MATs: The known unknowns that should be known

For some time now I have been banging the drum for the DfE (though it could equally well be Ofsted, the Education Endowment Foundation, a philanthropist or MATs themselves) to commission research into what is known about how school improvement is working in MATs. After all improving outcomes for pupils is the raison d’être of MATs and so it should not be asking too much to have a deeper understanding about what effective practice looks like.

As a way of taking the debate forward here are are 10 areas where it would make sense for the MAT sector – both established and fledgling MATs – to have greater knowledge about what is happening and, more importantly, what practices and behaviour are having the greatest impact.

  1. Teaching and learning vision – to what extent have MATs thought through and adopted across the academies in their trust a shared vision of what great teaching and learning for their students looks like? How far is that driving the development of a common approach to the design of the curriculum, schemes of work, lesson planning and professional development?
  2. Spectrum of learning needs – how well do MATs understand the learning needs of pupils across their trusts and put in place strategies, provision and specialist support to meet them (including the needs of high potential students)? To what extent are MATs gaming the performance tables by siphoning off pupils with learning challenges and difficulties into inappropriate settings?
  3. Systems for behavior management – how are MAT setting expectations round behaviour standards, classroom management and engagement with parents? Are MATs adopting trust-wide policies for exclusions, arrangements for disruptive pupils, pastoral and pupil support, behaviour management training and rewards and sanctions for pupils ?
  4. Supporting academies to improve – how far does each academy determine its own school improvement strategy or to what extent is this driven at a cluster, regional or MAT level? Does the MAT adopt standard systems for securing improvement and how far does the approach vary according to an academy’s position on its school improvement journey? How are MATs combining and targeting school improvement resources from within individual academies with support and expertise from clusters, other trust academies, the central MAT team, schools outside the MAT and other external support?
  5. Consistency and local identity – what issues are MATs are more likely to see as non-negotiables than others (for example, core data sets, systems for attendance, behaviour, timetabling, assessment, exam board and lesson planning)? Do MATs differentiate their approach according to the issue, the teacher and the performance of academies? How do MATs legitimise non-negotiables through co-construction, evidence and impact? To what extent do they set out in detail in detail how standard systems and processes are to operate? And do the non-negotiables evolve as the MAT grows and matures?
  6. Quality assurance – how are MATs tracking and reporting progress data at different levels of the MAT? Are there clear trends and practices in terms of how MATs are organising  classroom observations, book-checks, peer review, ‘challenge’ sessions with heads of schools, benchmarking within and outside the MAT and using data dashboards as the basis for intelligent reporting to MAT boards?
  7. Leadership deployment and development – how are the respective roles and responsibilities for leading learning and holding academies to account distributed across academies, clusters, regions and the trust as a whole? How does the the MAT deploy and direct expertise across the trust? How are MATs proactively linking leadership development programmes with leadership deployments and coaching?
  8. Professional development and performance management of staff – how are MATs assessing and recognising the performance of staff, applying capability procedures, identifying development needs, organising joint training and development sessions, using shared lesson planning and common coaching models? How far have MATs embraced  inquiry-led learning as a driver of improvement and understood how to practise knowledge transfer within the MAT and with other schools?
  9. Specific pedagogical approaches – how far are MATs adopting specific pedadogical programmes – such as a particular approach to teaching phonics or adopting a maths mastery programme? Are MATs evaluating their pedagogical approaches so that they know whether their pupils are making greater progress than comparable pupils in other schools.
  10. Variations in performance and progress within MATs – what is it that academies or MATs are doing differently that might account for some of their academies, or groups of academies, making faster progress than others?

Analytical and survey work on these issues would need to be linked to using the national pupil data base to identify where there might be links or correlations between practice and performance.

It’s a disgrace that we know more about how charter school groups in the USA operate than we do about how MATs in England are working and developing. It’s time to put this right.Turning the known unknowns into knowns would be an infinitely better use of money than funding the distracting and dangerous grammar school diversion.

Grammar schools: MATs should ignore the siren calls and act together to support all high potential students

The arguments against grammar schools are clear and overwhelming:

  • Selection at 11 presumes intelligence is given and fixed rather than developed and developing. Brain and social development are just about to kick off as young people enter the teenage years and so making a decision at age 11 about the form of schooling for a child is perverse and flawed.
  • Selection at 11 tells the majority of students that they are not in the top echelon and fosters lower self-esteem and can lower both their own and their teachers’ expectations of what they can achieve.
  • Grammar schools have a poor record on social mobility in terms of meeting the needs of pupils on free school meals (FSM) – just a very low percentage (2.4%) of grammar school pupils are FSM. Poorer children are less likely to go to grammar schools than rich peers with the same primary test results. Even introducing quotas for FSM pupils is unlikely to make a material difference: they would only benefit a very small number of pupils.
  • The overall performance of non-grammar school students educated in a selective system is negative rather than positive, when compared with those educated in a comprehensive system.
  • Losing the most able students and staff to grammar schools is likely to have an impact on the balance and cohesion of other schools and their ability to recruit staff.
  • The government has yet to show it can produce a ‘tutor-proof’ test.
  • Education systems that perform best are those that tend not to stratify and stream but prioritise – until at least the age of 16 – all students attaining the required standards while also creating opportunities for the most advanced students to undertake extension work and activities.
  • Grammar schools are a misdirected strategy because the historic problem of English education is not with top performers but with the long tail of under-achievement – relative to student cohorts in other countries.

Despite these arguments some multi-academy trusts (MATs) will come (or feel) under pressure from government ministers to apply to open a grammar school. In some cases, MAT Board members are preempting any approach from the DfE and toying with engaging with the grammar school agenda.

MATs should think very carefully before they clamber aboard this particular runaway train. Here are five questions they should ask themselves:

  1. How would such a move would fit a MAT’s founding mission and values. Organisations dilute or undermine their ethos and moral purpose at their peril. Some MATs may worry about how their ‘brand’ will be perceived if they do not have a grammar school in their stable of schools. But even if they were they to open a grammar school the vast majority of parents and students are still going to be served by non-selective schools. Is the MAT on the side of the many or the few?
  1. How will opening a grammar school further a MAT’s core business and objective of improving outcomes for all pupils? There must be a risk that the agenda becomes a diversion and distraction from improving the rates of progress and performance of pupils across the MAT. This was an issue flagged up by Neil Carmichael MP, the Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee. It’s a concern that reflects the thinking of people like Professor John Hattie who has warned about structural solutions acting as ‘the politics of distraction’ leading educators away from the core business of improving the quality of teaching and learning.
  1. What will be the impact on other schools? Is there a risk that it will sow division amongst headteachers and teachers of schools within the MAT? How will the MAT’s reputation within the wider school community, in the localities where they apply to establish a grammar school, be perceived? What will be the overall impact on pupil place planning? Will it make it easier or harder to collaborate and work with other schools?
  1. What are the financial implications of opening a grammar school? It would appear that there will be some extra capital for new grammar schools but the initiative is unlikely to yield significant extra revenue funding.
  1. How sustainable is the policy? It is still not certain whether and in what form Parliament will legislate on this issue. Even if the proposals are enacted exactly as the government proposes (not the most likely scenario), and even allowing for another Conservative government being elected in 2020, the policy is politically vulnerable in the medium term given the lack of evidence for its provenance. Indeed a Conservative government led by a different Prime Minister might well take a different view of on the issue.

