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Trust Quality Descriptions published for sector feedback

04 May 2023

We look at the Trust Quality Descriptions published in draft by the DfE on 24 April 2023 and encourage trust leaders to provide their feedback.

On 24 April 2023, the Department for Education (“DfE”) published its Trust Quality Descriptions in draft for sector feedback with the purpose of finalising these in June 2023 and implementation in the autumn. The descriptions were trailered in the Academies Regulatory and Commissioning Review published on 28 March 2023 and build on the five pillars of trust quality originally cited in the Schools White Paper. In this article, we look at the five pillars of trust quality and the purpose of the Trust Quality Descriptions before summarising the descriptions and calling on trust leaders to provide feedback to the DfE to ensure the descriptions are fit-for-purpose.

The five pillars

The five pillars of trust quality published in the Schools White Paper and updated by the Trust Quality Descriptions include

  • High Quality and Inclusive Education with effective central leadership teams, strong school leadership and teaching and an evidence-based curriculum, 
  • School Improvement which quickly improves and maintains standards, 
  • Workforce where great teachers and leaders are trained, recruited, developed, deployed and retained and where staff wellbeing is prioritised, 
  • Finance and Operations underpinned by strong and effective financial management and use of resources to deliver the best educational experience and 
  • Governance and Leadership with an effective and robust governance structure that involves schools, exemplifies ethical standards, uses skills and expertise to provide strategic challenge and hold leaders to account and with a strong local identity.

Originally, these pillars were intended as the basis for a definition of trust strength. However, after debate from trust leaders and Forum Strategy who prefer the terminology of thriving trusts as described in Sir Steve Lancashire’s blog, they appear in the Trust Quality Descriptions as the five pillars of trust quality and it is these pillars the descriptions seek to build upon.

Trust Quality Descriptions

The descriptions are intended to inform decisions by Regional Directors about academy conversions or transfers, trust mergers, the establishment of new trusts or the best trust to grow or expand locally but not summative judgements about trust quality. They describe what the DfE expects to see but not how trusts are to deliver against them. Trust quality against the descriptions will be considered alongside the strategic needs of particular areas, assisted by the Trust Development Statements developed by the DfE to summarise the educational context and DfE priorities for Education Investment Areas. It is therefore expected that the descriptions will inform trust leaders’ priorities for developing their trusts more effectively, hence the importance of trust leaders providing their feedback to the DfE.

The five descriptions are summarised as follows.

  • The high quality and inclusive education description expects a culture that is ambitious for all with a focus on the curriculum, good outcomes, fair access, inclusive pastoral support, enrichment activities, behaviour and attendance, preparing students for the future and collaboration with others. Trusts are already ambitious for their students. The key is to ensure trust policies and practices best support that endeavour. 
  • The school improvement description envisages a culture of continuous improvement with a clearly defined school improvement strategy to improve and maintain performance where underperforming schools are transformed, best practice is shared and the trust contributes to building a trust-led system. An effective school improvement strategy is essential for any trust. However, the wider contribution to a trust-led system is also education for the public benefit and so is within a trust’s charitable objects and reinforces their position as a civic institution. 
  • The workforce description anticipates a high-performing culture which promotes collaboration, aspiration and support, creates opportunities for staff, recognises high quality teaching and champions the profession. Trusts are expected to foster a supportive environment, ensure high performance, support staff retention, deliver high quality training/placements, facilitate professional development and mentoring, encourage collaboration and ensure an inclusive working environment. With strategic HR support and expert employment law advice, trusts can do and are doing much to enable staff to deliver their best which would satisfy this description. 
  • The finance and operations description prioritises the effective and efficient use of resources and expects to see strong financial and information management systems with effective oversight and a sustainable financial strategy underpinned by financial data and intelligence. It also requires value-for-money through effective budgeting and risk management, the use of resource management benchmarking tools and Integrated Curriculum and Financial Planning, sustainable investment in capital infrastructure and a reserves policy and contingency aligned to trust priorities. Satisfying this description inevitably depends on the availability of trust resources to develop and finance the necessary expertise which, for some trusts, will require further growth or a merger with another trust. 
  • The governance and leadership description envisages a trust strategy anchored in the needs of its schools and communities and the wider educational system where the accounting officer, board and leadership team create a culture of ethical leadership including the Seven Principles of Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. The description expects to see a board with the expertise to fulfil its functions, a trust strategy aligned with its charitable objects and the descriptions, a high quality executive leadership with appropriate challenge and assurance regarding financial information, risk management and compliance. It requires independent insight from internal and external audits, governance reviews and other forms of expert advice and expects to see board induction, training and review and effective succession planning. External audits and a regular external review of governance will be instrumental provided their recommendations are acted upon and expert advice is taken where appropriate.

In summary

The Trust Quality Descriptions expand, to some degree, on the five pillars of trust quality first published in the Schools White Paper and will be used by Regional Directors to assess trust compatibility for academy conversions, transfers, growth and merger once they have been finalised with the sector in June 2023 and implemented in the autumn.

Since the descriptions will have a material impact on the future success of any trust and shape their priorities, trust leaders will want to consider the descriptions and provide their feedback to the DfE to ensure these are fit-for-purpose. Feedback will have its biggest impact where it is provided via a sector body although feedback can be submitted via the ESFA enquiry form. As Alice Gregson, Executive Director at Forum Strategy, has shared with education media, the governance and leadership description omits the fundamental work of members and local governing bodies which needs to be addressed.

Ultimately, though, trust leaders will need to review their trust strategic plan and operations and reflect on how their trust should sensibly meet the descriptions and thrive in the changing trust landscape.

How Wrigleys can help

The education team at Wrigleys is expert in helping trusts to govern their academies in accordance with legislation, mandatory requirements, applicable guidance and best practice. Our expertise covers the areas addressed by the Trust Quality Descriptions including fair access, behaviour and attendance, supporting and managing staff, procurement, governance and compliance.

Importantly, we work within the wider charities and social economy team at Wrigleys and so have a proven track record and expertise in advising trusts and other charities and not-for-profit organisations on their governance, compliance and regulatory requirements.

We also offer a governance review service to assess a trust’s effectiveness and compliance with best practice and the key requirements of the Academy Trust Handbook and the Master Funding Agreement.

We are therefore ideally-placed to advise trusts as they assess their strategic plans and operations against the Trust Quality Descriptions and ensure their continued success.


If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Graham Shaw or any other member of the education team on 0113 244 6100.

You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys Education on Twitter.

The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. The law stated is correct at the date (stated above) this article was first posted to our website. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors.




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Graham Shaw


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