It is two years since the announcement of trust status. The Government's aim to create more trust schools remains firm and about 70 schools have signed on so far. So are they revelling in their new-found freedom? Liz Lightfoot reports.
Richard Haigh is very pleased with his school's new trust status. Teachers are working on research projects with Exeter University - one of its external partners - while students are gaining first-hand experience of the media through BBC South West and the British Council provides a global perspective.
Despite initial opposition from some quarters, the head of Coombeshead College led a consultation which resulted in the specialist media arts comprehensive in Newton Abbot, Devon becoming one of the Government's first pathfinder trusts.
He's also roped in the Phoenix Trust to encourage pupil democracy and Sustainability for the South West, a green pressure group. Trust status is all about getting the right partners, he says. "If you can't get good, prestigious ones then it won't make a difference and it's not worth bothering."
The original government line on trust status, first announced with the 2006 Education Act was that they would bring in new autonomy and freedom for schools.
ASCL countered by stating that many of the proposed freedoms were already available in the form of foundation status. The real benefit to trusts, ASCL said, would be if there were used to promote collaboration and partnerships.
Gradually, that seems to be the line that the government has taken.
Last September 13 trusts were designated involving 30 schools, most of which had been previously working together. Many of the 180 schools which the DCSF says are in the pipeline are similar groups which want to formalise their co-operation.
Carrot and stick
Trust status is being pushed hard by the DCSF and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust while a new post of schools commissioner to promote the policy has been created and filled by Sir Bruce Liddington, the former head of Northampton School for Boys who joined the academies branch of the DCSF eight years ago.
Schools which signed up as pathfinder trusts have had their pick of the partners, grateful support from officials and free publicity in the Government's promotional literature and website.
But with the carrot has come the stick. The 394 specialist schools designated as 'high performing' must demonstrate that they have looked at becoming trusts when applying for a second specialism.
The new rules for second specialisms, introduced this year, say the schools must "demonstrate a commitment to innovation and autonomy" by considering trust status which "provides opportunities to deepen the quality of existing partnerships, by providing stability and long-term continuity".
The Government's intention is that every school will become a self-governing trust within ten years and they are using some very subtle ways of encouraging schools to go down that route, says Ray Tarleton, the principal of South Dartmoor Community College, a pathfinder trust.
"If you want to retain your high-performing specialist status, you have to show that you have at least looked at it. When the Government wants to raise standards in a particular school it will suggest to governors that they change and become a trust, which is a bit tokenistic," he says.
His school decided to become a trust because of its strong, existing partnerships which it wanted to formalise. Maths and science teachers are working on a research project "of national significance" with Exeter University's school of education and Capita Children's Services, another partner, is helping to bring the school to the home through a computer 'gateway' enabling parents to monitor their children's marks, reports, homework and the curriculum.
South Dartmoor is still part of the local authority family of schools.
"Nothing has changed in that respect," Ray says. "The trust holds the land and buildings in trust but it is largely symbolic. Governors have had the powers since local management of schools was introduced but what it does is strengthen the governing body."
No loss of democracy
Richard Haigh says Coombeshead became a trust for similar reasons. He agrees that "it's not a big deal."
The freedom is psychological, he suggests. The governing body feels a little bit more in charge but if you scratch below the surface, little has changed.
"Some portray it as severing the umbilical cord but, in fact, there is very little difference between a trust and a community school. The horse is already out of the stable in terms of schools being autonomous and independent of local education authorities," he says.
Coombeshead had strong links with outside bodies before becoming a trust, so why did it feel the need to change?
"All these things can happen without trust status but it takes a lot of networking and depends very much on individuals. Trust status gives the partnership more permanence and is not going to disappear if I retire or a manager moves on. There is a long-term commitment on both sides."
Last November the government announced support of up to £10,000 for "early adopters", schools looking to become trusts, to help with the costs of finding partners, consultation, administration and legal fees.
Linda Bamford, the head of Mayflower High in Billericay, Essex, says the school works closely with 14 others as a local delivery group and has joined the early adopter scheme.
"Our trust is about life-long learning from the cradle to the grave and one of our partners is Anglia Ruskin University because we want to embrace the fact that learning doesn't just happen in school.
"Schools are collaborative and collegiate in their nature and trust status may be an opportunity to formalise the co-operation between us and make it easier to employ staff across the group and provide economies of scale in procurement.
"People will say we can do all of these things already and we have to decide whether being a trust will add value to what we want to achieve. If the governing body doesn't feel it would add value, then we won't become a trust."
The department, however, says the money is not meant to help schools explore trust status but to reimburse the costs of the process. Only in exceptional cases would the trust not go ahead, said a spokeswoman.
'Exhausting but worth it'
While some pathfinder schools play down the difference between a trust and a community or foundation school, others are enthusiastic.
Ken Tonge, the head of Ashington Community High School, a specialist sports college in Northumberland, says it has given the school a fresh impetus and freed it from the need to consult with the local education authority before making changes for the benefit of pupils.
"I have never been so excited in my 30 years in education as I am by our work in trust schools," he says. "It allows us to design the education for our own students to meet our individual needs and to strengthen sports across the federation."
Drawing up the federation with two first and two middle schools and recruiting external partners had been exhausting and time consuming but worth it.
"We are still part of the family of schools but trust status means we are independent of the local authority to a greater extent and can do things without the LA putting the stoppers on it," he says.
"We are creating a one-tier system which means we can share expertise across the phases, develop closer working relationships and have better purchasing power."
Timetables are being aligned to change the times of the school day to provide opportunities for extra-curricular activities on Thursday and Friday afternoons and it is building a new enterprise centre.
"I know from my experience in the past that the local authority is reluctant to allow us to make changes but it's not in their gift any more."
The most important thing is to advertise widely and find the right partners. To help it reach out to the community, Ashington has chosen Northumbria University, Wansbeck Business forum, Northumberland FE college and Ashington Children's Centre, run by NCH, the children's charity.
"The difficulty of trying to persuade teachers, governors and parents of other schools to give up their autonomy and join this enterprise was a very hard process but eight weeks in we are beginning to see the results," says Ken.
Whether trust status will transform the educational landscape remains to be seen. Meanwhile, schools are doing what they always do - taking a government policy and making the best of it.
Liz Lightfoot was formerly education editor at the Telegraph.
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