23 Sep Multi Academy Trusts: Chains or Franchises?
The Secret NLG (National Leader of Governance) has been an NLG since two thousand and something and spends his or her time supporting governing bodies, or governing boards, to be more effective. This guest post is the first s/he has contributed.
‘Any franchise you like, as long as it’s MAT’
As more and more schools feel pressured to both convert to academies and join a MAT (multi-academy trust) it’s an important distinction to make that many that refer to themselves as ‘chains’ are actually operating ‘franchise’ models. Let’s face it, every school must now run itself like a business, where the products on offer are a positive Ofsted rating and attainment results above the established ‘floor standard’. If a school offers a quality Ofsted rating and results are well above the floor, it will be considered to be flourishing. If its quality slips and it begins to deliver substandard products it will soon fall into ‘Bankruptcy’- the CEO (Chief Executive Officer – headteacher) and MD (Managing Director – chair of governors) sacked and the school itself forced to convert to academy with a sponsor. Sadly, this ‘business’ has failed and therefore the current government wants it to become a franchise of a private, bigger business – because that’s what they know best.
In a typical MAT, the member schools must top slice a percentage of their annual budgets to the over-arching trust. After that, they are told that there is basically no change to the school whatsoever beyond being able to access some (usually unclarified) services from the Trust itself. They get to put the ‘Member of Big Academy Trust’ branding on the school sign, letterhead & website and life goes back to normal. Assuming all goes well with the product this new franchise is left to find its own way as before, and once a year it dutifully gives 5-7% of its budget to Head Office. That is the very definition of a franchise.
Cast (cost?) of thousands
Now, Head Office is populated by lots of people the little franchise never knew they needed before. There’s a CEO, COO, Finance Director, Finance Officer, Finance Advisor, HR Director, HR Advisor, Premises Officer, Technology Officer, Education Officers and potentially dozens of other advisors. The little franchise didn’t realise their top slice now pays the (often inflated) salaries for all those folks. The little franchise used to ring the Local Authority (LA) a couple of times a term to get some help from HR and have someone from Finance help them get the budget entered into the online system – but that was really it. If it needed a SIP, it found one. If it needed some training, it located a provider.
So where does that leave school leadership? Well, pretty much exactly where they were before except now, in addition to making sure they are producing a top quality product, they must also make sure that they don’t upset Head Office – who have their own ideas of how things should run. Never mind that Head Office is in another county – education is their business and they always know best. Local Governing Boards (LGBs) will now be handed a raft of pre-approved policies from Head Office that cover all aspects of school life and should replace those from the LA. Most look remarkably similar, although some may now reflect the ethos of Head Office and begin to stray from where the franchise felt its strengths actually originate. Of course LGBs are told they can adapt policies as they please – as long as the new policies are approved by Head Office.
What happens when things go wrong? What happens when a customer wants to complain? Do they write to the Manager (Head/Chair) or do they write to Head Office? I know that long ago I stopped bothering with the manager when I have a grievance – I go right to the top. By the time news of the complaints trickle down to the franchise, they’ve already been past the watchful eyes of the officers at HQ.
SMEs for GCSEs?
I’m sure this is all sounding very cynical to some reading this – but the reality is that schools are now run as small- and medium-sized businesses. The modern governors’s role very much centres around managing this viability of the business and a good LGB will shield its teaching staff from all of that and let them get on with the real business-teaching and learning. This is why I always recommend that LGBs consistently recruit from the areas of business and finance. However many experienced business folks you have now – you probably need more. There used to be a time when an LGB strived to have as much education experience as it could but remember that, as a franchise, all of those board and committee members, officers and advisors are being paid to do that now at Head Office. Your job is to make sure the right ingredients are in abundance to ensure the product remains of the highest quality.