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.