Joining a MAT is like ‘getting married with no chance of a divorce’, experts warn

Lawyers urge schools to think ‘very carefully’ before joining a multi-academy trust

Individual schools will legally “cease to exist” and be left powerless to leave academy chains under government plans for a fully academised system, experts have warned.

The government has said that all state schools must become academies by 2022 and has made it clear that it expects most to become part of multi-academy trusts (MATs).

But lawyers and headteachers’ leaders have cautioned that schools will lose all independence in legal terms once they join a MAT, becoming mere “local branches” of the trust. They fear that some schools may be unaware of the full implications.

David Wolfe, a QC with Matrix Chambers and a specialist in education law, told TES that a school in a MAT had “no more ability to move to another MAT than a branch of Tesco can decide to become Sainsbury’s”.

“A school in a MAT has no legal identity,” Mr Wolfe said. “It has no existence independent of the MAT. In the same way as your local Tesco Metro has no existence separate from Tesco. Could your local Tesco Metro – the staff, the shelves, the customers – decide to become a Sainsbury’s? Of course not. For ‘school’, read ‘local branch’.”

Chancellor George Osborne unveiled the academisation plans in his Budget last month, pledging that they would “set schools free from the shackles of local bureaucracy”.

But legal experts are urging schools to think “very carefully” about their next move, warning that they will not be able to leave a MAT once they have joined.

‘No way out’

As Matthew Wolton, who heads up the public sector arm of solicitors’ firm Clark Holt, put it, the arrangement is “like getting married, but without the possibility of a divorce”.

“You have to look very closely at the MAT you are looking to join – what their attitudes and approaches are towards giving [you] independence, flexibility, freedoms, etc – because once you get in, it is down to them,” Mr Wolton added. “You can’t get out once you’re in.”

The Department for Education told TES that “individual academies are already able to agree with their MAT and regional schools commissioner when they want to leave or move trusts, and this will continue”.

But according to legal experts, schools are unable to decide to leave of their own volition as it is up to the judgement of the RSC.

The DfE added that in the future it would consider whether there was a need for more “routine periodic” reviews of MAT arrangements, and would look into giving parents the ability to petition their school to move to a different trust.

This is an edited version of an article in the 15 April edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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