Multi-Academy Trusts could be the saviour of education in the north

Successful trusts need to leave their cosy London bubble if education in the north is to improve, says Jonathan Booth.

The difference between deprived secondary schools in the north and south is stark.
Ofsted called this a “postcode lottery” in its annual report for 2014-15, adding: “What we are seeing is nothing short of a divided nation after the age of 11.”

But it is not surprising that London still has the best schools in even the most disadvantaged areas – hugely successful multi-academy trusts (MATs) and pioneering free schools are ever-increasing their stranglehold on the best teaching talent in times of stuttering retention and morale. Who wouldn’t want to work alongside the best teachers, often implementing pioneering pedagogy, with fast promotion and cross-industry prestige?

Entice aspirational teachers to swap the bright lights of London for the likes of Blackpool

The National Teaching Service (NTS), designed to entice aspirational teachers to swap the bright lights of London for the likes of Blackpool, is supposed to go some way to solving the problem. But we have a “school-led system”, one where changes come from the schools themselves, and parachuting in a few southerners is arguably not the most sustainable policy initiative.

Instead, what’s required is for the best MATs to make their way up north, and to take their best teachers (and their ever-successful recruitment
drives) with them. We need to get schools up there first, before we get the teachers to go alongside them.

With the death knell for local authorities ringing long ago, MATs now have not just a local responsibility, but a national one. Hugely successful chains that still will not go further than the Midlands, such as Ark and Harris, must consider that their monopoly on teaching talent is cannibalising the relatively small pool of top practitioners, and that the “cultural shift” harked by Ofsted in its last national report must come from these trusts. They need to venture up the M1, rather than further consolidate a part of the country that is already storming ahead of the rest.

Perhaps, more cynically, MATs must consider the possibility that another chain could “get there first”, with the north a ripe fruit waiting to be picked.

Alongside this, MATs must investigate why the north-south divide does not seem to exist in the primary sector; if forced academisation ever happens, swathes of good and outstanding primaries in the north will need to be swooped up; fantastic practice, expertise, and cross-collaboration links are there for the taking. Arguably the work going on in northern primaries, often in even more disadvantaged circumstances than down south (but too often squandered by failing secondaries) would alone be worthy of MAT investigation for their own research and development.

Trusts must consider the north a ripe fruit waiting to be picked

MATs must encourage ambitious leaders to move through internal, targeted secondments and fast-track leadership schemes, perhaps with the help of the NTS’s relocation funds.  In a school-led system, such organisations must lead the development of good teaching through national research and multi-sector collaboration. Most importantly, these MATs must leave their cosy London bubble and become national institutions; local needs in the north are not being served by local interests, and it is up to the leading MATs to expand northwards.

If MATs make their way north, it might also help to end the deafening silence from northern schools and teachers in policy discussions.

Anecdotally, I spent a week working at the Department for Education alongside some talented teachers who put my limited credentials to shame; what was more worrying, though, was that amongst this pool of the best and brightest Teach First had to offer, I was the only one teaching north of Birmingham, and one of two teaching north of London. In policy debates at the likes of Teach First’s Impact Conference, around Whitehall tables and amongst civil servants, northern voices, accents, and experiences are few and far between.

Perhaps if MATs take their best up north, there might well be an educational “northern powerhouse” – and an easy victory for MATs, civil servants, and the government.

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  1. Mark Watson

    I completely disagree. Harris and ARK have done well precisely because they limit themselves to areas they know well. One only has to look at chains such as AET to see what happens when an expand-everywhere-at-once approach is adopted.
    However you are absolutely right that the North needs good MATs. What it should be doing is creating its own MATs though. We are now moving away from the world of MATs backed by external organisations/individuals (such as ARK, Harris etc) towards MATs created by groups of schools.
    This is what should be happening in the North – groups of schools with a vision for the future coming together and forming their own MATs which will grow individually whilst also supporting each other. A ‘Northern MAT powerhouse’ would be a great thing, but it must be its own thing.

