College group offloads MAT amid compliance review

Multiple internal and external investigations and a complete relationship breakdown contribute to sponsor change

Multiple internal and external investigations and a complete relationship breakdown contribute to sponsor change

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A leading college group is parting ways with its academy trust amid a governance and compliance review by government.

Luminate Education Group is set to hand over control of its four-school academy trust, White Rose, based in Leeds, to a larger neighbouring multi academy trust (MAT), Wellspring.

FE Week understands the move, sanctioned by the Education and Skills Funding Agency, follows multiple internal and external investigations and a complete relationship breakdown last year between leaders of Luminate and White Rose.

The case shines a light on the challenges college groups face in operating MATs and FE Week can reveal that a government review of college-led MATs is underway in a drive for more effective sponsorships. 

The birth of White Rose

White Rose was created in 2014, when what was then known as Leeds City College Group became sponsor of Leeds City Academy. After the Department for Education divested another MAT, E-ACT, of ten of its schools, two of them – Leeds East and Leeds West – joined White Rose.

In 2019, all three schools were inspected by Ofsted and rated ‘good’, and the trust was allowed to take on another school – Mill Field, renamed Alder Tree Primary.

Following plans in 2021 for savings to be made across the colleges and MAT by sharing central services, a two-year strategy was agreed which Luminate said would have “extended and deepened” the relationship with its trust.

This involved a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which included the ongoing line management of trust chief executive Andrew Whittaker by Luminate’s chief Colin Booth.

Some members of White Rose’s leadership are understood to have been unhappy with the direction of travel agreed.

Whittaker then made a series of strongly denied allegations over a 15-month period against Luminate to external bodies including Ofsted, Leeds City Council and the ESFA. They resulted in several lengthy investigations.

Luminate said the allegations were “thoroughly investigated by various organisations” and found to be “unsubstantiated”.

They claimed the “long and vexatious complaints made by [Whittaker] have caused significant distress and upset”.

The relationship between Luminate and White Rose was formally suspended by the ESFA in January 2022.

Whittaker was unable to respond to this article for legal reasons.

The ESFA carried out a governance and compliance review into White Rose between March and June 2022 and raised its concerns in a letter.

However, Booth said that the review did not allow Luminate as the sponsor to submit evidence, a complaint that was upheld by the DfE.

Luminate believes therefore that the review is “not complete” and that the letter issued to White Rose “cannot be relied upon at this stage”.

White Rose also launched an investigation into serious concerns about Whittaker’s behaviour, which led to his suspension in September.

White Rose’s trustees and members are understood to be working very closely with the Department for Education, the local authority and Luminate to address issues related to the recent turmoil.

Structural issues

When White Rose was created, the college group chief was made both a member and trustee of the MAT, in line with DfE guidelines at the time.

But in March 2022, Booth stepped down as a director of White Rose – he had been expected to continue until September 2023.

The move followed changes to the academy handbook stating the department’s “strong preference” for “a majority of members to be independent of the board of trustees”, and “for no other employees to serve as trustees”.

Luminate is part of a government-led Pathfinder review into the structural challenges for college groups posed by ESFA rules around MATs.

Luminate – and several other college group leaders involved in the review – take particular issue with handbook rules on transactions with individuals or organisations, including parent college groups, related to trusts.

Luminate claims the rules make close partnership between colleges and schools working “more difficult than it should be” and that the rules are not “an appropriate way to treat two educational charities trying to work together to deliver benefits for students and better value for public money”.

“We think that the rules … have not yet caught up with the much more positive and supportive views of the minister,” the college group said.

“The ESFA rules add unnecessary bureaucracy and cost to what are positive arrangements that provide real and clear benefits for students.”

The proposed takeover

An application to transfer White Rose was submitted to the DfE’s regional director, who this month deferred the decision to allow more information to be gathered.

Wellspring, also a college-led MAT, has 29 schools and plans to grow to include at least four more, on top of White Rose’s.

But while its sponsor, Barnsley College, appointed the original members of the MAT’s board and has the right to appoint directors, the college’s senior leadership team take more of a backseat role.

Luminate said: “It is DfE policy to encourage all single and small MATs to either grow or merge to form larger MATs that then have more and better resources to support their schools and students.

“Both the Luminate Education Group Board and the White Rose Academies Trust Board agree with this policy and are therefore taking action, alongside the DfE, to ensure that the [White Rose] schools are part of a larger and strong MAT for the future. The decision was made collaboratively and not based on a specific recommendation outside of DfE policy.”

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