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August 2019
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Rising to the Challenge

With the spectre of 2011 looming ever closer, local authorities with National Challenge schools are increasingly turning to the National Challenge Trust (NCT) school model as a way of strengthening leadership and raising achievement. But as Mark Blois and Vicki Hair of law firm Browne Jacobson explain, the transition to NCT status could be anything but smooth.

Launched in 2008, the National Challenge is a Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) initiative focusing on secondary schools where less than 30% of pupils achieve 5 GCSEs including maths and English at A to C grades. Initially 638 schools were told that if their results did not reach the threshold by 2011, they would be closed and reopened as either Academies or Trust schools. By September 2009 the DCSF announced that the number of schools in the National Challenge had fallen to under 270 but with the hurdle of the August 2010 results to clear, it is evident that some schools may fall back under scrutiny again.

NCT schools are based on the very popular Trust school model with few important changes. The school is supported by a charitable trust, involves a high-performing educational institution known as the Lead Education Partner (LEP) and are linked via a governing body largely appointed by the trust itself. Importantly, the relationship between the school and local authority is substantially unchanged.

Routes and models

There are three routes to convert a school into a NCT:-
1. Closure and reopening – process driven by the LA, the school closes and reopens as a Trust School
2. Interim Executive Board (IEB process driven by an IEB which replaces the governing body of the school
3. “Modified IEB – process driven by the existing governing body or IEBOne of three models must then be selected:-

1. Shared trust – the LEP is a school and both it and the National Challenge school will become Trust schools and share a trust.
2. LEP school as member only – the National Challenge school becomes a Trust school of which the LEP is a Trust Partner but the LEP school itself does not change status because it is unable or unwilling to do so.
3. Single school, single trust – the LEP is not a school and, as with model 2 above, the trust supports the National Challenge school only.

Potential problems and possible solutions

The appeal for schools considering adopting NCT status is obvious. The DCSF is providing additional funding of up to £750,000 (extended to £1m in some areas) for every NCT status school. Secondly, the NCT model is seen as a more attractive and PR friendly alternative to Academies or hard federations, as the Trust Partners are not seen to be directly involved in the running of the school. However, a number of challenges and obstacles need to be successfully negotiated before the benefits can be fully realised:
Which route – the route used will determine who will undertake the necessary statutory consultation process and make the final decisions whether to go ahead. Choosing the right model and route based on the opinions of the governing body and community and the needs of the school will make the transition smoother.

Conflicts of interest – there is always a potential conflict of interest for the trustees between their duties to the trust and to the Trust Partner that appointed them. Where the Local Authority is Trust Partner, this potential conflict might be problematic for the LA trustee if the LA intends to use its commissioning powers. Whilst conflicts of interest cannot always be avoided, future problems can be avoided if all are aware of the conflicts policy and adhere to it. The Local Authority’s commissioning role should not be a barrier to it becoming a Trust Partner and its involvement in the trust is normally highly desirable.

Governance structure – the LEP may feel that, in order make the changes they want, they want to be able to appoint more trustees and therefore control the board of trustees and the trust itself. Normally a governance structure can be found which balances the needs of all the Trust Partners and the school.

Local Authority involvement – care needs to be taken to ensure that, if the Local Authority is to be a Trust Partner, it does not have sufficient control over the trust so that it becomes a controlled company as defined by Part V of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. Careful planning of the Trust structure and a review of the risks to the Local Authority should ensure that the trust does not become a controlled company.

Whilst establishing a National Challenge Trust school is not without its challenges, the model remains an attractive choice for local authorities keen to raise achievement and strengthen leadership before the 2011 deadline.

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