One slice or two?

The government has finally got round to doing what it has wanted to for quite a while which is to announce that all schools, like it or not, will have to become academies. This is obviously a huge change. It is also, as has been pointed out by many, a change that has little evidence behind it to show that in of itself it will improve outcomes.

Some academies are better than others. Some are better than some LA maintained schools. Some are very innovative. Some are bland copies of their LA maintained former selves. Some are in MATs. Some voluntarily, some forced. Some MATs are very good at improving schools, some clearly aren’t.

So far, so exactly like local authority maintained schools. Any rational, unbiased overview of the academy programme thus far can only come to the conclusion – “Case not proven.” And, for the sake of clarity, I do not claim to be unbiased. Of course I’m not, I’m human. But I am fairly rational, and my biases, like most others, are complex and are not uni-directional.

I intend to make no case for keeping all schools as LA maintained organisations. Because in any arguments the same case can be made as is made against academies. In my view the largest (non-financial) deficiency of the academy programme is that of transparency (linked to accountability) and that is not an insurmountable issue if someone wanted to solve it. So overall, I’m fairly agnostic in the Academy vs LA argument. An LA is not the only way to facilitate localism and devolved accountability.

What I want to try and put forward here is my thoughts on why the governments approach to change will likely fail.

Let us first of all accept a premise. The government came to power in 2010 with the view that education was failing the children it was tasked to educate. I don’t intend to rehearse that argument here but accept it. I’m happy to accept it as in reality it is an argument that can be made at any time. I’ll also, for the sake of argument, accept the view that things were so bad that radical change was required.

So the system was failing and radical change was required. And I think we can assume that the government still thinks that is the case as the white paper seeks to make some fairly radical changes.

Here is the problem.

When I look at most MATs and within them most schools, very little is changing that could in any way be called radical. There is, at the MAT level, an attempt to replicate mini-LAs. Some central services here, some support there and a bit of changed governance process (which, by the way, is often extremely poorly thought through and is unlikely to work well). In schools themselves little changes. If the school was poorly performing before they went into a MAT there may be a new head. There may be less autonomy at the school level than existed prior to academisation. The ‘autonomy’ is often at the centre, where there tends to be less educational capability. There are very few MATs (certainly outside London) that as groups of schools are progressing faster than similar groups of LA schools.

Why does this happen? Primarily the issue is capacity. A MAT with 20 schools will essentially get the same funding as 20 separate schools. The centre is funded by top-slicing. Here is where a difficult balance needs to be struck. Too large a slice and there is a significant impact on the budget for the individual schools. Too small and there are no funds to develop capacity at the centre.

Some of the older MATs, the ones based in the original sponsor-based programme, the ones with genuine charities at their heart, have this capacity. In part generated from the original generous academy funding, but it continues because there is some philanthropy there. For the newer, smaller MATs (particularly those involving only primaries), they risk, in the difficult financial climate schools face, being unable to leverage any of the benefits of joining together because there is insufficient top-slice to be taken and still leave the individual schools solvent.

It is a real dilemma. MATs need to be of sufficient size to deliver meaningful change. However experience has shown us that it is the larger MATs where managing change has been more problematic. This may well be, in part at least, because of the original make-up of those MATs where poorly performing schools were ‘dumped’ with whichever MAT could take them.

So whilst the MAT will exist and it will look like change, in reality there is no change. Because there is no capacity to carry out change because as anyone who has actually been involved with the moving parts of the education system knows that change is difficult, time-consuming and a long term activity. Trying to change the culture of a school whilst the entirety of the system they depend on (curriculum, assessment, recruitment, training) is being dismantled around them is a very challenging proposition. Which can often be more easily managed in a single school with an effective leadership team.

So what is being delivered is a system that will be capable of incremental change. Which the system was already capable of when the right levers were applied.

My view is that we do not yet have sufficient knowledge of what makes for a good MAT in terms of size, governance structure, balance of school types, financing etc in order to provide guidance to any new MATs coming into the system. I know what I would do and how I would set up a MAT, but the reality is that I would be using educated guesswork and I am humble enough to know I could get it wrong.

Without proper planning and without templates that we know will work there will be significant numbers of MAT failures. You can take that to the bank. We know this because they have already occurred. Some have been managed failures, but they are failures none the less. And in the context of the number of true MATs that exists the volume of failures has been too high.

All change in education involves risks to the education of children, that’s a given. Even not changing anything involves such risks. My sincere belief is that mass, forced academisation carries more risk than it is sensible to allow for the benefits it is currently capable of delivering.