    • You’re right that many chains expanded too quickly (and some are still doing so despite problems having occurred with previous too rapid expansion). We have Michael Gove to thank for that: he said in 2011 he wanted chains to grow as quickly as possible. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2011/07/academy-chains-can-grow-as-fast-as-possible-says-mr-gove
      Collaboration is only really possible when schools are geographically close. The National Audit Office found informal interventions such as local support were more effective than formal interventions such as academy conversions. Much of this local support was brokered by local authorities as well as academy trusts.
      Groups of schools coming together to form a MAT has an appeal but runs the risk of one school becoming lead academy and forcing its view on other academies in the group. A MAT growing out of one school or college doesn’t guarantee good governance. Think of Perry Beeches, CHAT and Barnfield Federation. All grew from one institution – all were praised by Michael Gove as exemplary academy trusts but have all been subject to critical reports.

      • Mark Watson

        First of all, stop acting like a politician blaming all today’s woes on a previous administration. Michael Gove hasn’t been SoS for over two years and we’ve had 2 SoS since. I appreciate he’s a rallying point for the disaffected but do try and move on.
        However I agree about the need for MATs to consist of schools in clusters where each cluster consists of schools in close proximity. Thank you for saying this which reinforces the points I was making above – this is exactly how ARK operate, as an example.
        No-one ever said that a schools-based MAT “guarantees good governance” and it would be as ridiculous to claim that as it would be to claim that LA-run schools guarantee the same.
        I also find it frankly laughable that you can’t see the irony in the points you’re making: firstly you talk about the risk of one school “forcing its view on other academies in the group”. It is a fundamental feature of schools remaining with the LA that the LA WILL force its view on all of those school (note that is a definite, not simply a risk). Secondly you refer to three MATs who have been “subject to critical reports”. Shock horror. It’s a good thing that no local authorities have ever been criticised for how they run schools …

        • Local authorities do not control or ‘run’ their schools. Local Management of Schools (LMS) was introduced over a quarter of a century ago. This gave schools the right to manage most of their budgets. The LA retained a small amount for administrative, legal and support services. LAs cannot ‘force their view’ onto their schools.
          LA schools have a separate legal identity: academies in MATs do not. MATs can decide whether one of their academies closes, for example. And this can be done without consulting parents (eg Charles Read Academy in Lincolnshire was only saved from arbitrary closure by WGAT when David Ross Academy Trust stepped in).
          There are, of course, other MATs which have been criticised either for financial incompetence or by Ofsted (or both). The three I gave were just examples. But they were MATs which had been heavily praised by Michael Gove and other ministers. He may have gone. But his influence remains.

          • Mark Watson

            I’m not even going to bother replying to the assertion that LAs don’t run or control their schools. Try telling that to the schools who can’t get their boiler fixed or who are locked into HR support from a council that takes 3 weeks to reply to any request and then gets the advice wrong.
            And are you seriously saying that local authorities don’t decide to close schools? The latest Govt guidance states specifically that “An LA can propose the closure of ALL categories of maintained school”. There is a consultation process that has to be followed, but as has been pointed out when arguing against academy consultations, there is no obligation to take account of anything that is said during that consultation. Go and talk to the communities where the local village school has been shut by the LA against their wishes. That, by the way, is a rather clear demonstration of ‘control’.

  2. The high performance in London schools was not due to the existence of MATs. It was a mixture of the London Challenge, the high proportion of hard-working children of immigrants from Asia and improvements in primary schools working their way into secondary schools. When London Challenge began, there were very few academies and Teach First was only in its infancy. Ofsted’s report into the London Challenge found support was a far greater factor than academy conversion (which had in any case affected only a small number of London Challenge schools) in bringing about improvement. And Teach First wasn’t even mentioned: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20141124154759/http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/london-challenge

    • Mark Watson

      So let me get this straight …
      When academies within MATs improve their performance it has nothing to do with the MAT and is in fact all to do with external factors. That seems to be what you’re saying above right?
      However in the multiple other threads where you refer to the high-performing schools who are not academies, you seem to be saying that this is due to the wonderful local authority and is therefore a strong argument why schools should not become academies. External factors never seem to come up when you refer to these schools.
      Do you not see how silly this sounds?

      • Mark – you have erected a straw man. I did not say any improvement within MATs was only due to external factors. There are MATs where schools have improved. There are others where success has gone the other way.
        What I was saying was that the success of London schools was little to do with their being MATs in London. And the London Challenge wasn’t an ‘external factor’ but a concerted effort by London local authorities, schools and consultants to raise the performance of London schools.

