This post forms the second in a short series of blog posts about the current governance structure of schools in England, ahead of the Government’s expected while paper this spring. The previous post was about the review of the Education and Skills Funding Agency. In this post I focus on the landscape of school structures: multi-academy trusts (MATs), single-academy trusts (SATs) and local authority (LA) maintained schools from the perspective of a governor / trustee.
I will draw heavily on Sam Freedman’s report this month released by the Institute for Government as well as the excellent discussion in the Confederation of School Trusts’ report “What is a Strong Trust?“. One does not have to completely agree with Freedman’s or the CST’s perspectives to find both reports clear, well-argued, and a very useful step towards a greater debate in the education sector.
Freedman notes what is obvious to anyone who has worked in or with the sector – that the current dual system of maintained schools and academies leads to significant duplication and inefficiency. He notes that the regulatory system for academies is ‘incoherent’, largely as a result of the ESFA/DfE split I dealt with in my last blog post. He mentions – quite rightly – that LAs’ statutory responsibility for SEND and certain safeguarding requirements further complicates the picture when they have no effective oversight or intervention powers over academy trusts.
Early Academisation Errors
My experience is that the rapid expansion of the academies programme after the Academies Act 2010 was mismanaged. We have been left with a patchwork of schools and a web of contractual agreements. Schools which converted early have often been left with legacy articles of association based on the early model articles which demonstrated little insight into how schools could evolve under poor governance (modern model articles are much improved, though not perfect). Regulators have been left with very limited powers to improve matters, and it should not have come as a surprise to government that – as Freedman states – “[By 2012/3] with things moving so fast it quickly became apparent that the Department for Education (DfE) was becoming overwhelmed and could not properly oversee that many schools.” The unfortunate reality is that many schools are still stuck with the legacy of poor decisions made during this period.
Three School Structures
There are currently three main models for schools in England: those which are part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), those which are a single-academy trust (SAT) and those maintained by local authorities. Often in these discussions the first two types of school are lumped together, and it becomes a discussion about academies versus non-academies, but I think these three situations deserve distinct analysis. In particular, oversight of an individual school’s performance in the maintained sector and in the MAT sector is, in my experience, stronger than in the SAT sector, which is the outlier in terms of sufficient oversight. I wonder how many SATs are maintaining an Ofsted grade above inadequate, and therefore not subject to intervention, but are nevertheless not performing at the level they might be if they had closer interaction with other schools.
It is clear to anyone who has worked with or for the education sector that schools benefit immensely from working together and supporting each other, and I agree with Leora Cruddas’s argument made at a governance meeting I attended last year that, in times of difficulty for a school, a compulsion to work with other schools is important. At the moment, this primarily comes through membership of a strong multi-academy trust, though I do not see why a strong, well-resourced and empowered Local Authority could not form an equally viable mechanism to drive school improvement.
Pragmatics: Control and Intervention
Unsurprisingly, Freedman’s paper seeks to advise Zahawi on an appropriate way forward to a more coherent fully academised education system, and without entering the discussion over whether academy trusts are the best structure to deliver school education in the first place, it is worth engaging with the recommendations he makes.
Freedman sees the future of LAs – as per the 2016 white paper – as ensuring that every child has a school place, ensuring the needs of vulnerable children are met, and acting as champions for all parents and families, and – quite reasonably – proposes greater powers for LAs to ensure they can actually fulfil these objectives.
There are some proposals made in the paper that I would fully support:
- Setting a transparent framework of expectations for MATs and giving the regulator powers to intervene, close or merge MATs for either financial/compliance reasons or educational reasons, not only tied to Ofsted grades.
- Ensuring that MATs take ownership of educational improvement and are not simply back-office consolidation bodies as is sometimes the case currently.
- Giving local authorities the right of access to MAT data.
- A single regulator for academies, ideally organised as an arm’s length body.
There are also some proposals that are less clear cut for me:
- Giving LAs the power to direct a change in individual academy PANs and admissions policies. Let’s assume that we move to an “all-MAT” system with LA’s still retaining the statutory duty to ensure a place for every pupil. To ensure clear lines of accountability, it seems appropriate for these to be at MAT level not individual academy level: surely mechanisms can still be put in place for intervention at MAT level to ensure they play their part in the strategic place-planning of LAs, rather than micromanaging a MAT’s academies over the head of its trustee board?
- Moving SEND and exclusions policy monitoring / appeals from ESFA to LAs. I agree that ESFA is an odd place for this to sit at the moment in terms of ensuring joined up working between the RSC offices, ESFA and the Local Authority. But moving this to LAs rather than to the DfE again seems to introduce dual lines of accountability for MATs; might it not be better for RSCs to be required to ensure MATs meet the LA’s planning needs?
- Giving individual academies a mechanism to argue to ‘break free’ from a MAT, involving giving schools legal status independent from the MAT. I agree that there may be very good reasons for academies to want to move to another MAT if the MAT is not functioning well, however under an all-MAT system it seems that a more appropriate approach is to provide the regulator with powers to intervene at MAT level than to provide independent legal status to individual academies.
There is an important question of democratic control, which I believe is required to balance some of these suggestions. In particular: who gets to appoint trustees (and members) of an academy trust, and what geographical area is it reasonable for a MAT to cover? On the first point, in the early days of academisation, academies needed to have some staff trustees, some (elected) parent trustees and a trustee appointed by the Local Authority. The Secretary of State was empowered to change the composition under specific conditions laid out in the academy’s funding agreement / articles of association. Government views on this composition has changed over time, with parent trustees going out of and then back into fashion, while staff trustees are definitely out of fashion at the moment. Local Authorities no longer get to appoint trustees at all in recent model articles. The situation locally will vary from trust to trust, depending on when their articles were approved — differences that cannot be justified, in my view. I would suggest that trusts articles are updated and that the ability (though not the requirement) for local authorities and the DfE (via RSC offices) to appoint trustees is included in the new model. This would provide LAs and the DfE direct information on trusts, rather than having to rely on existing trust boards to provide accurate information, in addition to providing a powerful mechanism for spreading best practice across trusts.
There is a huge opportunity for development of the schools sector in England. I look forward to publication of the white paper!
Appendix: Minor Quibbles
It’s probably worth pointing out a couple of very minor inaccuracies in the Institute for Government report:
- Financial Notices to Improve, mentioned in the report, no longer exist since September 2021, precisely in recognition of the broader ESFA role currently; they are now subsumed within the broader “Notice to Improve” title.
- A few times in the report, the ‘Special Measures’ category is cited as giving the Regional Schools Commissioners power to re-broker academies. While there may be additional powers – depend on the trust’s funding agreement – under a Special Measures Ofsted category, it’s clear in the Schools Causing Concern guidance that RSCs have the power to re-broker any inadequate school, i.e. also those judged to have ‘Serious Weaknesses’.