MATs should have confidence in what they are already doing. They are already in the front line of fighting to improve social mobility – they don’t need lectures from the Prime Minster or her adviser on this. However, what MATs as a group might do is call the government’s bluff. If Theresa May is really concerned about extending social mobility then rather than just authorising a costly unproven programme that will benefit relative few young people, she should be open to supporting something altogether more ambitious.

MATs as a class should get together with the Education Endowment Foundation and commit to an action research programme that is evaluated in a rigorous way. The programme would test and implement strategies that support the progress of all students with high potential – and particularly those from poorer backgrounds. Such an approach would build on the evidence of what was most effective in the earlier Gifted and Talented programmes and on learning from other parts of the world. The initiative should involve universities and businesses that value high quality skills and knowledge. However, the programme would particularly target how to empower students and teachers to improve school strategies and classroom practice for those making the fastest progress.

It’s time for MATs as a sector to exercise the moral leadership that is at the heart of what they are trying to do. They should ignore the siren calls of selection. Instead of being seduced by grammar schools MATs together should embrace a new commitment to realising student potential. They should follow though and do this even if the government dismisses and disparages their efforts. MATs should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.

Is bigger necessarily better?

Is bigger necessarily better? I pose the question in the context of the growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs). The underlying assumption within the sector is that scaling up MATs and supporting them to expand is both a good and necessary objective. Certainly the Department for Education is putting a lot of resource into supporting the growth of small, medium-sized and even the largest MATs.

This makes sense at a number of levels. A larger MAT of, say, 15 rather than five academies brings economies of scale in terms of procurement, organisation of back office functions, being able to afford a good blend of central professional experts, developing and deploying leadership talent and having a bigger pool of expertise to share across schools. At the ASCL conference last year Sir David Carter set out the fairly compelling financial logic for developing MATs of between 10-15 schools.

However, what is less clear is whether there are some diseconomies of scale – particularly with regard to improving teaching and learning? That is, after all, the core purpose and business of a MAT and must ultimately be the test of their effectiveness. Is there a correlation between size and impact? If there are some diseconomies of scale at what point do they kick in – and why?

We just don’t know the answer to these questions. We do know that overall MAT performance at key stage 2, in terms of pupil progress, is broadly in line with all schools nationally. At key stage 4 the picture is not yet quite so positive – though the profile of historically poorly performing schools taken on by sponsored MATs partly explains this. But we don’t know why some MATs are performing more effectively than others. Without that knowledge or research base it is not surprising that we do not have an overarching framework for guiding the overall shape and development of the MAT sector.

Compulsory academisation has, with the exception of failing schools, been put on the back burner but the drift towards greater and possibly universal academisation of all schools in England continues. But over the next decade are we looking to see the creation of 2,000 MATs with an average of around 10 schools in each MAT? Or is the preferred model of 1,000 MATs with an average of 20 schools per MAT? Or do we envisage 500 MATs each having around 40 academies?

We have a direction of travel (encouraging schools to become academies and supporting MATs to grow) but without any roadmap and without the data necessary to create the map. To change the metaphor we have set sail for a brave new world without any charts and without knowing what lies just over the horizon.

This is an urgent issue. As the chart below shows  81% per cent of academies are in academy trusts that have 10 or fewer academies in them. And there are potentially hundreds if not thousands of new fledgling MATs still to arrive on the scene. Their current size is almost certainly not sustainable in the medium term but what scale of operation should they be considering?

Number of academy trusts by size of trust, December 2016mats-dec-2016

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/open-academies-and-academy-projects-in-development

I do not believe there is one optimum size for all MATs – the size of a MAT will depend on the mission, geography, size of schools, organisational structure and school improvement model of the MAT. But we do need to know whether school improvement is best confined to working across groups of 15-20 schools, or whether can it be scaled up sustainably and successfully over larger group of schools and, if so, what are the preconditions for doing this. A few of the biggest MATs can be considered as high performers as measured both by Ofsted judgements and progress in test and exam results. However, other larger MATs have struggled to bring improvement across the board – though in both cases there are significant variations within as well as between MATs. In some cases growth has been sanctioned but at present the jury is out on whether this is working as a significant of their academies have yet to be inspected and/or there are an insufficient number of years over which to assess performance. So it is by no means a given that larger does necessarily equal better.

I would suggest we need to adopt a three-fold strategy.

First, we need to look we can learn from other education jurisdictions about the operation of tight formalised learning networks. Chartered Management Organisations in the US and School Boards in the Netherlands provide an obvious starting point. Take  KIPP Charter Schools as an example. KIPP has grown to comprising 200 schools across the US but uses a federal structure of 31 regions (an average of six to seven schools per region) to operate these schools. KIPP regions are governed by a local board of directors, led by an executive director or superintendent and often partner with neighboring schools and community-based organisations. The role of the KIPP Foundation nationally is to train and develop outstanding educators to lead KIPP schools, provide tools, resources and training for teaching and learning and to promote innovation. Another CMO, Aspire Public Schools, has 40 schools – but focused in just two states: 36 in California and four in Tennessee. The average size of school in both these CMOs is just 400 students.

Second, we need an informed evidenced-based commentary what is happening on the ground within MATs as they expand. We need to understand the different scenarios and models that MATs are using to grow, examine their approaches to school improvement and track and assess their impact in terms of improvements in performance. Correlations may be hard to establish but a process for capturing, refining and sharing learning in a disciplined and systematic way is what is called for.