        • Mark Watson

          So you say “the success of London schools was little to do with their being MATs in London”, and that instead the reason for their success was the London Challenge and other efforts of the London local authorities, schools and consultants.
          OK, let’s look at specifics then. Let’s take the Harris Federation and an area I used to know well – Croydon. By your logic there should be no difference between the success enjoyed by the different schools in Croydon, after all they have all benefited from the London Challenge etc.
          There are 9 schools in Croydon which are part of the Harris Federation – 5 (56%) are Outstanding, 1 (11%) is good, and 3 (33%) have not been assessed.
          Now to the 60 schools in Croydon which are still maintained schools – 9 (15%) are outstanding, 29 (48%) are good, 13 (22%) are Requires Improvement and 9 (15%) have not been assessed.
          Please can you explain the disparity between these figures if it has nothing to do with the difference between the MAT (Harris Federation) and the LA (Croydon Council)?

          • Mark Watson

            That’s pathetic.
            Yet another keyboard-warrior on these pages who won’t actually engage and have a mature discussion about the issues and facts but instead makes ill-informed and baseless comments which they probably think are awfully funny and incisive.
            Grow up.

          • Mark: Harris has an impressive record of good or better Ofsted ratings not just in Croydon but elsewhere. Ofsted has commented favourably on the support Harris gives its schools. But it’s also commented favourably on the support Croydon LA provides. Recent monitoring of six of the ten primary schools requiring improvement spoke of ‘well targeted’, ‘strong’ or ‘effective’ support. Of the remaining four, one received support after the LA warned the school about low standards; one school had received too generous an assessment of its teaching by the LA; the LA had acted too slowly in one case and not monitored a fourth strongly enough. Not as brilliant as Harris but still supporting schools appropriately in most cases.
            You say nine of Croydon’s maintained schools haven’t been assessed. I’ve checked school performance tables and the 27 or so schools which haven’t been assessed were either academies or free schools (South Norwood and Winterbourne Boys’ were listed twice hence the vague nature of the numbers). Perhaps you could name the nine LA schools which have yet to be assessed by Ofsted. Maybe I’ve missed them.

          • Mark Watson

            “Not as brilliant as Harris”.
            Wow, it’s taken an inordinately long time, but you do finally seem to be recognising that a MAT is doing better than the local authority.
            Before you get on your high horse, this isn’t a defence of all MATs, I am just rejoicing that you seem to be recanting your “MATs make no difference” mantra.
            Right, looking at the facts, I do apologise for rushing the numbers off the .gov.uk website on a Friday afternoon without double checking the schools which had recently converted. So as I see it the facts in Croydon are (unless you can show otherwise):
            Harris Federation (9 schools) – 5 (56%) Outstanding, 1 (11%) good, and 3 (33%) not yet assessed.
            Croydon Council (52 schools) – 9 (17%) Outstanding, 31 (60%) good, and 12 (23%) Requires Improvement.
            Still looks like one hell of a discrepancy doesn’t it? Especially in an area where according to your earlier posts all the schools had the same opportunities.
            I note your attempts to try and excuse a local authority which has had almost a quarter of its schools classified as Requires Improvement (BTW excuses which you don’t seem to take into account when you comment on MATs). Do you really think this would wash with the local communities whose children have been failed?
            And even if we ignore those schools classified as Requires Improvement, the LA has 17% of Outstanding Schools compared to Harris’ 56% of Outstanding Schools.
            A simple question to you, and anyone else reading this, if you lived in Croydon and had to choose between sending your child to a randomly selected LA school or a randomly selected Harris Federation school which would you choose?

      • Mark: Your second straw man is to say I imply that high-performing non-academies perform well because of their ‘wonderful local authority’. Whether schools are high-performing or not is more to do with what goes on inside schools. LAs can and do lend support. MATs also support their academies. However, there is no reason whatsoever to force high-performing schools to become academies if they do not wish to do so. Especially as this means they will literally be in chains. The amount of freedom they receive is in the gift of their MAT.

