With speculation rife that the national schools commissioner role might disappear, Michael Pain lays out what he thinks DfE priorites should be going forward
As the academy trust sector waves goodbye to the national schools commissioner and enters a period of uncertainty around the long-term future of the role, it is useful to assess just how much needs to be done by the Department for Education.
While some multi-academy trusts have demonstrated the potential to transform thousands of pupils’ life chances, others have struggled and in some cases imploded, failing pupils and their parents. Taken as a whole, the sector can still be considered as “requiring improvement” and the DfE needs to find a better way going forward.
Of course, it is the responsibility of MAT boards and CEOs to ensure the sustainable development of their trusts, learning from others in the sector and beyond. However, I also hear of frustration at the impenetrable barriers government has failed to make headway on. So where should the department’s priorities lie in the new chapter ahead?
Secure robust corporate governance
Almost all failures of MATs can be traced back to poor corporate governance, whether that is failing to challenge an executive team sufficiently, being complacent on the risks of rapid expansion or disregarding duties such as avoiding conflicts of interests or ensuring organisational solvency.
We need a better strategy for recruiting and training MAT trustees nationwide so that all trustees are adequately qualified and prepared for the role. Trustees should also be better supported to understand what sustainable MAT development looks like, something that is clearly lacking in places.
There should be mandatory induction and regular corporate governance training for trustees, backed up by sufficient investment that reflects the fact that trust boards are the frontline of accountability in the academy trust sector. A lack of investment in securing strong corporate governance has been a huge opportunity missed by the Department for Education.
Invest in relevant thought leadership
One of the tragedies of losing the National College for School Leadership some years ago has been the dearth in thought leadership across the sector. The DfE has been lacklustre in this area, with too much of a focus on how to improve individual schools, something the vast majority of CEOs and their teams are already expert in, and not enough on how to scale up school improvement across multiple sites and develop organisations sustainably.
The Department should consider how it contributes to the learning and development of CEOs and trustees, including drawing on the potential and expertise of existing networks and providers. The National Schools Commissioner’s office does not, in my view, have the capacity or expertise to do this well enough, and the Department should consider establishing a National College for Academy Leadership – or something along the lines of the health service’s NHS Improvement body. They dismantled the NCSL at exactly the wrong moment.
Hold academy trusts to account, intelligently
The MAT sector is still very young and it is fundamental that trusts learn from one another and share expertise, resources and learning. Resorting to the default approach of academy trust league tables encourages a culture of competition and, in the worst cases, an underlying reluctance to serve some of the most vulnerable pupils.
Instead of relying simply on a “scores on the doors” approach to accountability, MATs should be encouraged to engage in peer review, with the department encouraging a range of providers – including consortia of MATs themselves – to develop frameworks.
Ofsted should also be given a role in the inspection of trusts, but – as Forum Strategy’s recent policy roundtable recommended – these inspections should focus on development and avoid labelling MATs with grades that represent a “moment in time” which can discourage diversity of provision.
Ofsted could also review how well MATs make themselves publicly accountable to their various stakeholders, including pupils, the community and staff. This will take work, but when compared with other sectors, education desperately needs to do more to involve and empower its end-users in the accountability process.
These are just a few considerations in securing improvement in a complex multi-academy trust landscape. Each one looks to enable trustees, leaders and teachers to be the masters of improvement for all settings, ensuring all pupils reap the benefits. That, ultimately, is the true potential of well-led, well-governed and intelligently accountable school partnerships.