The MAT ‘health checks’ that are being developed by the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, are a helpful move in this direction. The five domains of the proposed framework (school improvement, governance, people and leadership, financial sustainability and risk management) could potentially provide a sound focus for MATs as they plan to take their organisation to scale. And because it is envisaged that the ‘health checks’ will use a peer review approach they should help to move knowledge around the system. Alongside that, however ,the DfE should as matter of urgency initiate some longitudinal research that tracks and evaluates school improvement models and their relative effectiveness, efficiency and impact. The secretary of state, so it is said, likes evidence-based policy. Well here is a prime case where evidence is urgently needed to inform policy.

Third, we need to change the terms of the debate about the growth of MATs. Many of those reading this blog will be familiar with the graphic that David Hargreaves (see below) developed for explaining the challenge facing teaching school alliances as they developed their partnerships. He plotted time on one axis and partnership depth on another. He suggested that many partnerships started off informally and initially might undertake only relatively superficial collaborative work – such as joint insets. However, as the partnership deepened so it became more formalised.hargreaves-grid

I have adapted that graphic to be relevant to a MAT context (see below) – retaining the horizontal ‘depth’ axis but replacing the vertical ‘time’ axis with ‘number of academies in a MAT’. I worry that despite the debacle of unchecked growth between 2010 and 2012 too many MATs see growth just in terms of expansion to the neglect of depth. Growth should be about both dimensions. mat-growth-and-depth

A mature MAT will prioritise going deeper in terms of facilitating its teachers and leaders to work together ever more closely to improve teaching and learning. They will be testing and understanding how to scale up their school improvement model – that does not mean imposition of standards and systems from the centre (though it may make sense to standardise some approaches) but consolidating knowledge and implementing practice based on collaborative classroom activity that is regularly assessed for its impact. The test of expansion should be whether it adds value to the MAT. Will opening more schools make the MAT stronger and/or more successful at fulfilling its mission? As a study on Chartered Management Organisations puts it:

‘A good practice is to ask yourself and your team, “What are you trying to accomplish and to what extent does that require additional campuses?”’

My hypothesis (to be developed in a later blog) is that the key to combining growth with depth is clustering. Clusters provide the vehicle for deep collaboration focused on teachers and classroom practice, using Hattie-style approaches within and across schools in the cluster to accelerate pupil progress by empowering teachers to plan, develop, observe and coach each other and by assessing the impact on pupils’ learning. A MAT complements this by providing the challenge, professional capital, knowledge and expertise that comes from being part of a larger group. The central team of the MAT evolve to focus on setting a strategic context and clear teaching and learning priorities, facilitating cluster activity, providing research know-how and tools, supplying impact data, helping move knowledge around (through, for example, user-friendly apps and online networks), scaling up what works, holding people and academies to account and ensuring consistency on key fundamentals.

Some MATs might achieve this by working within the parameter of 10-15 academies, as proposed by Sir David Carter. Other MATs may grow larger but should, I suggest, have to demonstrate that they understand how to do practice school improvement at scale and have an effective model for combining cluster and whole MAT activity before they are permitted to grow any further. Some MATs might stay small (below the Carter threshold) and focus on local school improvement while buying support services from another MAT or supplier.

MATs are not ends in themselves. Their purpose must be to improve pupil outcomes, wellbeing and life chances. That entails putting teacher development and improved teaching and learning centre stage. So let’s find out, examine and understand what the best MATs are doing to achieve this and make this the basis for sustainable growth.

 

 

Making MATs work for village schools

Can the multi-academy trust model (MAT) be made to work for village schools? This is a vital question as there are 4,000 schools in England with fewer than 150 pupils and 1,400 with fewer than 75 pupils.

In some circles and among some academy groups there is an assumption that the MAT model is not viable for these small schools. And, given their business and operating model, it would indeed be hard for some of the larger more established MATs to take in and support schools with just 30 or 50 pupils each.

However, the MAT model can be applicable to our smallest schools provided certain conditions are met. In reaching that conclusion we need to draw on the evidence of how federations in rural areas have helped to safeguard the future of small schools that otherwise might no longer be viable – and look at the experience of the rural MATs that are already up and running.

First – and perhaps obviously – small schools need to pool all their back office, administrative and support functions so that they are all run directly by the MAT – and/or outsourced to another organisation to provide. Most MATs adopt such a strategy but normally take a few years to completely integrate these functions. Village MATs would need to bite the bullet and be prepared to start off with centralised business functions from day one.

Second, the model will only work if there are a number of village schools in the same locality that can be formed into a cluster or clusters. These clusters then need to be run as a virtual single school – for example, sharing school leaders, subject leaders and special needs co-ordination. An executive head would lead the cluster with a nominated teacher (or in a larger village school, ‘head of school’) designated as the responsible person on the site for day-to-day contact with parents. This would strengthen leadership and expertise but provide a more cost effective model for providing schooling.

Critics or sceptics of this approach, which might include parents and governors of village schools, would argue that they would be losing control of ‘their’ school. That need not be the case. They could, for example, retain a Local Governing Body. Each school should also be encouraged and expected to retain its own sense of identity and engagement with the local community.

Third, the MAT would ideally include 1,000 pupils or more. This might be achieved by, say, 15 schools operating through three clusters. Fewer schools/clusters could be viable if they were conceived as being the rural hub or hubs of a MAT that also operated one or more urban clusters – this is a model RSCs should be encouraging.

Fourth, village schools might have to contribute a topslice that is a bit higher than the average (of four to five per cent) – but for many of them that would be no different from what they have been paying to their local authority.

Fifth, the DfE, the Church of England National Society and the Catholic Church would need to revisit their National Memoranda of Understanding. Roughly a third of primary schools are voluntary aided or controlled and they normally co-exist in close proximity to village schools. It makes sense for faith-based and community school to be able to work together in MATs – while respecting and safeguarding their distinctive traditions. It’s crazy to force them to work in separate silos. The Church of England is happy to accept community schools into diocesan and Anglican faith-based MATs, but both faith traditions resist ‘their’ schools joining in a mixed MAT if they are not able to nominate the members and thus oversee the appointment of Board trustees/directors. They are worried that any dilution of faith control would lead to the loss of ‘their’ schools to the state. The Memoranda of Understanding in effect acquiesce in this concern.

There are, however, alternative models. For example, one or two dioceses have agreed, as an exception, to a faith school being part of a non-faith led MAT and for an addendum to the Funding Agreement being used to safeguard the religious character and governance of the school. That model should become much more common. It would enable sensible geographical clusters to develop while safeguarding the legitimate concerns of the church authorities. Issues related to land and assets would also need to be accommodated – but that cannot be any more complex to resolve than PFI!