        • I’ll amend my last comment. There is no reason whatsoever to force ANY schools to become an academy if it does not wish to do so. As the National Audit Office found, informal interventions such as local support were more effective than formal (and more expensive) interventions such as academy conversion. Struggling non-academies should be given the option of being supported locally rather than being catapulted into academy conversion. And struggling academies in MATs should be able to broker support from outside their MAT if they feel it is more appropriate and would be more helpful.

        • Mark Watson

          I have never claimed that a high-performing school should be forced to become an academy as I am 100% clear that schools should be able to do what they think is best for them and their communities. If they are with a strong and supportive LA and want to remain as a maintained school then I would absolutely support such a decision. Conversely if they want to join a MAT they should understand exactly what is involved and what it means, but if after that they want to join the MAT then they should be able to.
          Please don’t try and imply I’ve said anything different.

    • Mark Watson

      It’s quite disappointing that you feel it appropriate to make such sniping comments in response to an article written by a primary teacher who, presumably, is simply wanting to improve the opportunities for the children in his school. I don’t think any reasonable person reading this article thinks that the author is coming at this from the angle of wanting MATs to have any sort of ‘victory’, he’s simply trying to say whatever he can to get the same opportunities for Northern Schools as are available in London and the South.
      I apologise if I have misrepresented the author, that’s simply what I took away from the article. I may disagree with some of his comments, as outlined in my first comment above, but I completely agreed with the main points he was making.

    • Mark Watson

      Wow, you’ve found someone else that shares your views. That’s as relevant to the points discussed above as my linking to a press release by the DfE.

      Why not actually address the facts and arguments discussed above – like the massive disparity between local authority schools and Harris Federation schools in Croydon?

      I appreciate that actually discussing the facts is a tiresome distraction to repeating tired old political diatribes but why not give it a go…

      • Mark – you’re right that I found someone else who’s not convinced with the arguments in the article. And I’ve now dealt with the ‘massive disparity’ between Harris’s small number of mostly secondary academies and the much larger number of Croydon’s maintained schools, mostly primary.
        There were many facts in Jack Marwood’s blog which weren’t ‘tired old political diatribes’. I note you’ve commented there and Jack has responded.

        • Mark Watson

          No you haven’t “dealt with” the massive disparity. As I’ve outlined above, there is a massive disparity between the performance of Harris and the LA. Absolutely enormous. So go back, and address the fact that Croydon Council has 23% of its schools in Requires Improvement and only 17% Outstanding as compared with Harris which has no Requires Improvement schools and 56% Outstanding.

  3. Mark: Facts, then, about academies and MATs. Fact One: See Education Select Committee re academies. Its summary notes Ark and Harris have been ‘outstanding’ but also says: ‘Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change. This is partly a matter of timing but more information is needed on the performance of individual academy chains.’
    ‘Conflicts of interest in trusts are a real issue’
    ‘There is at present no convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment
    in primary schools.’

    • Mark Watson

      Can you enlighten me as to what the “facts” are you’re referring to here?
      You seem to be repeating three quotations (note quotations are not facts), two of which actually refer to there not being enough facts around.

  4. Mark: Facts Two and Three:
    National Audit Office – it found informal interventions such as local support were more effective in improving schools than formal interventions such as academy conversion
    The Education Policy Institute think tank – found academy trusts ‘no better’ than LAs in raising school standards.

    • Mark Watson

      OK, firstly the report from the NAO is two years old. Two years in an environment that is as young and as fast developing as the growth of MATs is a lifetime. Just in terms of numbers of academies we’ve gone from 4,243 (October 2014) to 5,671 (September 2016). But the real difference is the explosion in MATs and the wealth of knowledge and evidence from the last two years.
      More importantly though, please can you direct me to the passage in the NAO report which states that the NAO “found informal interventions such as local support were more effective in improving schools than formal interventions such as academy conversion”. I’ve gone through the report searching for relevant terms but can’t seem to find it.

    • Mark Watson

      Now onto Fact Three and the report issued by the EPI think tank (interesting how reports issued by political think tanks now assume the status of ‘facts’).
      It’s very lazy journalism to claim, as you and other outlets do, that it found that academy trusts were no better than LAs in raising school standards. What it did was produce a League Table that showed there was a fairly even spread between academies and LAs from the best to the worst performing.
      However the important point here, and it is one I have made before, is that as an example let’s look at the bottom five positions in the League Table for both primary and secondary. Helpfully there is an exact split – five are MATs and five are LAs. The whole point is that there is the potential for change to be imposed on the poorest performing MATs – if they don’t turn things around they can be closed down and their schools transferred to another MAT.
      LAs have had generations and generations to get where they are now. What hope should we have that there’ll miraculously change and get better now?

