Ignore the headlines: multi-academy trusts are showing great potential for maximising the talents of teachers, leaders and others, says Michael Pain
There’s no doubt the academy system has received a pretty harsh press of late. If we’re not seeing headlines comparing trust leaders to the bankers who crashed the financial system, we’re being told of how they’re making local communities feel “powerless” as they move towards the rigorous governance structures they’re otherwise criticised for not having in place.
Don’t get me wrong, the press plays an essential role in highlighting poor practice in academy trusts or elsewhere in our education system. However, as someone who has developed a number of multi-academy trust leaders’ networks across the country, and who is in close touch with the work of dozens of trusts, I feel the tone of late has done a disservice to the way in which many MATs are overcoming some of the system’s most entrenched challenges.
That’s why it was encouraging to see last week’s research by the National Foundation for Educational Research that shows how MATs are actively deploying their teachers across schools, not least to those schools with the most disadvantaged intakes and who traditionally find it tricky to recruit and retain staff. This is important because, as a system, we urgently need to find ways to move our best teachers into some of our most challenging schools, finding solutions where policies such as the national teaching service have previously failed.
The distance between schools must be sensible
What’s more, the research also highlights how MATs are creating their own leadership pipelines, potentially mitigating some of the leadership recruitment challenges faced by the wider system.
However, even these conclusions have faced criticism. Some have suggested that the movement of teachers between schools is disrespectful and disruptive at a time when we should be focusing on workload and work-life balance.
That overlooks two points. First, the numerous MAT leaders I have spoken with are clear that they will only move teachers between schools who want to move. Any trust that does otherwise won’t retain its best staff or reputation for long.
Second, research shows that millennial employees are attracted to organisations that provide ample opportunities to work across a range of settings and contexts (we’re told that many of this generation will, through choice, have at least ten jobs during their lifetimes). If we are going to attract the most talented employees and graduates – in education we really do need to be strategic about how we do this – we need to give our top employees the variety and diversity of work experiences that MATs can provide.
The leadership development finding is also important.
MATs have been accused of narrowing the autonomy and freedom of leaders in their schools. Yet, many are providing a structure for people to step up to leadership at all levels: as teachers taking on a leadership secondment in another school or as a head who can also step up to a trust-wide school improvement role.
If some MATs do take away autonomy, it’s usually in those areas that have been shown to put potential heads off the job, such as finance and site management. Rather than diminishing the opportunities to lead school improvement, MATs are enabling these opportunities to proliferate.
Geographical proximity is key to all of this. Providing secondments, career development, and cross-trust leadership opportunities is only viable if the distance between schools is sensible. MATs make that work either by limiting their growth to a specific locality or moving to cluster models.
Some of the criticisms aimed at the MAT system have been justified; some have not. But the way in which many MATs work has huge potential to attract talented people to join and remain in the profession, serving some of our most disadvantaged pupils.
That’s not to be scoffed at when we know that it is teachers who ultimately make the difference.
Michael Pain is chief executive of Forum Education