DfE Trust Quality Descriptions: are we in a position to determine what’s high-quality?

three arrows soaring on yellow background business development to success and growing growth.jpg s1024x1024wisk20csTzBVJeE6igoUFcbODPLQrDis19i8XPHqbApUEPtJ Y | DfE Trust Quality Descriptions: are we in a position to determine what's high-quality?
By Anthony Wolny | 26th September 2023 | 4 min read

Trying to benchmark and measure quality in a trust is undoubtedly a hot topic.

It’s been over a year since the DfE’s Schools White Paper was released, laying out the Government’s vision for the sector.

Since then, we’ve seen snippets of additional details about how the DfE define trust ‘quality’ (plus the CST's assurance framework, which builds on the DfE's Trust Quality Descriptions), with the most recent guidance offering a transparent starting point and information on how Regional Directors make decisions on commissioning new or growing trusts.

However, it’s worth noting that there is a distinct lack of specific criteria on how to deliver, leaving it up to the industry and trusts to create the necessary foundations.

Many leaders are scratching their heads, pondering questions such as: what exactly does high-quality mean, and how can it be proven?

Thirteen years in the making

There's clearly a push to create recognised standards that can be used to identify high-performing trusts, drive improvement in the sector and support consistent growth without having a detrimental impact on pupils.

One of the purposes of these trust quality descriptions is to provide greater clarity, helping inform trust improvement and capacity-building priorities.

Important stuff, which has prompted some within the space to ask: why has it taken so long to get something in place?

We recently hosted a webinar covering the wider topic, and our guest, Leora Cruddas, CEO of the CST, explained during the talk: “The trust sector is not that old.

“Although there were academies prior to 2010 under the Labour government, really we saw the current iteration of the rise of school trusts after the Academies Act 2010, and in public policy terms, 13 years is not a very long time.

“So, it may feel surprising that it's taken us 12 or 13 years to ask the question ‘what is a strong trust?’ But it's important that we do because now more than half of children and young people in England are educated in the trust sector. And we do need to start to codify trust improvement.”

An industry sentiment?

In a recent podcast, we spoke with Dr Christopher Mansell, CEO of Birmingham Diocesan Multi-Academy Trust, about another similar judgement process – that of MAT inspections by Ofsted, which are looking at overlapping things.

Being a trust which has gone through an evaluation process, Christopher shared a similar sentiment regarding the youth behind the trust system, but unlike Leora, he worries defining good is still too soon: “For me, the sector is still very much in its infancy. There’s no handbook, as such, on how to run MATs, and there isn’t cultural knowledge like we have with headship and running a school. 

“When the education system was set up in the country, would it have been useful to have an organisation overseeing it? Without a doubt. But would it have been useful to at that point be making judgments and using terminology such as good and outstanding? Probably not. We still have that cultural knowledge to develop.”

Official inspections are on the way (maybe)

Well, whether trusts are truly ready or not to showcase what it means to be high-quality, inspections could be on the way.

In July, Sir Keir Starmer revealed that a Labour Government would mean an urgent review of curriculum/assessment and reforms to the main school performance measures.

Sir Keir indicates Labour want to make immediate changes to the performance measures used to assess schools.

He also said they will work with Ofsted to bring MATs into the remit of inspection, recognising their role in driving much of what happens in schools. 

During our previously mentioned webinar, Leora commented on Sir Keir’s speech, stating: “I think it's inevitable that trusts are inspected. But are we ready for it? That's a whole different question.

“One of the things that worries me is the regulatory burden. By this I mean, if we continue to have a policy in England where we inspect the school and then we layer onto that the inspection of the trust, well that’s a lot of inspection.

“I would say that we shouldn't resist the notion of trust inspection, because the trust is the legal entity. But what we should invite is a conversation about how you do this well and how you do this effectively in a way that places accountability at the right level but doesn't just drive huge amounts of work or burden into the system.”

Something worth striving for

At the moment, no single metric can be used to define what makes a trust high-quality.

However, the current guidance outlines the quantitative and qualitative evidence across the five key areas (high quality & inclusive education, school improvement, workforce, finance & operation and governance & leadership), providing a handy benchmark for ‘what good can look like’ in the academies sector – whatever your trust’s strategic ambitions.

So, if your trust has ambitions to grow, are you confident that you can present the best case to the Regional Director?

You’re in luck! We’ve created a handy quiz to help you get an idea of how closely you align with the DfE guidance, enabling you to easily identify areas of strength and those which need improvement.

Take the quiz here.