  5. Mark: Fact Four
    NFER: ‘Sponsored academies outperformed similar maintained schools in 2013 when equivalent
    qualifications were included, but not when they were excluded nor in 2014 when the contribution of equivalent qualifications to pupils’ overall point scores was reduced considerably.’ and
    ‘…there was no significant difference in school GCSE performance in 2014 between converter academies and similar maintained schools.

    • Mark Watson

      See exactly the same points as above.
      Plus you seem once again to think that I am a staunch defender of all MATs. I’m not. Many MATs are as poorly performing as the failing local authorities they were supposed to improve on (see comments above on the EPI League Tables).
      What I am saying is that the MAT programme allows us to be optimistic things CAN get better. Yes it needs oversight, yes it needs strong review of evidence and yes it needs strong crackdowns on those who seek to abuse the system (all things which would of course need to happen in an entirely LA-run system).

  6. Mark – I hope the above fed your appetite for facts. Or perhaps you think the Education Select Committee, the National Audit Office, the Education Policy Institute and the National Foundation for Education Research are all engaged in ‘tired old political diatribes’.

    • Mark Watson

      No they don’t, because they’re not facts.
      Facts are things like the proportion of Harris Federation schools are Outstanding and the proportion of Croydon LA schools where are Requires Improvement.
      Facts are things like some MATs and some LAs have been shown to be excellent at supporting schools, and some MATs and LAs have been shown to be terrible. We should have a system that encourages high-performing organisations to carry on what they’re doing (whether they’re MAT or LA), whilst at the same time making sure that those MATs and LAs which are failing to provide good schools are removed from the equation.
      What objection do you have to that?

  7. Mark – your comment that quotations weren’t facts had been crying with laughter. These were interpretations of facts that had been presented to the various reputable bodies. Facts do need to be interpreted.
    I have never argued that all MATs are terrible (another straw man) – I have pointed out there are risks and academies are not the magic bullet they are claimed to be. I was responding, remember, to an article which assumed MATs were the only possible answer to improving standards in the North.
    I have no objection to any high-performing organisations carrying on with what they’re doing. But I do object to assumptions that only MATs can raise standards when, as you acknowledge, there are many LAs that are doing well. Odd, then, that the Government should propose enforcing mass academization in areas where the majority of non-academies are good or better.
    One of your comments above referred to the NAO report re academies. I was summarising not quoting directly. See Schools Week article here: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/nao-critical-lessons/. Note the figures re improvement and Laura McInerney’s comments. I hope this will satisfy you, unless you think the editor of Schools Week is also indulging in political diatribes.
    Throughout this thread, I have been unimpressed by your straw men, your hectoring tone and your sarcasm. This will, therefore, be the last comment I will make.

      • Further correction – the first sentence should have read ‘your comment that the quotations given weren’t facts…’ This is to avoid being accused of saying that all quotations that have ever been made at any time by anyone were facts.

    • Mark Watson

      Of course it’s going to be the last comment you make because you have nothing to come back on.
      1. I’ve pointed out the straight facts on school performance in Croydon – you started by saying “The high performance in London schools was not due to the existence of MATs” and ended up by agreeing that Harris Federation was “fantastic”, although you then had to spoil your Damascene conversion by claiming I had represented you as saying all MATs were terrible – care to point out where I did this?
      2. You made up a quote and the claimed it came from the NAO report (this seems to be a habit of yours). Nowhere in that report, or indeed the Schools Week article, does it say what you claim it does. Again, lazy journalism that doesn’t accurately report the truth.
      3. Why do you constantly argue about other people’s views (such as “enforcing mass academization”) when I’ve never said anything like that. I only ever respond to what you’ve said, why not try the same?
      The only thing you’re upset about is that for months you’ve been able to come onto these pages and spout your nonsense without anyone challenging it. The moment someone does you usually run for the hills. You’ve made a fist of defending yourself this time but it’s been about as effective as Donald Trump.