools with which the organisation would be developing the partnership will be thriving and innovative by nature, so the hard work involved in getting an academy to rise out of the ashes of a failing school will not be necessary. Crucially, also, no money is needed for sponsorship: trust schools come free, aside from the (not necessarily high) set-up costs and the cost of the time, energy and other resources.
INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS Perhaps another fruitful relationship might develop with independent schools, especially those looking to expand the width of their offer to the local community with the spectre hanging over them of the new public benefit test currently exercising hearts and minds.
They could find the trust school idea interesting as a means of forging closer links and collaborative relationships with their maintained sector colleagues. Each sector has much to offer the other and this could be a productive vehicle for those to whom such collaboration appeals.
THE LAST WORD
Let DfES have the last word. The official line, as expressed in their pamphlet ‘What Trust Schools Offer’ is as follows: ‘Acquiring a trust will be a way for schools to raise standards through strengthening collaboration and drawing on the expertise and energy of their partners to support their strategic leadership. ‘Trust schools will be backed by an organisation which shares their aspirations for their pupils, knows their community, can support their continuing improvement and provides them with governors. And they will be able to do that within a sustainable and stable partnership, with clear aims and outcomes agreed at the outset. ‘There is no single blueprint for becoming a trust — schools can choose who they work with, and how, in order to support the needs and aspirations of their pupils and local communities. ‘Trusts offer schools greater opportunity to secure the support of partners to strengthen their leadership and to develop their own ethos. In doing so, they will build diversity in the school system.’
A simple framework
That is a good exposition of an ideal that will have great potential to those who have a wish to make it work. It is certainly the first major initiative that I can recall where the schools are not circumscribed by regulation and control – the framework is simple and is there; people can make of it what they will. Richard Gold is Head of education law at Stone King LLP.
FIND OUT MORE
A summary of the provisions relating to trust schools, and links to documents and further information is at http://findoutmore.dfes.gov.uk/2006/11/trust_schools_u.html
The ‘specialist schools and academies trust’ website covers becoming a trust school, and gives information for parents, governors, head teachers and external partners. See: www.ssatrust.org.uk/trustschools2/default.aspa