The schools landscape could look very different from how it does today, quite quickly, if the government’s vision for all schools to become academies comes to fruition. Professor Toby Salt examines what would make a universally academised system work, in terms of school organisation, management and conversion.
1. It’s time to trust
If (and it still is an if) the vision for full academisation is to be realised we need to overcome “the trust problem”. Many in the sector are still suspicious about academies and even more so about multi-academy trusts (MATs), with some quarters seeing them as a front for privatisation.
Nothing is further from the truth. Profit is not the motivation and MATs are not-for-profit organisations. We need to get past this perception if we are to achieve progress.
Regrettably, the actions of a tiny minority cast assertions over the rest of us, so it’s our role to counter mistruth: communicating well and demonstrating how MATs can be a force for good. If we achieve this, then primary and secondary schools yet to convert will do so out of proactive, informed choice, rather than worrying about when and whether they will be pushed.
2. We need to get academy governance right
Successive governments have tried and failed to strike the right balance with this. The importance of getting governance right shouldn’t be underestimated. It is the difference between seeing more high-profile fallings from grace and having a robust system of checks and balances in place to ensure these can’t happen. If we don’t tackle this now, ahead of rapid expansion of the academy programme, we will all pay for it later.
It is encouraging to see it is something that the white paper seeks to tackle and that Lord Nash is prioritising. The governance structures of our academies aren’t yet mature and we need to look for examples of best practice – whether they are stakeholder, corporate or volunteer models – and emulate and scale them, both at single academy and trust board level.
3. We need resources – for conversion and leadership training
In straitened times, the sector can’t absorb the costs of academy conversion as well as delivery. Conversion has significant costs: in terms of time and money. There are undoubtedly ways the process can be made leaner and more efficient.
The resources needed to get the right people in place to lead the system tomorrow must also be considered. We need to start building a pipeline of leaders with the skills to run MATs, which is very different to being a head. The leadership recruitment organisation Future Leaders has recognised this with its Executive Educators programme, which runs over nine months and has credits linked to the Open University’s MBA. It is important this sort of programme is supported. With robust training at the highest level the sector will develop individuals who have the confidence to take the next step towards becoming a chief executive.
There is a lot resting on the shoulders of current trust chief executives but this group won’t be around forever. Succession planning and capacity building should be a top priority, to ensure every trust has breadth and depth.
4. We need to recognise the importance of corporate staff and bring them into the sector
As trusts continue scaling and multiplying, the recruitment challenge will not only
be in the classroom, but also their professional teams. MATs deal with substantial budgets, big staff numbers, complex estate issues and health and
safety and compliance matters.
We need a two-pronged approach here. First, we should train and grow our own to ensure we get people with a passion for education into jobs that help to make our schools a success; I was always very keen on developing support for bursars and school business managers while I was at the national college for this very reason.
Succession planning should be a top priority
On the other hand, we need to have the confidence to approach and attract people from outside schools to work with us – we need qualified accountants, experienced HR professionals, procurement specialists and building surveyors. We should be heartened to understand that as academy trusts grow, we become more attractive as a career proposition. We can offer good progression, an opportunity to achieve national impact and the great feeling that you are making a difference to children’s lives. At present the pool we are fishing from is too small – so rather than attracting staff to hop from trust to trust, as is currently the case, we should be focused on bringing a new generation of talent into education management.
5. Here comes the elephant in the room: getting the number of MATs right
With an appropriately resourced system with great professional development and exciting new talent entering the profession, then the question comes of structure . . . how many MATs should we have?
Predictions range from 2,000 to 10,000 but, if you look at it from a quality model perspective, keeping the number manageable is important. You could take a “plant 10,000 flowers” approach, in which you let some bloom and accept that some will fail. But oversight will be complex. Or you could work with those who already have established roots and can grow new branches. I believe the latter, with proper devolution and regional management within MATs, and a blend of core non-negotiables and local nuance in each academy, is the best recipe. That doesn’t mean we don’t need new plants and flowers too, but we need to be careful.
6. . . . and the other one – thinking out of the safe zone of local primary MATs
The biggest challenge is the primary sector, where many small schools are seen as special institutions in their communities and are happy with the support they already receive. Some local clusters of primaries will undoubtedly pull together to convert, but I would offer a word of caution here . . . some of the best collaborations I have seen within our trust are not cross-primary, but where a primary is supported by a secondary and vice versa. Through this cross-key stage working, Ormiston Herman academy (primary) in Great Yarmouth came out of special measures within two terms, working closely with nearby Ormiston Venture academy (secondary). The head at Herman worked closely with a deputy from Venture to drive improvement, with the primary school importing a number of the secondary systems that Venture found effective.
It can also be powerful for schools to work with other schools with similar characteristics, (that is, both primary, both with budget challenges) but based in another local authority area. Cross-regional collaboration can mean schools work together more deeply and share their experiences without worrying about competition for pupils or staff.
Banding together with similar neighbours might seem instantly attractive, but will it always help schools to accelerate their improvement and bring out the best in each other?
I can only tackle the tip of the iceberg here; there are so many variables and challenges. However some things to me are clear: to make this policy work we need to build trust in academies, we should of course invest in conversion and professional development, and I believe we should be ambitious to increase the corporate recruitment pool and think hard about whether only local is always best.