A SINGLE multi-academy trust (MAT) could soon be responsible for more than 40 Somerset schools if a planned merger goes ahead.

The Bath and Wells MAT (BWMAT) currently runs 37 schools across the county, including several schools in and around Bath and four in the Taunton area.

Following a directive by the Department for Education, this trust will merge with the Beacon Education Trust (BET), which runs several schools in the Minehead and Williton area.

This merger is expected to take effect from August 2024, before the start of the new academic year.

The announcement comes mere months after the DfE identified the former West Somerset area (which includes Minehead and Williton) as a “priority education investment area”, pumping around £850,000 into BET-run schools in a bid to drive up standards.

The BET currently has one of the largest catchment areas in England, stretching from the Devon border through the Exmoor National Park to the edge of the Quantock Hills national landscape (formerly area of outstanding natural beauty, or AONB).

The trust is currently responsible for the following schools:

  • King Edward Road Nursery, King Edward Road, Minehead
  • Minehead Middle School, Ponsford Road, Minehead
  • Minehead First School (including pre-school), Townsend Road, Minehead
  • St. Michael’s Church of England First School, Watery Lane, Minehead
  • Old Cleeve Church of England School (including Teddy Bears Nursery), Huish Lane, Washford
  • Danesfield Church of England School, B3191 North Road, Williton
  • St Peter’s Church of England First School (including nursery), Doniford Road, Williton

The DfE’s regional director for the south west issued “termination warning notices” for Minehead First School in September 2022 and for Minehead Middle School in February 2023. following “a judgement of serious weaknesses” and concerns about the trust’s capacity.

In light of these rulings, BET was encouraged to engage in talks with BWMAT, which currently operates these schools:

  • Swainswick Church School, Innox Lane, Bath
  • St Michael’s Junior Church School, Newton Road, Bath
  • St Andrew’s Church School, Northampton Street, Bath
  • St Stephen’s Church School, Richmond Place, Bath
  • Bathampton Primary School, Tyning Road, Bathampton
  • Batheaston Church School, School Lane, Batheaston
  • Bathford Church School, Dovers Park, Bathford
  • Bathwick S.t Mary Church School, Darlington Road, Bath
  • Bishop’s Lydeard Church School, Mount Street, Bishop’s Lydeard
  • St John and St Francis Church School, Westonzoyland Road, Bridgwater
  • Cheddon Fitzpaine Church School, Rowford, Cheddon Fitzpaine
  • St Vigor and St John Church School, Wells Road, Chilcompton
  • Court De Wyck Church School, Bishop’s Road, Claverham, Cleeve
  • St John the Evangelist Church School, Fosseway, Clevedon
  • Freshford Church School, Freshford Lane, Freshford
  • Christ Church First School & Nursery, Feltham Lane, Frome
  • St Nicholas Church School, Kilmersdon Road, Haydon
  • Churchfield Church School, Burnham Road, Highbridge
  • St Mary and St Peter’s Church School, Copse Lane, Ilton
  • St Saviour’s Junior Church School, Eldon Place, Larkhall
  • St Saviour’s Infant Church School, Spring Lane, Larkhall
  • Lydeard St Lawrence Community Primary School, Lydeard Down Hill, Lydeard St Lawrence
  • All Saints’ Church School, Ladies Walk, Montacute
  • Kingshill Church School, Pound Lane, Nailsea
  • Norton Fitzwarren Church School, Blackdown View, Norton Fitzwarren
  • Oakhill Church School, Bath Road, Oakhill
  • Trinity Anglican Methodist Primary School, Marjoram Way, Portishead
  • Shepton Beauchamp Church School, Church Street, Shepton Beauchamp
  • Horsington Church School, Lower Road, South Cheriton
  • St James Church School, Cranmer Road, Taunton
  • St Andrew’s Church School, Grove Terrace, Taunton
  • Staplegrove Church School, Hudson Way, Taunton
  • Wembdon St George’s Church School, Brantwood Road, Wembdon
  • St George’s Church School, Pastures Avenue, Saint Georges, Weston-super-Mare
  • St Mark’s Primary School, St Marks Road, Weston-super-Mare
  • St Paul’s Church of England Voluntary Aided Primary School, Woodspring Avenue, Worlebury
  • Holy Trinity Church School, Lime Tree Avenue, Yeovil

Since the summer, the two trusts have engaged in due diligence regarding the merger, including a review of finances, staffing levels and capacity for school improvement (including provision for special needs or SEND pupils).

Andy Giles, chairman of the BET’s board of trustees, said: “We have been in discussion with BWMAT since July 2023, and both trust boards have reached a positive decision to merge. BET will become a part of the BWMAT.

“Recently we have experienced continuing difficulties when trying to recruit quality staff and this has significantly impacted the standard and consistency of teaching and learning we have been able to deliver.

“The pandemic and the resulting lockdowns also took their toll, especially with our SEND pupils, and we are still dealing with various challenges that arose during this period.

“Furthermore, West Somerset remains at the bottom (324 out of 324 regions) in terms of the social mobility index throughout the entire UK. There are severe challenges in this part of the world which are steadily worsening – undoubtedly due in part to the cost-of-living crisis, which is adding so much additional strain to our families.

“It has therefore been agreed that the merger will come into effect in August 2024, at the start of the next academic year.

“All that remains is for the decision to be confirmed by the DfE Advisory Board when it meets on January 22; however, we expect this to be a straightforward matter.”

The £847,000 allocated by the DfE to driving up standards in the former West Somerset area is being divided between the BET schools and those still under local authority control.

The money will be used to fund numerous programmes designed to boost pupils’ literacy and numeracy school, as well as raising attendance levels.

Mr Giles said: “We have worked hard to implement a range of improvement measures, but since we emerged from the pandemic, there has scarcely been sufficient time for many of the changes implemented to bring about the outcomes required, given the additional staffing and recruitment problems we have also experienced.

“As always, it is more important to place our children at the heart of all our decision-making and merging with BWMAT is absolutely the right choice.”

Mr Giles said the merger would allow staff to move between schools to “share best practice” and provide additional capacity for dealing with attendance and behavioural issues, as well as driving up teaching standards and protecting the mental health of both staff and pupils.

The BWMAT, which was created in 2012, is currently responsible for educating more than 7,600 pupils across its 37 schools, and employs more than 1,300 staff.

Mr Giles added: “BWMAT trustees have given us their assurance that they will be able to address and positively deal with the additional concerns we have raised around recruitment, training, parental engagement and culture change, and the need for experience and knowledge of administering pupil premium due to the high number of disadvantaged families we have in west Somerset.

“We look forward to a smooth transition in our merger with BWMAT and to seeing the challenges we continue to face being positively addressed so that BET children can benefit from the all-round improvements BWMAT’s greater capacity will be able to provide.

“This is an exciting development for the future of education in the region.”