Governors and dioceses need to put aside their vested interests and consider what is in the best interests of the children. Although many village schools are delivering a high quality of education the model is fragile – it only needs one teacher to go sick or perform poorly or for the head to hand in their notice and the school can end up in a vulnerable position. Recruiting heads for these schools is becoming harder and in some cases impossible. Moreover being part of a MAT would free teachers from many administrative burdens and give them access to a much richer range of professional development. Pupils would have access to a richer repertoire of teaching and have new opportunities to work pupils in other schools.

The clinching argument is this. Unless some village schools are prepared to change they risk being closed. The economics of education funding over the next few years will make it harder for them to survive. We should be supporting the retention of village schools – which are often central to the sense of identity and vitality in a community – by enabling them to adapt to a changing environment. The government should earmark some of its capacity and growth funding to support the development of more MATs focused on rural schools – learning from federations and those village-based MATs that are already up and running.

Where is the MAT agenda going?

Now that Justine Greening has announced that the government is abandoning plans to coerce all school into becoming academies – at least for the time being – it’s a good moment to reappraise where we are with the academies and the multi-academy trust (MAT) agenda.

Here are ten issues for school leaders, governors and policy makers to reflect on:

  1. Schools (apart those deemed inadequate by Ofsted) can now decide in their own time whether and how to become an academy and join a MAT. They have the space to find partners with a shared vision and values and undertake due diligence. There is now no excuse for forming what I call ‘manic MATs’ – i.e groups (of often local) schools rushing to huddle together because they are frightened of being ‘done to’ or taken over by a ‘predatory’ MAT. A school now has the time to consider and identify those schools and/or MATs that will best help it to meet the challenges it faces and deliver the best outcomes for its pupils.
  2. Many of the early stand-alone converter academies may find that they need to review their position. Given the scale of change and challenges facing schools, it is questionable whether operating as a single school represents a wise long-term policy. However, I suspect that many stand-alone secondary academies will find it hard and painful to make the journey from what they perceive as ‘autonomy’ to real and deep collaboration. And some will leave it too late to to make the move.
  3. The rationale and narrative for joining or forming a MAT needs to shift. Instead of MAT status being seen as a punishment for weak academies it should be conceived as the route to the deepest form of school partnership. MATs provide a vehicle for schools to work together but within a  disciplined framework – lacking in many other partnership initiatives and structures – that holds school to account both individually and collectively for their progress and impact.
  4. The practice of many MATs in helping to develop talent, introduce new leadership models and forge a leadership pipeline should be shared more widely. It’s a message that governors worried about finding or recruiting  a replacement head need to hear.
  5. The opportunity to reorganise business functions and so free school leaders to  focus more on teaching and learning  is another plus for the MAT model. It could also provide a route to reducing the admin workload of teachers.  And, of course, economies of scale increasingly come into play as MATs grow. This will be vital as budget pressures increase. Those MATs that want to remain small will need to examine buying business support functions lock, stock and barrel from another MAT or organisation – rather than spend lots of time and effort trying to make their own operation viable.
  6. There needs to be much more emphasis on the core business of MATs: school improvement. What is it that the best MATs are doing that is helping to accelerate progress and impact? How are they organising quality assurance oversight, developing staff,  organising coaching, facilitating inquiry-led learning, moving expertise around academies and co-constructing curriculum and lesson plans?  Which issues and approaches are mandatory across the MAT and which are are left to individual academies?  It’s a scandal that the DfE is not commissioning independent research on this.
  7. More resource needs to go into organisational capacity building. The DfE does provide capacity building funds to fledgling MATs – though whether all of them use the money wisely is another matter. It has also facilitated the start-up of various CEO development programmes. But it’s been woefully late in the day and is nowhere near being delivered at the scale that will enable, over time, the establishment of 2,000 highly effective MATs.
  8. Mergers between MATs are popping up here and there. We can expect more as part of a consolidation of the sector – we need to understand how to do this effectively. Watch this space for a future blog!
  9. Regional Schools Commissioners seem to be struggling to find sufficient sponsors to support all those schools requiring significant or substantial improvement. As well expanding capacity-building efforts, a clear set of principles or a template for providing financial support to MATs that take on such schools might help – particularly if the approach were applied consistently across the country.
  10. As the post below this one argued there are a range of governance issues that need sorting out. This should not all be left to the government – the MAT sector needs to come together and provide leadership. We need a stronger voice for MATs. A school-led self-improving system requires this!

A huge amount of effort and public money has gone into developing MATs. Arguments rage about whether it has been worthwhile. In my view it’s still too early to make that call – but what I am clear about is that the investment is more likely to be justified if we attend in greater detail to building MATs carefully and sustainably.

 

 

 

 

 

Governing responsibly: tackling the weaknesses in the governance of academy trusts

The conduct of academy trusts is never far from the news. Just last week the spotlight was on the Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) for its failure to publish a review into alleged financial irregularities at Bright Tribe Academies Trust. The Labour Party at its conference promised to give local authorities greater oversight of academies’ finances.

In many ways the question marks over academies are unfair. Most trusts are being competently led, managed and governed. Indeed the academy governance model has a number of virtues. It is more flexible and less bureaucratic than the traditional model of governing maintained schools. The advent of board decision-making has placed a greater emphasis on getting people with the right skills round the table. The separation between board and school-level governance roles is enabling schools leaders to focus more on leading learning

However, as in other other areas of life a relatively few bad apples are tarnishing the reputation of the whole multi-academy trust (MAT) sector and eroding public confidence in the academy model. There have been four problems:

  1. Over-rapid expansion of academies. It hasn’t just been one MAT but probably up to 20 that have been encouraged and allowed to expand too fast. Sir David Carter and Michael Wilshaw were pretty damning about this in their evidence to the Education Select Committee in July. And it is not entirely clear to me that the lessons have been completely learnt. Where were boards of directors when this level of expansion was driven by over-ambitious CEOs took place? Where was the exercise of due diligence?
  2. Poor financial oversight. Since March 2014, 45 academy trusts have been issued with financial notices to improve. In some cases the issue relates to deficits, in some cases to lack of financial systems, in some cases to fraud and in some cases to inappropriate payments (in particular the issue of third party payments to those connected with the board and associated failures to declare interests, follow due process and adhere to proper contractual procedures).
  3. Questionable remuneration packages. In July  The Observer exposed ‘the extravagant expenses’ paid to  a number of senior MAT employees. In March Sir Michael Wilshaw tartly told the Secretary of State in March 2016 that the “Salary levels for the chief executives of some of these MATs [subject to batch inspections by Ofsted] do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies.”
  4. Weak control of academic standards and progress. Since 2012, more than 160 academies have received warning, pre-warning or termination notices (50 in the last academic year). In part this is related to the over-rapid expansion of academies between 2010 and 2013 but in part it is separate. Between September 2015 and June 2016, 119 academies had to be re-brokered from one sponsor to another And the rate of progress in moving schools out of Ofsted categories is nothing to shout about – though  we should remember that MATs have taken on some of the toughest schools in the system.

