There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to academies. As the programme has evolved, alternative models and structures have emerged. The model that you choose will be shaped by your school’s context, its history, other schools locally, the needs of the community and, above all, what you think is best for your students, now and in the future.

In this section, we will look at the variety of models with their respective implications for the leadership and governance structures of academies. With the help of some legal expertise, this section will explain and illustrate all of the academy models currently being used, how they differ from each other, and which model is best suited to particular contexts. In addition, this section will look at some of the key issues that school leaders and governors will need to consider before adopting any of the models.

Variety of academy models

Different academy models and their features

This section gives you a step-by-step guide to what each academy model looks like, with a clear explanation of the legal requirements and implications in each case. There are further insights from headteachers who have successfully completed the process.

Currently, there are four standard academy models available to schools:

  • single-academy trust
  • multi-academy trust
  • umbrella academy trust
  • collaborative partnership

In a single academy trust, one school becomes an academy, or two schools combine to form a single academy.

A multi-academy trust is where a group of schools is governed through a single set of members and directors. There are two forms of multi-academy trust:

  • the group may be an existing academy chain which a school elects to join or which sponsors a school
  • a number of schools come together to set up a new multi-academy trust with remit, governance and so on decided collectively.

The umbrella academy trust permits schools of different categories to set up their own individual academies, but are part of an umbrella trust providing shared governance and collaboration.

A collaborative partnership enables academies with their own governance and accountability to work collaboratively within specific areas, such as leadership development.

The key issues that school leaders and governors will need to consider before adopting any of the models are described in more detail in the following clip.

Multi-academy solutions: Introduction

We have already heard about the importance of collaboration in the current educational landscape. In this section, we will look at the opportunities to use one of the multi-academy solutions available to help deliver school-to-school support and your collaborative vision.

How to use this resource

Sometimes it can be tempting to have either the latest or most fashionable model of a new product or service but I would recommend a three-stage process to identify the best option for your learning community.

Use this resource to provide you with a broad familiarity with the models available and what is possible.

Go back to your cluster or proposed partners and consider exactly what you are looking to achieve by collaborating through the academy programme. It is essential before you choose a model [that] you are clear on your collective strategic aims. What is your fundamental objective? Are there any non-negotiables? Perhaps the group includes voluntary aided or voluntary controlled schools are there any Diocesan requirements as to models available? Will the DfE’s policy requirements impact on what model is available to you?

You can then revisit the models to identify the model which in principle seems to best meet your needs. At that stage, you may also want to obtain expert advice to help you develop your proposed model in detail.

Before looking at the models

Before exploring each model, there are three things I would encourage you to keep in mind throughout.

Each model can be tailored to your specific circumstances. Whilst it is helpful to look at other examples around you, don’t be put off a model because of the way it is used in a particular circumstance. In my experience, models discounted early can often turn out to be the most appropriate one to deliver the vision of a group of schools. So keep an open mind.

It is important to understand that academy trusts have different governance arrangements to maintained schools and the boards of academy trusts have a wider range of duties than governing bodies of maintained schools.

Academy trusts have at least one additional layer of governance compared to maintained schools; this is the members of the academy trust. For multi-academy trusts there are two extra layers; the members of the academy trust and the governors of each local governing body.

The rights and obligations for each of these groups is different.

In reality, the members will be responsible only for fundamental decisions such as changing the constitution of the academy trust and it is the board which remains the body responsible for making strategic decisions about the day to day running of the academy trust.

Members have few formal obligations other than their obligations towards the company and the other members, as set out in the constitution and other constitutional documents. This reflects the fact that it is the board of a company that is responsible for its operation.

The role of member is likely to therefore be a largely 'hands-off' role. Perhaps the distinction between a member and board is best illustrated by an example; whilst the annual audited accounts will be presented to the members it is the board and the chair of the board who approve, sign them and send them to Companies House.

For an explanation of the duties of an academy governor, please see the earlier section in this online resource on those duties.

Governors will want to consider the different calls on time to fulfil the different roles. In general terms, the role of member will not involve too much time, the role of governor on a LGB will be similar to that of a governor of a maintained school. The role of a main board member will however involve more responsibility and may on occasion require more time commitment; it will depend on how you set up the scheme of delegations and your committee structure

When designing a preferred structure you need to consider what is manageable in practice. Whilst the DfE will welcome applications from groups of schools, they will want to see that the proposed arrangement not only provides the expertise to deliver school improvement but also that it has the capacity to do so. Governing bodies will also be keen to ensure that the arrangement does not put too much pressure on them and create a risk of the arrangement damaging rather than enhancing standards.

