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The rise of Sparta

Thinking by Curtis Garbutt - licensed under CC BY 2.0

The rise of Sparta

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Martin MatthewsIn this guest post Martin Matthews shares his thoughts around the area of multi-academy trusts (MATs) and their future structure, growth and operation. Martin is a National Leader of Governance, a chair of governors and has been a governor on several governing bodies across Greater Manchester as well as a Manchester Challenge governor champion. In the next few years Martin will have served more years as a governor than he has been alive – in the meantime he tweets at @mm684. This post was originally posted on his blog ‘The inane ramblings of one school governor’ – which is one of the blogs included in the free Modern Governor mobile app. The post is republished here with permission and minor edits.

Sparta MAT logo

After discussion with other governors over the last few days a thought about the long-term future of multi-academy trusts (MATs) has been rumbling around my head. Someone jokingly suggested setting up a Spartan MAT that once established started to take over and enslave its neighbours. Sadly this doesn’t seem too far from the truth in some places.

The current Wild West (apologies for mixed metaphors) of MAT growth and expansion needs to be curtailed and more detailed definitions of future MAT planning need defining.

To prevent the necessary reform of over-large national or regional MATs – which become “too large to fail” – and establish local area MATs linked to local democracy (sound familiar?) the future of MATs should be planned now.

The number of schools is finite and even when 500 new free schools are factored in, the maximum is about 23 000. In turn this will mean that there will be a maximum number of MATs which can be established  When a MAT fails the schools are distributed among other MATs at the whim of the Department for Education (DfE) – and for considerable amounts of public money. The logical conclusion of this is that over time the number of MATs will decrease.

If the current policy is followed to conclusion this will have the predetermined, (un?)intended consequence that increasingly vast numbers of children’s education will be concentrated into an ever smaller number of MATs.

Schools can’t leave a MAT once they join

Even if the school achieves consistently outstanding ratings and teaching school status – once in they cannot leave. All legal authority is ceded to the MAT board – and what would encourage them to allow an outstanding school to leave and set up a MAT in competition to their current one – even if this was beneficial to learners?

At this point remember that there are no national selection processes, criteria or best practice models for recruitment to MAT boards. Perhaps, once a MAT reaches a certain financial turnover, board recruitment should be brought within the national public appointments process? This is a deeply unpopular idea with some MAT boards – which makes me think it could be a good thing.

While I’m on that – think through that MAT boards set their own expenses. How long before we get a governor duck house fiasco?

The process by which a school can or should leave a MAT should be defined by the DfE.

  • Is it linked to Ofsted grade?
  • Pupil attainment and achievement – over how long?
  • How will local people be involved – parental referendum?
  • Could the DfE compel outstanding/good schools to leave a MAT and set up their own?
  • Should there be a central quango to make these decisions?

All these factors can be planned so schools can review their long term direction.

The process by which MATs are broken up should also be defined to enable transparent “offers” from existing MATs.

Perhaps the Office of the Schools Adjudicator should have its remit expanded to become the arbiter in this situation?

This openness will reassure students, parents and staff that at least there aren’t deals being done behind the scenes. In turn this will smooth difficult times and minimize impact on the children.

We need clear plans for the future of MATs – and crisis planning on the hoof simply isn’t good enough for the children in our care. They get one education and we should do the best we can. Avoidable known risks should be resolved before they have a significant impact.

Questions for governing boards

  • As governors we are supposed to think carefully about the ethos of our individual school. What do we know of the ethos of a particular MAT?
  • If we were to establish a MAT, what would its ethos be? How might this be established and engendered through the way the MAT operates?
  • Knowing some of the issues which have affected existing MATs, how might we plan our engagement with another Trust, or the formation of our own, to ensure that the risks of such issues are minimised?
  • How might we consult and communicate well with our wider school community of parents, carers and pupils to ensure that they are involved in and are of our decision making processes?

Image credit: Thinking by Kurtis Garbutt – licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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