These are the symptoms of something being amiss with academy governance in at least part of the sector. The symptoms are serious but we also need to dig below the surface and identify the deeper problems. To start with some boards and CEOs seem to have lost their moral compass. They may have started off committed to improving outcomes and life chances for young people but somewhere along the way they got seduced into building empires, making money and rewarding friends and colleagues. They fall into a mindset where they seem to think that that they own the MAT – it is ‘their’ organisation to do with as they please.

Second, MAT governance is too heavily weighted towards upward accountability – i.e. to Ministers via regional school commissioners – and not sufficiently rooted in reporting to parents, pupils and the local community. A system built on heavy upward accountability tends to foster a culture of compliance and game playing in order to meet targets and expectations. A process that values stakeholder engagement requires a more open, transparent and inclusive approach to performance and the rate of progress. They are not, of course either/or options – both are needed. But funding agreements prioritise accountability to the centre rather than to the locality.

Third, there are structural weakness in the academy governance model. There is not a sufficient separation between those who serve as members of a trust and those appointed as directors. So when it comes to appointing (or dismissing) directors the decisions are effectively in the hands of a self-perpetuating caucus. In addition the respective roles of the chair and the CEO are not always thought through and delineated.

Some MATs have made the mistake of carrying over the culture of governance and the personnel from the schools they inherited without understanding the  statutory responsibilities of director. In other MATs they have failed to properly consider and agree which decisions are to be taken at board, which at cluster and which at academy level. Consequently they find that their schemes of delegation are confusing and directors and local governors come into conflict with the central MAT.

Perhaps most worrying is the misapplication of the concept of earned autonomy. The assumption in some MATs is that if a school is performing strongly it should have maximum freedom and the MAT should not interfere with its leadership and management. Of course the strengths and identify of such academies should be respected but the whole point of a MAT is to grow a teaching and learning model where schools are continually and ever more deeply engaging with, learning from and support each other. That requires a shared purpose, shared leadership, shared systems, shared resources and shared accountability. MATs are, at best, unlikely to reach their potential and, at worst, storing up problems for the future if the MAT is simply a holding body for a series of largely autonomous units.

Fourth, some MATs have  believed their own hype. Business guru, Jim Collins, describes the classic pathway to failure of once highly successful corporations: they succomb to ‘hubris born of success’, engage in ‘an undisciplined pursuit of more’ and practise ‘a denial of risk and peril’. Those descriptors apply all too aptly to the actions of some of our MATs.

Fifth, there are systemic weaknesses in compliance systems. In some MATs monitoring systems are patchy – they do not have a real-time grip on academic or financial performance and pupil wellbeing. Internal audit procedures are not always well entrenched. External auditors are missing key issues. The EFA is overstretched having to oversee more and more and more academies with fewer resources. We have to rely on Freedom of Information requests and whistle-blowers to identify a number of the worst abuses.

Sixth, some MATs are struggling to get full value from their trustees/directors. In part this may be – particularly in fledgling MATs – there is a failure to appreciate the implications of being on a company board means and exercising the legal responsibilities of a director. In part it may be because boards fail to get the right blend of skills round the table and in part it may be because a trust does not put sufficient effort and resource into training and developing its board and governors (or academy council members).

So what’s to be done about this state affairs? Here is another of my ‘lists of 10 useful suggestions’ – this one targeted on improving MAT governance.

  1. Establish and live by your values throughout the organisation. Effective MATs are grounded in the vision and mission of what they are trying to achieve and have adopted core values of how as a group of academies they will work together.  Leaders model these values which have been been discussed with staff and shared with the wider school community. Developing and instilling the value base of the organisation is probably the single most important way of improving MAT governance.
  2. Review the governance structure. Review how many members the MAT has and make sure that most of them do not serve in a dual capacity as directors. The EFA should consider lowering the threshold for having an audit committee from £50 million to £10 million but in the meantime MATs need to make sure that their internal audit mechanisms and reporting arrangements are robust.  A remuneration committee should also be the norm (it won’t meet many times a year) and it should have access to good independent advice.
  3. Be clear about what’s to be decided at what level within the MAT and reflect that in detailed schemes of delegation, governance handbooks and training programmes. Getting this right may be demanding and involve hard conversations but ideally the arrangements will be co-constructed and so command support across the MAT. All who are exercising responsibility – board members, the centrally employed staff of the MAT, governors/academy council members and senior and middle in individual academies – each needs to have a precise understanding of their respective accountabilities. That includes CEOs and chairs of boards having a clear understanding of how they will exercise their remits.
  4. Adopt a growth strategy having regard to a MAT’s wider context. There is a lot of pressure on MATs to expand – both to reach what is considered a viable economic scale of operation and to help with improving struggling schools.  Those can be perfectly reasonable objectives. But good governance will also consider another dimension of growth – depth. What does the MAT need to do to develop its organisational capacity and business systems, its staff and leaders and, above all, what are the priorities for improving teaching and learning? These factors need to be looked at alongside expanding the number of academies. Sometimes growth means having a period of consolidation rather than accepting more academies. As and when expansion is the right course then the board needs to insist on applying thorough due diligence to each and every academy it is minded to take into the MAT.
  5. Operate real time tracking systems across all areas of activity. Smart data systems and easy-to-read dashboards should, of course, track educational progress and performance and monitor financial out-turns. But they should also encompass other areas of activity such as attendance (of staff and pupils), pupil mobility, staff turnover, behaviour, exclusions, health and safety, applications for entry, safeguarding and looked after children. Directors need the information to able to spot worrying trends,  provide challenge and authorise and – where necessary – insist on corrective action.
  6. Step up a gear on training and development for directors and governors/academy council members. That starts with MATs looking at their induction programmes to ensure that new trustees understand their statutory responsibilities as company directors. For those in governance positions in local academies it will mean them understanding what their role is – and how fits into a broader governance framework. It will also involve identifying accurately the development needs of directors and governors. Doing this then provides a platform for a cross-MAT training programme. By bringing together those involved in governance across the MAT, training sessions will help forge links and relationships and contribute to building the social capital of the MAT – as well deepening knowledge of key issues.
  7. Practise strong local accountability so that a MAT feels answerable to local stakeholders alongside its obligations to government. A MAT can do this by adopting a transparent and open approach that enables local people to access its data, finances and outcomes of its meetings. MATs can also engage with parents and local communities through parent councils, family learning, online communication and consultation sessions. I would also argue that mature governance would see MATs encouraging their schools to be collegiate: collaborating with other schools and the local authority on issues such as place planning, admissions, special needs and vulnerable groups of children.
  8. Observe the advice of Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT. Russell argues that headteachers (and MAT leaders) should be paid through a single base salary, set by the trust and approved by the trustees. If senior leaders are undertaking additional work over and above their normal roles the proper way for that effort to be recognised is through their salary rather than them taking a share of any income generated for the trust. Russell also advises MAT leaders to avoid employing close relatives and related-party transactions which have been open to abuse.
  9. Provide a stronger mandate to and oversight of external audit and establish an independent regulator. It is wishful thinking to expect the EFA to oversee and check the financial proprieties of each academy trust. The rising number of academies and MATs will just swamp the diminishing resources of the EFA. Better for the EFA to focus on improving the quality of external audit  by ensuring the audit framework is fit for purpose, that appointment of auditors is undertaken properly and that audit firms are held to account for weaknesses and irregularities they fail to spot. And better still if there were also an independent regulator of academy finances that reported to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
  10. The sector (i.e. MAT leaders) to step up and provide leadership. We are moving to to a school-led system. So, just as we are looking to school leaders to provide the system leadership and commitment to improve all schools, we should likewise expect MAT leaders and board chairs to step up to the plate and lead moves for more effective governance – as has been done in the corporate sector. The MAT sector might draw up a code of conduct for MAT directors. It could develop some training and self-evaluation tools for MATs,  provide opportunities for debate and exchange of practice and establish a forum for engaging with regulators and the media.