Model overview

There are three basic models all of which can be tailored to your local circumstances.

The multi-academy trust – this is similar to a hard federation for maintained schools.

The umbrella trust – this is harder to draw a comparison to a maintained school model but perhaps the closet match would be a group of trust schools who share the same trust.

Finally, there is the collaborative partnership – this is similar to a formal collaboration or what some used to call a 'soft federation'.

When looking at each model, you may find it interesting to consider how you could use it to help you raise attainment and deliver better outcomes for learners.
View transcript Audio download

The three multi-academy models are described in more detail in the following clips.

You can move through the clips by clicking the right and left arrows below the video screen.

Teachers standing in corridor

Models of conversion

Single academy conversion

Where a school decides to convert as a single academy, the governing body and the headteacher will work through the whole conversion process, including applying for trust status and registering with Companies House. Those who are responsible for the academy will become trustees of the trust and will be held accountable for its performance and management.

A group of schools convert under one trust

A group of schools may choose to convert together under one trust agreement. The overarching trust governing body decides which responsibilities to devolve to the local governing bodies and which to retain overall responsibility for themselves. Examples might include overall responsibility for finance or HR.

Group of children looking at a world globe
Female teacher in front of flipchart with group of older students

Sponsored academy

Schools may choose to convert and join an existing academy trust (or newly created academy trust) and be sponsored by the lead academy. Information about how to sponsor an academy is on the DfE website, including the criteria and the application form.

All low-performing schools becoming an academy are expected to have a sponsor who will bring added drive, expertise and capacity. Sponsors have made a huge contribution to the academies programme to date.

Academy sponsors are accountable for progressive and sustainable improvements to performance in their schools.  They are expected to lead on improvement and challenge traditional ways of thinking on how schools are run and what they should be like for students and seek to achieve success, and break with cultures of low aspiration which afflict too many communities and their schools.

The sponsor school will appoint an advisory board to oversee developments and report to the local governing body

Umbrella trust

Each school converts as a separate academy trust, then agrees to join or set up an umbrella trust (UT) to join a group of schools together. Schools can convert with a cluster of schools that they already have a relationship with; or with those that they identify as having a similar ethos or strength.

The attractiveness of the UT model, is that they retain the autonomy of having their own trust, while working with a group of schools that can allow shared governance, collaboration and procurement of services or vision such as diocese schools.

Collaborative agreement trust

Schools may convert as under separate trust agreements but have an additional formal collaborative agreement. This helps the academies to run as separate organisations and collaborate on specific areas, retaining their autonomy.

Key questions

If your school decides to become part of an academy trust, you will need to consider the following:

  • Which structure do you prefer? Why?

  • How might the structure grow if more schools join?

  • What is an appropriate number of academies for your academy trust?

Woman smiling with group of people behind her

Models in practice

Once you have a clear idea of the different model structures in theory, listen to these heads talking about why they chose a particular model – single academy, umbrella trust or multi-academy trust – for their school. They are in different settings and all had different reasons for making the choices that they did.

For example, at Town End Academy, Teresa Laybourne and her governors originally had planned a multi-academy trust with two schools, but it has expanded quickly to five. Pat Dubas, Principal of Samworth Enterprise Academy in Leicestershire, now leads a single academy which amalgamated an infant, a junior and a secondary school into one institution.

In the West Midlands, Steve Bell, Principal of Painsley Catholic College, discusses the seven-school multi-academy model made up of six feeder schools and his own school:

We wanted to do that because we felt that it was important that we all worked together. We didn’t want to have one school left behind, and all heads were equally committed to becoming part of the multi-academy company."

Pat Dubas:
My school has brought together an infant, a junior and a secondary school. And we are one school. So we’re not a Multi Academy Trust with a number of schools, if you like within a Trust, at the moment we are one school. So we have one DFE number. One Ofsted inspection and one budget.

There are so many significant benefits of that. Because we’ve really been able to target additional funding to the primary which quite often in many areas is underfunded. And secondary, and I was a secondary school before, we would never have liked to have given our money to the primary school, so I understand where everybody is coming from. But there’s been many benefits about us looking at things from one school.

