The false freedoms of becoming an academy

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

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  1. Mark Watson

    How timely. An article by an Executive Head of a federation of schools in Lambeth. The week after the story about Craig Tunstall, another Executive Head of a federation of schools in Lambeth, being suspended from his £330,000 a year salary.
    So is Christopher Toye another one of these highly paid Executive Heads in Lambeth? Of course the answer is we don’t know. If he was the head of an academy trust or the CEO of a multi-academy trust we’d know because his salary would be published. Within the local authority system (amusingly always referred to as ‘transparent and accountable’) we have no information at all.
    I’m not casting any aspersions on Mr Toye. He might be a model head doing an amazing job for a modest salary. But given what the news from last week we also have to consider that it might be a case of not biting the hand that feeds.
    This would certainly be something raised if it was the CEO of a MAT arguing for no changes …

    • Below is link to unaudited Lambeth accounts for 2015/16. Page 37 gives details of the highest paid officials including Craig Tunstall whose pay was the highest. On page 38 are the numbers of Lambeth employees earning £50k or more up to ceiling £154,999. The majority (559) were in the £50k-£79,999 bracket. 20 appeared in the next three bands: £80k-£94,999. No-one earned between £110k and £114,999. Nine earned between £115k and £119,999. One earned £130-£134,99 and one earned £150-£154,99.
      As you say, we have no way of knowing what Christopher Toye earns. But we do know how many employees are paid above £50k. Hardly a case of ‘no information at all’.


      • Mark Watson

        You’re absolutely right. We know that Christopher Toye earns between £0 and £155,000. Just to be picky though we have no idea what those individuals received by way of pension contributions.
        So yes, we do have some information, but I would contend that in a practical sense we know very little about what this specific individual earns. This contrasts with the position within multi-academy trusts where we can easily see what the CEO earns (including employer pension contributions) within a range of £5,000.

        • Mark – Look again at page 37 of Lambeth accounts. This lists pension contributions given to highest paid members of staff at Lambeth. This is the same info usually given for CEO pay in MAT accounts. As for the lower paid staff earning above £50k, I think you’ll find MAT accounts don’t give individual pension contributions either.

          • Mark Watson

            Yes, that is my point. If Christopher Toye was a CEO in a MAT we’d know his total remuneration including pension contributions.
            But can you address the central point please. You have spoken many times about your preference for the transparent and accountable way in which local authorities operate schools. Here is a scenario where we have an ‘executive head’ paid by a local authority to oversee four schools and we don’t know if he’s paid £50,000 or £155,000.
            That doesn’t seem very transparent to me. How do the pupils and community in Lambeth hold the council to account without this knowledge?

          • Mark – Christopher Toye is not a CEO. He’s executive head of Wyvern Federation. The Federation has no CEO as this consultation paper shows
            You object to Lambeth not publishing the pay of school heads employed by them on the grounds that MATs publish details of CEO’s pay and pensions. But heads are not CEOs. And MAT accounts don’t publish the pay of named heads within MATs. We may be told, as with LAs, the number of staff paid in different bands over a certain amount but these are not named. Your question about how pupils and community in Lambeth can hold the LA to account for heads’ salaries if they aren’t given individual pay rates can equally be levelled at MATs.

          • Mark Watson

            Come on, that’s a really weak argument. Of course he’s not a CEO – firstly that’s exactly what I said, and secondly he couldn’t be a CEO within the maintained sector.
            And I appreciate your attempt at obfuscation, but I have not objected to Lambeth not publishing the pay of school heads. What we are talking about here is an Executive Head who leads a number of maintained schools in a federation. If at some point in the future The Wyvern Federation was to become a multi-academy trust then the extremely high likelihood is that Christopher Toye would become the CEO. At that point his specific remuneration package would be disclosed in the annual accounts. If he wasn’t the CEO, but took up a position as the principal of one of the schools then I agree his salary wouldn’t be published – and personally I don’t think it should. Just as I don’t think Lambeth should be publishing salaries of their headteachers.
            But Christopher Toye’s position is much closer to that of a CEO than it is to a Headteacher. In the academies world such a salary would be public knowledge. In the maintained sector it is not. In a MAT, parents and the community know the remuneration of the individual in charge of all the schools. In the Wyvern Federation they do not. You are the one trumpeting the transparency and accountability of the maintained sector but it seems clear that this is an area where academies are more transparent.

