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Governance and mandatory academisation

Image: Before you by Tom Wachtel - licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Governance and mandatory academisation

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In June 2015, Nicky Morgan became the first Secretary of State to address the National Governors Association’s annual conference. Her speech was centred around the at-the-time current topic of coasting schools – and she was quite specific when referring to the issue of so-called “forced” academisation:

Fast forward twenty-one months and this from Christopher Cook, the BBC’s policy correspondent:

What is striking is to see policies such as this apparently originate from – and be confirmed by – the Treasury:

Less than a fortnight before, the Secretary of State (for Education, in case you’ve been confused into thinking that the Treasury sets educational policy nowadays) spoke to the 2016 ASCL conference and echoed David Cameron’s desire to make “local authorities running schools a thing of the past”. In the light of current developments, some elements of her speech are now obvious:

This was, it should be clear, a speech consisting mainly of what the SoS considers the carrots of academisation – the regularly cited advantages of autonomy, budgetary control, freedom over the curriculum, the school day, etc. – to an audience of mainly secondary heads. As most secondary schools have taken an academy option – often due to their having the heft to survive away from LA support, with much of the freedom that secondaries gain being budgetary, alongside the associated responsibilities and liabilities. Most of the primary schools across England lack the resources and occasionally the confidence to become stand-alone academies – for a long while the default academisation route – and are unsure about the allure of a suitor named ‘MAT’. Incidentally, the phrase “LA control” has been flung around much in recent hours and days, when anyone operating in the schools sector knows that such notions of “control” are often based on false assumptions that the educational landscape of thirty years ago still exists.

Carrots into sticks

It’s probably not stretching one’s imagination that, with the advantages of academisation which worked for most secondaries not having the same effect on primaries, the need for the stick of mandatory academisation has become more urgent in the government’s mind. However, the environment into which this new wave of academies will be introduced is not necessarily an established, thriving educational ecosystem. There are pockets of strong growth, but more than one statistic has shown that for all of the cost and upheaval associated with academies, maintained primary schools improve faster than primary academies and the value-added from secondary academy chains has not compared well with maintained schools – with even the Schools Minister having acknowledged that one form of school structure isn’t ‘necessarily better’ than another.

HMCI seems to be becoming a thorn in the DfE’s side as his tenure at Ofsted draws to a close, and he drew attention to characteristics which some larger MATs appear to share with local authorities. His most recent letter to Nicky Morgan – entitled Focused inspections of academies in multi-academy trustsstated:

“…many of the trusts manifested the same weaknesses as the worst performing local authorities and offered the same excuses. Indeed, one chief executive blamed parents for pupils’ poor attendance affecting pupils’ performance. There has been much criticism in the past of local authorities failing to take swift action with struggling schools. Given the impetus of the academies programme to bring about rapid improvement, it is of great concern that we are not seeing this in these seven MATs and that, in some cases, we have even seen decline”

Almost simultaneously – and prior to the White Paper or any trailing of universal academisation – the Schools Commissioner David Carter, previously RSC for the south-west and CEO of Leigh Academies Trust, told the ASCL conference that he estimated 1,000 new MATs would be needed “by 2020”. More MATs means more CEOs, and at the same gathering of school leaders both Sir Michael Wilshaw and Nicky Morgan were keen to emphasise that the role of CEO was a career destination of which they would approve for many in their audience:

So the thinking around MATs – the government’s preferred vehicle for delivering this momentous change – seems clouded and unclear. On the one hand they are cast as the new, dynamic bureaucracy – yet are simultaneously tasked with bearing the weight of established yet crumbling local authority structures – and risk being found wanting, despite the legislative longing for them to be the answer to everything, an educational Swiss Army knife.

The future for governors

With the publication of the White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere – and the final destination of a school- MAT-led system, as governors we need to think carefully about what actions we take between now and 2022 – the date when all schools are expected to be academies. Salient advice comes from Rachel Gooch, writing in Schools Week away from her incisive @SchoolDuggery Twitter account. Rachel is a governor and is worth quoting here before reading in full (emphasis added, but if emphasis equalled approval then the whole piece could be in bold):

…My advice to governors faced with this news is this: it is your responsibility to make the best of it for your school. Do not just hope it will all go away. It is much better for everyone if you choose your own future rather than having it forced upon you. Only convert as a stand-alone academy if you are large and have no obvious partners. Otherwise, look for local partner schools that share your ethos or local established MATs where you will fit in.

Avoid large, established MATs where your voice will be small. Pay close attention to schemes of delegation and the composition of the Trust Board. Take time to do due diligence – you don’t want to find yourself responsible for another school’s deficit, pension hole or collapsed drains.

Get yourself a good project manager and don’t let the burden of conversion distract the head from teaching and learning. Support your finance staff – the main stress will fall on them. Be transparent – explain to everyone, all the time, what is happening and why. Don’t accept the first answer the DfE gives you on anything. Stay ethical and keep the children at the centre of what you do.

Update: Get involved in #GovernorLive

Governor Live update

With many of the pieces of the governance puzzle potentially flung in the air on an unprecedented scale, we’ve decided to expand the remit of Monday’s Governor Live event to take stock of what this week’s White Paper will mean for governance. Registration is still free and we aim to have a completely interactive session with our panel – places are limited, so if you’d like some input to take back to your governing boards then register soon. In the meantime read Rachel Gooch’s piece above, and supplement it with this piece from the NGA’s Emma Knights, who joins us on the panel on Monday.

Before then, some levity from the aforementioned Rachel and a zinger in response from Schools Week‘s Laura McInerney:

Image credit: Before you by Tom Wachtel – licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


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  • Sean Chesman
    Posted at 16:48h, 18 March Reply

    Interesting to read your observation that most primary schools lack the resources and occasionally the confidence to go the standalone route. I’m a governor of an independent primary academy which converted 5 years ago. We have 99 pupils at the moment and have continually faced the existential challenges that a small school faces – both before and following conversion. Our size hasn’t been a handicap – collaboration is key, and constant reinvention. We’ve been considering our leadership model since we converted and will continue our discussions about MATs with potential partner schools. Our governing body certainly doesn’t lack confidence, and it will be interesting to see how we reconcile a confident and effective governing body maybe having to relinquish much of its responsibility to another trust board – especially as we are still a Church of England school with church membership of our trust.

    • Ian Usher
      Posted at 17:22h, 18 March Reply

      Thanks Sean – a really helpful observation and your fairly unique situation is fascinating and a clear outcome of the behaviours and approach of governors, SLT and staff. From what I’ve seen the DfE is currently not advocating standalone unless in exceptional circumstances – obviously the MAT is where it’s at and that is unlikely to change. It will be interesting to see how the evolving ecosystem takes into account strong standalone academies – and if the DfE start to pull policy and funding levers to bring reluctant academies into the folds of MATs.

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