It’s not too late to do something about the weakness in MAT governance. But time is running out. Each new scandal and fresh revelation chips away at the trust in the academy governance model and provides ammunition for those who would be quite happy for MATs to fail. Let’s act before it’s too late.

Selection brings policy carnage

I am clear that the decision to reintroduce selection big-time into English schooling is a huge error. But this post does not debate the evidence or arguments about selection but looks at what the decision tells us in more general policy terms.

First, the Theresa May government is dysfunctional. Tony Blair, for whom I worked for five years, was criticised for centralized sofa government. But this decision shows that No 10 is even more dominant. The policy has all the hallmarks of being devised and written by someone who has just left his post heading up a lobby group – with all the skewed results that leads to. Frankly it feels like Theresa May’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, is the de facto Secretary of State for Education. Justine Greening and the Department for Education have been completely railroaded in a way that even Blair never got near to. I also suspect that given the summer break the policy has not been through being tested in a full cabinet committee process. No wonder the May government is having such trouble devising a Brexit strategy if its policy-making procedures are in such disarray.

Second, the concept of a school-led education system appears to be as dead as the proverbial Monty Python parrot. What was the role of our best headteachers in shaping and devising this policy? They have been ignored and sidelined. The only way that we can now give meaning to a self-improving school-led system is if school leaders find their collective voice and say very clearly ‘Up with this we will not put’.

Third, the policy leaves the rest of education policy in confusion. Selection has been parachuted into the education arena with all the finesse of a clown blundering into the ring during a delicate a highly complicated circus routine. The best education systems ensure that the policies align and reinforce each other. The government’s strategy had been to encourage, incentivise and (where necessary) require schools to work together through teaching schools, multi-academy trusts, school direct groups and research networks. Selection – particularly in the secondary sector – will undo 25 years of effort since the Grant Maintained era in getting secondary schools to work together for the welfare and outcomes of all young people in their area and not just those in their own school. Comparing the performance of grammar and selective schools – as Theresa May did in her speech – was incredibly divisive.

It’s also not clear where we now stand with wanting to move all schools to being part of MATs – can the government fight on this front as well as take on the selection battle? What will happen to what was arguably the most progressive reform in the Education White paper – the introduction of Achieving Excellence Areas? They were targeted precisely at those communities and those schools that Mrs May said were her priorities.

Fourth, selection makes the fundamental error of giving in to the politics of distraction – i.e. they detract from other effective ways for education systems to become world-class. As the chair of the Education Select Committee, Neil Carmichael argued on Newsnight on Thursday evening (8th September) the real focus should be on improving the quality of teaching and learning in all classrooms in all schools. Professor John Hattie has written lucidly and compellingly on this issue:

The evidence shows that what’s most important is to focus on the classroom – that is, championing teacher expertise, and spreading it from classroom to classroom.

Hattie explains how getting fixated on school structures, selection and choice distracts from this agenda. It’s a lesson that politicians in England seem reluctant to learn.

This has been a depressing week for those of us committed to improving schools and education. I take some comfort from the fact Theresa May is going to find it hard to get her proposals enacted. But the school community needs to show leadership and halt the policy carnage. School leaders must be insistent that this will not do and say to the government:

We are not opposing your plans, Mrs May, out of political dogma but because we want to improve the life chances of all children – not just a few who are selected to go to a different type of school. Our ambition is bolder than yours: we want all schools to be good schools and we believe we can achieve this by schools working together to share knowledge and improve teaching and learning rather than competing against each other.

Could do better – end of term report on government’s school improvement strategy

Below is the end of term scorecard I presented to the London Teaching School Council’s conference on 8th July 2016 on the government’s performance on school improvement. With the end of the Cameron era, now is a good time to take stock on where the school system in England is.

The 10 principles or descriptors against which the government’s performance is judged are based on work by Ben LevinMcKinsey and Company  and the background research that I undertook in 2013 as part of a broader report for the Welsh government on school improvement.

The commentary for each principle summarises the government’s school improvement policy approach and highlights what I see as the key challenges and weaknesses – which then leads to an overall grading for each area.  The gradings are, of course, subjective but do serve to highlight relative areas of strengths and weaknesses. The overall verdict must be ‘Could do better’ – particularly in the areas of alignment, co-ordination and pace of policy of policy development and implementation and building a guiding coalition for change.

Principle

Commentary

Grade

  • Set high expectations for  all school to improve and succeed, focused on a small number of ambitious yet achievable and well-grounded goals
The Government has clearly raised the bar and set high expectations at each key stage

All schools are expected to improve but it’s more arguable whether the focus on ‘resits’ for KS2 and Ebacc contributes to the success of all pupils

There are lots of metrics but what are the key “ambitious yet achievable well grounded goals”? 

