Let’s subvert the ‘centres of excellence’ policy

Following Schools Week’s revelation that the government will allow MATs internally to select pupils by ability, Ros McMullen suggests trusts be creative in how they do this.

Last week Schools Week ran a front-page story about the possibility of selective grammar schools developing within multi-academy trusts (MATs) without the need for any legislation. The new green paper proposes MATs create “centres of excellence” for the brightest students, with the government arguing this is already permissible in the current system.

The Department for Education (DfE) also seems to have backtracked on its previous position that moving students between academies on the basis of ability would breach the school admissions code. Such reversals of guidance come as no surprise to me: the one thing I have learned over the past decade is that guidance changes regularly according to political whim.

It will become a bidding war for aspirational parents and students

Internal selection will undoubtedly happen if MATs see it in their best interests to do so. At present I don’t think that there are many (if any) trust CEOs who believe that doing this will be in the best interests of their students, but that is likely to change. Sir Dan Moynihan of the Harris Federation said in a recent interview that “tactically” he might have to open a selective school.

I see the pressure coming in two ways. First, as trusts wish to expand, open new schools and bid for extra resource, all proposals are assessed for approval. Anyone who believes these processes do not include an assessment of how far the trust is “meeting government expectations for delivering choice and excellence” is extremely naive. It has long seemed to many of us that the easiest way to gain a favourable decision is to be seen as completely on message with government policy and priority.

It would be a very courageous decision for a trust to decide to disregard the wishes of ministers while bidding to open a new school.

Second, once one MAT in an area develops a centre of excellence for the “most able students”, the pressure will be extreme for the others to do so: it will become a bidding war for the most aspirational parents and students. In our cities, where a number of MATs operate, parents will be seduced by the possibility of their child being selected for a particular trust’s “centre of excellence”; it will be a mechanism for choosing selective education without risking 11-plus failure. It would be a very brave trust that allowed another trust to steal a march on marketing to the most aspirational.

I suggest we begin to subvert the policy in the best interests of our students

These two factors will pressurise MATs to open centres of excellence – despite selective education not being in the best interests of our students and despite the trusts effectively making secondary moderns out of their academies.

But before we get too despairing, I suggest we begin to subvert the policy in the best interests of our students and avoid the creation of “secondary modern academies”. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in students on roll at one school attending another site for part or all of their education – this has been done for alternative provision and vocational specialisms for many years, and large numbers of schools operate shared sixth forms in this way.

As being “selected” is something we want all children to experience, I would advocate:

• Considering what we mean by “excellence” and developing a centre that selects for academic, technological, creative and sporting ability and aptitude;

• Additionally selecting for “excellence” required in catch-up programmes (for students who require “excellence” in the content and delivery of intense catch-up work for literacy and/or numeracy);

• Having no students on roll there but at their “home academy”;

• Planning for all students to be “selected” and attend the centre at some time.

Getting this right will require moral courage, strategic thinking and greater cross-trust collaboration than at present, but simply creating an academically selective academy is so likely to be disastrous for the other academies within the trust, it is something that I think chief executives and their boards may find attractive.


Ros McMullen is managing director of RMCeducation

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  1. It appears a good idea in principle to have one ‘centre of excellence’ in a MAT which would be used at some time by all pupils not just high ability. But this would only work where academies are close enough for easy travel. If not then time and money are wasted in transport costs.