Many academy heads seem to have swapped local authority and government bureaucracy for strict trust controls, says Christopher Toye

One of the main drivers used to persuade schools to opt into the academies programme was that it would set heads and teachers free from micro-managing bureaucrats and from central and local government diktats. Heads knew their schools and pupils better than anyone, and should be allowed to set direction and take the decisions in their best interest, leading to higher standards.

But the reality is very different – for many academy heads, leadership largely involves successfully applying their trust’s policies and systems rather than using their own experience and judgment for the benefit of the school and pupils they know so well. Many tell me they feel restricted, and need to follow a strict set of policies set by their trust.

I have greater freedom than most academy heads. I have delegated responsibilities and can exercise real discretion in decision-making. That the reality is somewhat different to the publicity may explain why so many free schools and academies have had high turnover of leadership, with heads on casual contracts or commissioned as sub-contractors through their own businesses.

Trusts are conscious of the consequences if one of their schools performs poorly. High-profile failures attract bad publicity and have a real impact on expansion plans. Many now run what is essentially a “command and control” model. Trusts that want to grow cannot afford reputational damage and seek to manage their exposure to risk.

I have greater freedom than most academy heads

Many have preferred supplier lists, set centrally. This can be helpful – there is a quick and easy way to find a recommended supplier in, say, assessment. But it means heads have no capacity to select a provider they know is good and perhaps cheaper. In the maintained sector, we have the whole market to choose from.

Take a specific area such as behaviour and discipline policy. In the maintained sector, this is school-specific, drawn up by the head and senior leadership team and approved by the governing body. The local authority doesn’t dictate it. But many academies have to follow a centrally prescribed policy, which means many heads are more involved in delivery than decision-making or direction-setting.

Another example. In my schools the school development plan is down to me. If I were an academy head, I would have to follow a template from the trust HQ. That can save time, and some people like that. But most heads prefer to have a say over the decisions on which they will be judged.

There is also the issue of individual and collective finances. Some MATs pool all their schools’ reserves at the end of the year into a central pot. I know of one head who built up a small surplus over the previous 12 months through sound financial management. But the funds went into the central bank and he was told that he had to submit a business case if he wanted to retrieve them. That’s really not how people expected academies and academy freedoms to work.

Many academies might think local authority schools are now adrift. But we are part of a federation and Lambeth, while maintaining a proportionate approach to supervision of schools, is supportive of clusters or federations. The council also co-ordinates a local network of schools where we can share best practice and facilities, and the benefits of group procurement. An academy trust with 20 or more schools might be able to get better deals for bulk-buying, although when about 80 per cent of most schools’ costs go on payroll, there is a limit to the savings that can be made in any structure.

I know there can still be advantages to converting, and it’s not off the table for us. But I would not join a large trust – independence is important, and all schools within any multi-academy trust would have to retain their individuality and their capacity to make their own decisions.

Christopher Toye is executive head of The Wyvern Federation, Lambeth, south London