  2. Not sure how true ‘micro-managing bureaucrats and from central and local government diktats’ is really. In fact we want more help and intervention in a way to get better as due to financial constraints, the LA has mostly left good and OS schools alone now.

    Full independence and control is great in theory, but you sometimes have to work out if you are willing to compromise some of that in able to provide a sustainable future for your school. As ever, do proper due diligence and if you do convert, do it for the right reasons for your school. Not on what someone else tells you the benefits may be.

    • Mark Watson

      This article was written 16 months after the Academies Act came into force and the ‘academies programme’ (as it is currently understood) started.
      We are now 65 months further on from the date of your article, which I would suggest means the content is not exactly relevant to the position we find ourselves in today.
      As an example, the article focuses on the involvement of IES as a profit-making body now running a school, and the concerns you had about this. So in the 65 months since your article how many more schools has IES taken on? On a wider basis, what are the total number of other schools taken on by any for-profit body?
      The answer to both questions, in case anybody doesn’t know, is zero.

      • Yes, the article was written 65 months ago. It showed that warnings had already been made about the so-called academy freedoms (note the link to evidence given by John Burns OBE when the Academies Bill was being discussed in 2010).
        And, yes, we have moved on in the intervening 65 months. The takeover of academy trusts by for-profit education providers hasn’t happened (although there’s plenty of scope for related party transactions and there are still some for-profit education companies behind academy trusts). But the loss of freedom for individual academies in MATs which I warned about 65 months ago is becoming increasingly apparent.

  3. As a governor (and – full disclosure – the chair of a MAT) I never liked the false promise of ‘autonomy’ anyway. When Mr Toye says “In my schools the school development plan is down to me” I ask myself what his governors think this assertion of autocracy.I also wonder what his approach to authority and leadership is within the schools he leads. As a National Leader of Governance, I get to see a wide variety of different models and I can say with confidence that no legal structure is a guarantee of either autocracy or delegation. Mr Toye is right to decry the ‘command and control’ model of school governance (and leadership) but wrong to suggest that MATs are the only (or even main) place they happen

    • Mark Watson

      Thank you for making the point more succinctly than I have been able to do. As I see it too many people here blame one system (99% of the time academies are the fall guy) and laud another (local authorities).
      What I have tried to say is that this is rubbish. Both the council-run system and the academies-led system have the potential to be both excellent and execrable. What it comes down to most of the time are the individuals involved.

      • Mark – the difference between a council-run system and the academies-led system is the amount of control which can be exercised. LAs cannot ‘control’ their schools. MATs can. And academies in MATs don’t have separate legal identities. They are rolled up into the MAT rather like branches of a single company. Heads of such academies are not heads in the same way as heads of non-academies. Neither are their governing bodies.

        • Mark Watson

          So if ‘control’ and ‘autonomy’ are your hot topics, then I presume you are 100% behind standalone academy trusts that even you must agree have more control and autonomy than both MAT academies and LEA schools ?
          (BTW, I can just imagine the eye-rolling in all the community schools when they read your “LA’s cannot control their schools” comment. But I’d rather you address the comment above about standalone academies)

          • Mark – LAs don’t ‘control’ schools. They provide some backroom admin and legal services. But they don’t impose particular teaching methods or curricula on their schools in the same way some MATs do. Neither do they expect their schools to conform to a brand in the same way that some MATs do. As Christopher points out above, he has more autonomy as an LA head than heads in academies in MATs.
            Re stand-alone academy trusts. I am concerned that these will lose their autonomy if they join a MAT in the same way that non-academies lose autonomy when they join MATs. They are a whisker away from enforced takeover if Ofsted issues a judgement less than good, if results in one year are poor or if they are judged by RSCs to be ‘coasting’.

          • Mark Watson

            You may well be apprehensive about the future of standalone academy trusts, but that’s not what I asked. Given your comments about autonomy and control, do you support the concept of standalone academies?
            A simple question really …

    • Thank you for admitting that the promise of ‘autonomy’ for academies was false. As the Academies Commission pointed out in 2013, non-academies can do most things that academies can do.
      You are also right that some non-academy heads act like dictators If this is the case, then their governing body isn’t doing its job. However, it isn’t the LA dictating common procedures or policies over all its maintained schools in the same way that some MATs do. LA maintained schools are distinct legal identities; academies in MATs are not.