Even before the line was uttered, in Bridget Jones’s Diary, I found myself laughing as we watched the film again last Sunday. The ridiculous, “It’s a fight, it’s a real fight” scene, involving Hugh Grant and Colin Firth fighting in the street and restaurant, is wonderfully choreographed and acted. In the more sinister setting and political intrigue of a Tory leadership battle; no prisoners will be taken and that includes schools. It’s a real post-White Paper fight over academisation which will be part of defining the schooling system for decades to come.
There is part of me that feels I should just put my head down and walk away from this debate. As I lead a group of academies the impact on us is limited; it depends whether any school wishes to join the Trust. The way we are constituted it will be for the Diocese to decide who does and doesn’t join. We will welcome any school who does want to join the Trust and continue to work with all schools regardless of their status.
Multi Academy Trusts are not a single thing but a hugely variable set of arrangements. Some have maximum delegation of responsibilities to a local governing body and some don’t have local governing bodies; some are tight geographical groups others are dispersed across the country; some have commercial sponsors whilst others don’t have sponsors. Talking or thinking about Multi Academy Trusts as a single definable entity, outside of their basic legal status, doesn’t mean very much.
The Relevant and Irrelevant Arguments
As ever twitter and blogs, along with various pronouncements on the news, are providing heat and light a plenty.
The for academisation have claimed that deeper learning happens in academies, they have greater freedoms over staffing so can appoint more support staff or teachers if they want and becoming an academy will improve standards. Whilst these can all happen in academies they can also happen in maintained schools too. In terms of deeper collaboration you can choose to have this within a multi academy trust, you can also choose to have it through other formal or informal collaborations. Before we were a multi academy trust, St. Mary’s and Christ the King were hard federated, one governing body for two maintained schools. It was this hard federation that enabled us to pull offer a massively complex building programme with capital finding from Building Schools for the Future, the Primary Capital Programme and funding from the Diocese. Deep collaborations have benefits but they are not exclusive to multi academy trusts nor do they magically happen in them either; they are a choice.
The one thing we have been able to do as academies, which we couldn’t as local authority maintained schools, was ignore Teachers’ Pay & Conditions in one area to benefit staff. Instead of annual performance related pay decisions on the main scale teachers move automatically from M1 to M3, there is a performance review at this three year point, and then automatic progression from M4 to M6. This freedom could easily be given to all schools if the government wanted to. Alternatively it could have decided not to impose annual performance pay on the profession.
The against academisation lobby claim it’s the end of local democracy, parents will have no say in their local schools and the “big boys” will take you over and asset strip. Increasingly I wonder whether a single governing body for every school is a sensible model let alone a sustainable one. Form and function work better when they are matched. Moving towards a more collaborative school-led system could be enhanced by shared governance arrangements; hard federations are equally as valid as multi academy trusts. Because you don’t have to have a parent governor/director doesn’t mean to say you shouldn’t have one. We have two and will continue to. Don’t confuse this with local democracy or parent power; if you want this put all major decisions to a local referendum for all parents to comment and vote on. It is more about having a parent perspective, which I value, but I also value a highly competent and capable governing body or board. Clearly the two are not incompatible; it would be foolish to suggest they are.
Asset grabbing makes a great headline; the provision in the White Paper allows for the government of the day to take land owned by local authorities into the ownership of the Secretary of State. Essentially a land grab by central government from local government.
A concern I’ve expressed before is the “connected part transaction” issue. If a commercial company sponsors a MAT any services of products paid for by the MAT or any of its academies to the commercial company should be at cost; that is, no profit is made. I could see this being abused; it may well already be. Let’s not forget nepotism and fraud has occurred in local authorities and local authority maintained schools too but the potential for wrong doing just seems more obvious and difficult to prove; sometimes even though things aren’t illegal they stink.
The “big boys” might not be coming to a town near you any time soon. Sponsored academies will have more limited choice of which Trust they are in but for every large multi academy trust there will be many more smaller trusts; nothing will be uniform in the new untried and untested World. Locally determined smaller trusts consisting of schools with various Ofsted designations; in fact, your Ofsted grade will matter much less in the scramble towards mass academisation.
This scramble will invariably end up with some possibly many schools entering into arrangements which don’t really meet their needs or aspirations. Lots of time and effort to get into a multi academy trust only to realise it’s the wrong one; yet more to get out and into the “right” one or simply another one. Cue lots of time and effort spent and expended on rearranging governance.
Instead, I’ll keep focusing on improving: the curriculum, teaching, assessment, learning, pastoral care, guidance and support, the school’s culture, recruiting great staff, strengthening leadership, reducing workload, deep collaborations; the things which really make a difference … I knew I should have just stayed out of it.