We don’t run our school as a primary and a secondary. We run as three phases which cut across that normal divide. So huge benefits. And I actually think that’s a very strong feature of our Academy.

Andrew Carter:
To choose your Academy model was slightly less easy for us at the very beginning because we didn’t know anything about it. The Academy was Academy and we just sort of thought there was one version of it.

So we went into it with our eyes almost a little bit blinkered. And we actually probably chose the wrong one. We chose to go down to just be a single Academy in our own right. And that worked for us and it was a quicker conversion, it was more straightforward.

Where we are going now is joining other schools to increase the Academy. What we would have probably done at the beginning is made that opportunity in the first set of governance we would have made the Umbrella Trust at the beginning. We’re doing that now. And that’s very simple to do. It’s only a legal thing. We’d have probably done that, like I say, right at the very beginning.

Chris Wheatley:
We chose the Multi Academy Trust model which was interesting because we were the only school going through it. So usually would go for the Multi Academy Trust if there’s several Academies all grouping together. But what we saw was the future. So we had our school as the Multi Academy Trust. And the idea then was to form our vision and ethos and to see if other schools would buy in to that and think, you know what, I wouldn’t mind being a part of that, because we formed the Flying High Trust.

So yeah, I like exactly what you’re talking about. I like what you say and I know how this can impact on my school in the future. The development of my staff in the future but ultimately will be brilliant for our children and we therefore want to be a part of it.
So Multi Academy Trust we formed with only one school. But hopefully in the future that will be more than one school. And it will be some sort of critical mass there.

Teresa Laybourne:
I’ve got two schools and they are both on exactly the same estate. And what we felt was, one was outstanding and the other one was good in terms of Ofsted judgements. What we didn’t want was the outstanding school to be recognised as an Academy but my other school not. So we asked the DFE if both schools could go as an Academy. And then the Multi Academy Trust legislation came in. So to enable both schools to go together we became a MAT Academy, a Multi Academy Trust.

So both of them converted. That’s initially what we intended to do. As a Multi Academy Trust since then we are now sponsoring other Academies. So we’re still a Multi Academy Trust but our governance has had to change as a result of that. And also our Academy name has changed. So initially we had Bexhill and Town End Academies Ltd because those were the two schools.

And since then we’ve changed it to Wise Academies because now we’re a Multi Academy with several schools. We’ve got five schools that will be coming into our Academy.

Steve Bell:
It was a Multi Academy Company model of seven schools in our case. There are six feeder schools that come into the secondary. And all six became part of the Multi Academy Company.

We wanted to do that because we felt that it was important that we all worked together. We didn’t want to have one particular school left behind or out of our system because we are now working so closely. All Heads were equally committed to becoming part of the Multi Academy Company.

We looked at the model that was provided by the Archdiocese of Birmingham which is the only model that we can go with as a school within the Archdiocese of Birmingham. And obviously we’ve adopted that. I think the key thing for us is whether we were going to go in as two schools, three schools, four schools or whatever.

As I say we wanted to stay united. And all of us could see the benefit of progressing as a Multi Academy Company.

Seamus Oates:
We’re working across three authorities at the moment. So our model is one where we would have a Multi Academy Trust acting as the governing body for all of the PRU’s underneath it. And those PRU’s would come initially from the three authorities and be sitting within the family of PRU’s which will be the Multi Academy Trust.

Chris Tomlinson:
The reason why we decided to join the Harris Federation is it is a very successful federation. So there is that challenge there of being very successful within the federation. Chafford Hundred wants to be the best Academy within that federation. So setting itself higher standards, higher goals.

The federation, the support mechanism that it has to help Academies achieve the success very quickly is incredibly impressive. And that’s what our federation will give. That’s what the Harris Federation will give. The support of networks and collaborations amongst the Academies is absolutely right fine-tuned balance. There is an understanding of individual context but there’s also a real understanding that we will develop staff within. And make sure the future is sustainable for all Academies.
View transcript

Which academy model did you choose and why?

What emerges from their accounts is how, despite using the same basic structures, the final make-up of each academy trust is quite distinctive.

Watch the video 'Which academy model did you choose and why?' to hear more from headteachers.

The National College also has a number of more detailed case studies about academy conversion of schools that have been through the process.