B+
  • Prioritise the quality of teaching by recruiting, training and developing teachers to high professional standards
The Government recognises the significance of this but sees teacher development as a professional rather than a system issue

Reforms to teacher training aim to improve the quality of new teachers but the ITT system is fragmented and we are struggling to recruit and retain sufficient teachers

Professional development and coaching is episodic and variable and classroom-based, inquiry-led learning far from being embedded

B
  • Engage and win support from leaders at different levels of the system to build a ‘guiding coalition’ for reform

 

MAT CEOs, headteacher boards and members of Teaching School Councils have a growing, though still limited, role in the system

There is no consent or consensus on the key areas of the reform agenda – not has there been a serious attempt to build a ‘guiding coalition’

Local authorities – even good ones – have been frozen out of the picture

C
  • Empower school leaders to set direction, lead learning, develop staff and school capacity and manage performance
School leaders in England enjoy considerable autonomy to lead and be accountable for their schools

The prescriptive nature of key stage assessment, GCSEs and A levels constrains curriculum and assessment autonomy

Watch this space for the freedom of school leaders to lead within MATs 

A-
  • Build the capacity of the system to improve by enabling school leaders to support, work with and learn from each other and lead improvement across localities and networks
The roles of NLEs and Teaching School Alliances reaffirmed and given a sharper focus

Ofsted breathing space for RI and inadequate schools and new National Teaching Service

Support for sector-led leadership development but how will the new system work?

No recognition of the role of peer preview

MATs can potentially develop and move good practice across schools quickly but how well will they interact with other schools?

A-
  • Use timely transparent data to monitor progress, evaluate the impact of interventions, diagnose schools and groups of pupils with problems and enable schools to learn from each other
The English education system is data rich – at pupil, school and system levels – but does less well on knowing the impact of interventions – though the work of the EEF and the use of RCT is starting to change the culture

Performance tables for MATs are welcome

Use of data for benchmarking is the exception rather than rule

Too much of the data is used to support high stakes accountability rather than to develop and improve schools

 

B-
  • Co-ordinate school improvement programmes at a city or sub-regional level in order to integrate network activity, deploy expertise and identify and target problem issues, areas and schools
Model separates leading/co-ordinating school improvement from dealing with ‘failure’

No recognition of the sense of locality felt by many heads or of the growing number of LA/school partnerships

Will RSCs be able to cope and will LAs play more of a role than planned?

How will sub-regional networks of Teaching School Councils and Head Teacher Boards evolve?

The emerging City Mayors agenda overlooked

 

C
  • Align priorities, reforms, accountability, inspection, capacity building and funding with careful implementation ensuring policies all pull in the same direction
The components of a reform programme are present but they are at risk from:

  • A disproportionate focus on structural reform – i.e. mass academisation
  • Flawed implementation – e.g. life beyond levels, baseline and KS2 assessment, late A level syllabuses, interaction of new grading systems and performance tables and sustainable MAT models for small schools

Arrangements for admissions run as a fault line through the system

C-
  • Address inequities in student performance through good early education, classroom support for pupils falling behind and a reduction in inequalities more generally

 

Pupil Premium sustained and Alternative Provision reformed

Achieving Excellence Areas and MAT sponsors targeted on underperforming areas

How will funding pressures impact on support for vulnerable pupils?

Children who arrive at school in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there

Links to wider drivers of educational inequality not addressed

B
  • Sustain reform over time and over more than one electoral cycle but adapt strategies to reflect the performance of the system and growth in capacity

 

The reform programme has been sustained and there is broad continuity in the general direction of travel towards a school-led self-improving system

However, the scale and pace of reform seems indigestible

All aspects of the system – curriculum, assessment, teacher training, leadership development, accountability, funding and structures – are being reformed (and in some cases re-reformed) at the same time

 

B-

 

 

Five points on academies U turn

Most policy announcements never turn out entirely as expected but here are five initial judgements about Nicky Morgan’s academy U-turn.

  1. It will lead to more a more sensible growth in the academy and MAT landscape – headteachers and governors are now more likely to make sensible decisions about whether and how to convert to academy status and whether to join or form their own MAT. And, hopefully, we are more likely to avoid the over-rapid expansion of some MATs – a real risk still in my view.
  2. The condition that forced academisation could still be on the cards for schools in those areas where too few remain with a local authority to make their schools improvement function viable,may perversely put peer pressure on schools to eschew academisation because it undermines the viability of their authority.
  3. The announcement has repercussions for other bits of the Education White Paper. For example, is it feasible, to now withdraw all school improvement funding from local authorities? If heads and schools are to be given a window of grace to turn round weak or failing schools before Ofsted comes calling, how will this interact with and impact on the definition of failing local authorities?
  4. We need to see the small print of the government’s new legislation – particularly its definition of what constitutes a poorly performing local authority – which will remain as a trigger for compulsory academisation. The tougher the rules the government proposes the more it will come under pressure to also apply them to diocesan schools and poorly performing MATs.
  5. The government in general and Nicky Morgan in particular are damaged politically (particularly as this is just the latest in a longish line of government policy U-turns) . The U-turn may well encourage resistance to other aspects of the government’s reform programme – such as the testing and assessment regime. The odds on a new Secretary of State for Education in a post-Referendum reshuffle have also shortened.

School improvement & the White Paper: the strategy and challenges, some scenarios and some policy adjustments

The government’s narrative on school improvement

I have now read chapters 4 and 5 of Educational Excellence Everywhere several times but I am still not clear about key aspects of the government’s model for school improvement. In as much as it has it has a clear narrative it seems to be this:

  • Schools leading improvement across the school system is the government’s strategic ambition.
  • The role of local authorities in supporting and overseeing school improvement will be phased out as schools become academies
  • In future many schools will draw their school improvement from MATs.
  • But the government does not want to create monopolies and schools will also be able to choose “the partnerships that will [best] deliver continuous improvement for their own school and for others”.
  • Other sources of support will include teaching school alliances and system leaders “with high standards in their own schools”.
  • The role of teaching school alliances will in future focus on co-ordinating and delivering high quality school-based ITT, providing high quality school-to-school support and providing evidence-based professional development.
  • Areas with concentrations of underperforming schools will receive targeted attention.
  • RSCs will be responsible for making sure that inadequate schools are taken on by a strong MAT and that coasting schools have a strategy and action plan for improving performance.
  • Heads (and presumably MATs) will be given a reasonable period to turn round a failing school but RSCs will transfer schools from one MAT to another in the event that a MAT cannot effect improvement and, in extremis, a poorly performing MAT will be wound up.

