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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.