The Challenges of Expanding a Trust

The Challenges of Expanding a Trust

Adam Wainwright from The Key shares key insights on overcoming challenges on trust expansion

The academy trust landscape has evolved considerably in its relatively short lifespan. Since its inception in 2010, we’ve seen the creation and development of numerous collaborative models. Indeed in academisation terms, the sector feels more settled now than, say, 2016, but even as we pass the 50% mark of pupils being educated in academies[1], trusts still face challenges – none more so than the ongoing question of growth.

At The Key, we carried out some research to find out more about these challenges.

What does the landscape look like right now?

Just over half of all academy trusts are single school trusts – most of these are single-academy trusts, but some multi-academy trusts only contain a single school (so are likely planning to grow soon). Even when looking past single-school trusts, most trusts are on the smaller side. Only around 5% of all trusts have 11 or more schools[2].

What’s the ideal size to reach?

No one has come up with a definitive ‘perfect’ size for a trust, with only the broadest ranges emerging with any sort of consensus. The school/pupil numbers vary – in terms of achieving financial sustainability, we’ve seen 12 to 20 schools (or 5,000 to 10,000 pupils)[3] suggested as one range for the ‘optimum’ size, but it’s unclear what this is based on. Similarly, 8 schools has also been posited as the start of the range (or 2,500 pupils)[4].

This doesn’t take into account educational performance, which has a similarly vague relationship to size – though there is interesting research from UCL IOE Press in this area, which found some positive and negative correlations to size (though with what they admit are limitations to any concrete conclusions).

Interestingly, we found in our research that for most trust leaders, the ‘ideal’ size is the next bracket up from where they are now. Over half of the trusts with 1 to 5 schools saw 6 to 10 as the ideal size. Over half in the 6 to 10 bracket saw 11 to 15 or 16 to 20 as the ideal (and over half in 11 to 15 also saw 16 to 20 as such). It seems that the right size is always just around the corner.  

Who approaches who?

Another variation we found was how trusts go about growth. When asked “how is the decision made on which schools to add to the trust?” more trusts said schools approach them (24%) than vice versa (13%). That being said, only 10% are finding it ‘easy’ or ‘very easy’ to attract schools, with 39% finding it ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult’.

This may speak to a narrow pool of schools to attract. The most common concern cited around growth was “spreading our area of operation out too far geographically”. This is an understandable, sensible concern to have – but just means that most trusts will be looking across smaller distances.

Why grow at all?

Though there’s little consensus on an ‘ideal’ size, it is fairly universally acknowledged that trusts are viewing growth as a necessity for financial sustainability, and for reaching a size at which they can achieve greater efficiency and economies of scale. In times of tight budgets, growth is a route to sustainability.

Trusts are understandably careful about growing; doing so with schools that aren’t compatible with their vision, or when they don’t have the capacity to do so, can have negative consequences for all involved. But growth also gives trusts an opportunity to spread what’s working well for them to a greater number of pupils and staff. 92% of respondents to our survey said that “the sharing of ideas and best practice across phases and subjects” was a benefit for teaching staff of being in a trust. 81% said the same for “career development opportunities”.

Growing any organisation brings a host of difficulties, but one thing the sector does very well is to learn from each other. Trusts are constantly sharing good practice and supporting each other through networks and forums. We shouldn’t downplay the challenges they face, but hopefully the sector will continue to support itself and we can all work to address these challenges.

Adam Wainwright is a Lead Content Editor at The Key, a provider of up-to-the-minute sector intelligence and resources that empower education leaders with the knowledge to act. 

The data quoted in this release is taken from ‘Trust expansion: overcoming growing pain’ – a new piece of research conducted by The Key in partnership with Forum Strategy.


[2] All data from the October 2019 publication


[4] – page 21 of the report