Some confusing issues

So far so good – in that whether you agree with the approach or not the plan is at least clear. But then comes the first area of confusion. Paragraph 5.7 of the White Paper states:

“We therefore intend to legislate so that responsibility for school improvement will sit squarely with the best leaders and the best schools – meaning that those with experience of turning schools around and achieving high standards will be able to drive change across the system. This change will also allow schools to form clusters and draw on support based on their school’s specific needs and requirements.”

That paragraph clearly implies legal entities with formal statutory responsibilities. What are these clusters? How will they acquire statutory responsibility? Will their responsibilities only apply to the schools in the cluster or extend to other schools? What form will the responsibilities take – will they be allocated some of the duties previously the preserve of local authorities? How will their role dovetail with that of the Regional School Commissioners (RSCs)?

One possibility that might make sense of the paragraph is if the wording is referring to teaching schools that are to be given the role of being:

“…brokerage ‘hubs’ for other system leaders, facilitating access to improvement support by coordinating the supply and activity of NLEs and SLEs. They will be responsible for providing or brokering effective support for schools that need extra help.”

Most teaching schools are already doing this – though the practice is much more well-established and effective in some alliances (TSAs) than in than others. However, giving TSAs statutory responsibilities – if that is what is intended – would turn them into entirely different beasts. They would need to adopt more formal governance and accountability structures. It would also completely change the dynamics of what they do and how they work. They would move from being learning networks to accountable school improvement bodies.

Even if the new legal provisions don’t relate to TSAs (but to some other unspecified school cluster entity) the role of TSAs still looks as though it is going to become more formal.

“From September 2017, school improvement funding will be increasingly routed through teaching schools in line with their core functions outlined above. In turn, they will be held to account more effectively for the quality, reach and impact of the support which they broker. This new fund will focus on building capacity across the system and ensuring the most vulnerable schools improve and do not fail.”

The last sentence is, of course, a bit of White Paper hubris – if TSAs are to ‘ensure’ that the most vulnerable schools don’t fail that presumably means there is nothing left for the RSCs to do! In practice the government knows this won’t be the case. In fact there is a real issue about what teaching schools would do as brokers and what – in an increasingly academised world – RSCs would do. For example, RSCs will control the intervention fund for “failing and coastal schools” so they would presumably call the shots around brokering support in these circumstances

The other thing about the proposals in chapter five is that they are all written from the perspective of individual schools. Individual schools choose (or are helped to find) where and how to access support. Intervention is brokered for individual schools. But in a world of MATs it will be the MAT rather than the school – particularly where a school is struggling – that will make the calls on the form of support that is most appropriate. Designation and deployment of national and specialist leaders of education (NLEs and SLEs) will involve negotiation with MATs.

Chapter 5 switches between being appropriate to the current pattern of school organisation and a post-MAT world without explaining which bits of the proposals are more likely to be applicable at which points in the development of a school-led system.

Perhaps I am being obtuse – or seeing complexities where they do not exist. If there are simple answers to these points then let’s hear them.

Four scenarios and risks

As the graphic below highlights there are a number of ways in which the government’s school improvement agenda could pan out. One scenario is that, as the government intends, the combination of a MAT-led system, refocused teaching school alliances, an expansion in the number of NLEs and SLEs and a focus on underperformance in particular localities results in progress towards an energised school-led system.Slide1But it might also be the case that the process of mass conversion to academy status, along with the political furore and skewing of leadership time and attention it will entail, proves to be a major distraction from improving teaching and learning. We know from both education and other public services that structural upheaval always brings some short-term loss of focus on performance. The risk of this occurring is even greater in this instance as the government is changing just about every other aspect of the education system at the same time. The curriculum, key stage assessments, tests and exams, accountability frameworks, funding formulae and teacher training arrangements are all changing fundamentally – and in some areas one reform comes before the last one has been implemented. The scale of constant upheaval and challenge is likely to encourage experienced headteachers to opt out rather than stay on.

Another scenario is that MATs become the default home for the vast majority of schools but at the expense of the school system becoming very fragmented. MATs focus most of their energies on progress and learning within their organisation and compete with other MATs for pupils and staff. Teaching schools struggle with their new roles and the brokerage of support for underperforming schools becomes patchy and confused – particularly as RSCs struggle to cope with the workload of a fully academised system.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is the hybrid one – i.e. there is further progress towards a school-led system but at the expense of some distraction and fragmentation.

Four policy adjustments

I would propose that the government could make better and faster progress towards its policy objectives if it made the following adjustments to its school improvement strategy:

  1. Provide a very clear policy direction of travel in terms of schools working through MATs – and support with incentives and Growth Fund – but do not compel mass academisation. Explain and advocate the potential benefits (rather than just using academisation as a punishment if a school is struggling) but make the quality of MATs rather than the quantity of MATs the acid test of progress. In the health service hospitals were only allowed to become Foundation Trusts when they met key requirements.
  1. Set an expectation that every school should be part of a broader local school partnership as well as being a member of a MAT  In some cases this might be a teaching school alliance or Challenge Partners but in other cases this may be an improvement partnership operating at a local authority level. There are already quite a wide range of innovative models that involve joint school and local authority improvement boards that oversee the progress of all schools in the area, using shared data and peer review. They then commission improvement support where it is needed. In other areas authorities and schools have jointly set up school improvement companies to offer support and improvement services on a traded basis. In some instances both models are operating alongside each other. As the school-led system develops in each locality school leaders are taking more of a role in leading this work. The concept of place matters: school-led oversight and support in an authority can provide the cohesion and glue that school systems need. MATs need not and should not be at the expense of collaborating at a locality level to ensure that all children in an area receive the best education.
  1. Instead of writing local authorities completely of any school improvement role, formalise arrangements for RSCs to use local authorities (and the school-led oversight arrangements described above) as their local agents in knowing what is happening in schools.This approach reflects the reality of what is currently happening on the ground in most areas.  RSCs would also use authorities and local school leaders to suggest or help develop solutions to local problems. Using authorities in this way would have the merit of avoiding the need to build a massive new RSC bureaucracy.
  1. In those areas where there is a directly elected mayor make the RSCs accountable to the mayor. This would in turn point to aligning, over time, the RSC boundaries with those of the new city regions and counties that are being established. It would help to establish the democratic legitimacy of RSCs and bring the RSC system more into line with the approach I argued for in The Missing Middle: the Case for School Commissioners

Making these changes will bring not perfection but would support greater coherence. Crucially they might also defuse some of the current tensions and enable reforms to focus on what should be the key objective for all: improving teaching and learning in the classroom.