The academies within a multi-academy trust (MAT) are often at the centre of a local community, and the effects of a merger between MATs can extend well beyond the academies' own pupils and staff.
The Department for Education (DfE) expects MATs to carry out a rigorous consultation process to ensure that the needs of pupils, staff and the wider community are met. A consultation is not a box-ticking exercise; MATs must show that they have sought the views of all 'stakeholders' in a 'fair and open' process, and that those views have been properly considered.
Consultation is not a legal requirement but is best practice. A consultation can uncover information that may be crucial to the success of a merger and should be taken seriously.
Our short guide offers an introduction to the consultation process.
Who to consult
As well as pupils, parents and staff, the DfE's list of 'stakeholders' in an MAT includes the following:
- parents of children at other schools
- schools and colleges in the area
- the local authority and, if appropriate, affected neighbouring local authorities
- where a merging MAT includes academies with a religious character, local diocesan or religious authorities
This is not an exhaustive list and the merging MATs should consider all other parties who might be affected.
Holding the consultation
Consultations can take many forms but the focus should be on providing the greatest opportunity for responses. A consultation should generally run for a minimum of four weeks, increasing to six weeks if the merger involves changes in admissions arrangements.
Information should be provided openly, making it clear what the anticipated long-term educational benefits of the merger will be. Details may be posted online with invitations to submit responses. Setting up an online survey is also an inexpensive way to encourage engagement.
Stakeholders should be invited to attend public meetings, which should be held at convenient times (for example, during term-term rather than holidays), with proper notice and information released in advance. Good records should be kept of the meetings and of any responses throughout the process; the MATs may need to prove to the DfE that they have properly considered any responses and factored the information into the planning for the merger.
Things to consider
Different stakeholders will bring different concerns to the table and it can be helpful to try and anticipate these before they arise.
The local authority, for example, will want reassurance that the merger will not negatively affect local pupil place plans, and that educational standards at the merging MATs, or at other local schools or colleges, will not suffer. It may also wish to know how the merger will be funded.
A merger will involve a transfer of at least one MAT's assets and undertaking, and any employees affected by a transfer will need to know that their jobs will be protected. You can read more in our guide to the TUPE legislation.
Beyond general concerns that frequently arise in anticipation of a merger, consultations may reveal issues specific to the circumstances of the MATs, or individual stakeholders, which can be difficult to predict in the planning stages. A consultation can therefore be an opportunity to draw on the experience of stakeholders while demonstrating real engagement with the local community.
You can read more on mergers of academy trusts in our article, 'Joining a new MAT – some practical points' by Russell Holland