In a recent speech to the Leicestershire Academies Group, the Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan argued that the best way to improve education is through school-to-school support. Ms Morgan talked about the many benefits of MATs: “these range from sharing best teaching practice to the economies of scale. Then of course there are staffing arrangements which can be more flexible, allowing MATs to develop and retain the best teachers who have well defined careers paths which lead them to school leadership roles much sooner”. It could also be argued that schools which join a MAT have a much wider system of support around them which, if used effectively, can really improve the performance of individual schools and lead to better learning outcomes for children.
At NGA we agree with the Secretary of State that there are significant benefits to being part of a group of schools with shared governance, such as a MAT. In our joint guidance document, written in collaboration with Browne Jacobson and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), Forming or joining a group of schools: staying in control of your school’s destiny, we outline the many benefits of forming/joining formal groups of schools, including sharing resources, retaining staff and sharing good practice. However, through our “federation first” campaign, we want to show that MATs are not the only way to achieve these benefits. What if your schools’ relationship with their LA is strong or, indeed, if you and your governing body do not think academisation is the best option for the school at that moment?
The good news is that you can still benefit from the perks of being part of a group of schools whilst still remaining as a maintained school by joining or creating a federation.
Although the terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ are sometimes used to describe federations, this is a false distinction; one which only serves to cause confusion. As per the legal definition, federations are two or more LA maintained schools which are governed by one governing body. Forming or joining a federation is a relatively simple process which allows schools to have all of the benefits of being in a formal group of schools, whilst remaining under the control of the LA.
Some governors may be sceptical about forming a federation, with a commonly cited reason being that a fully academised system is a future inevitability. If, as many are convinced will happen, all schools are academies by 2020, then evidently federation could be considered to be a waste of time. With recent comments from the Prime Minister and Education Secretary outlining a vision for all schools to become academies, it is no surprise that schools are preparing themselves for a time when they will no longer be part of the local authority. Yet, if as the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson said in the 1960s, “a week is a long time in politics”, then the time between now and the end of parliament should be considered an age. There is no guarantee that all schools will become academies by the end of this parliament and it remains unclear how this would actually be achieved in practice.
Our Federation First campaign aims to show that federations are a viable structure in which to organise a group of schools. Our primary audience is governing bodies of maintained schools who want to join a group, but feel that separation from their LA is not in the best interests of the school. This is not, however, to say that federations are better structures than MATs. We are not endorsing the view that a federation is a better structure than a multi-academy trust (MAT) and we are in no way against schools wishing to academise.
We are not endorsing the view that a federation is a better structure than a multi-academy trust (MAT) and we are in no way against schools wishing to academise.
Our Federation First campaign is about showing schools that they have options. In order to stay in control of their own destiny and to choose the best option for their school(s), governors need all the facts about all of the possibilities on the table. Whether the governing body chooses to stay as a standalone maintained school, or join/form a MAT or federation, is not our concern. What matters to us is making sure that any decision is made is in the best interests of the school and its pupils. We believe that governors are best placed to make these decisions provided they have all of the information.
The problem is that whilst the MAT model is well known amongst governors, maintained federations are not well recognised or are seen as a weak substitute. Our campaign seeks to expose the misconceptions of federations and we are eager to show that federations can in fact be very effective, sustainable structures in their own right.
We do not, however, want governors to see federations and MATs as polar opposite “alternatives” to each other.
We do not, however, want governors to see federations and MATs as polar opposite “alternatives” to each other; the debate is not that black and white. We chose the name “federation first” for our campaign because federations can also be seen as a stepping stone to forming a MAT.
“Maintained school collaboration can be a stepping stone to a MAT and we fully support that provided it is in a very hard (sic) federation”
Lord Nash, Addressing the APPG on education governance and leadership, September 2015
Schools that have federated have a single governing body, a shared vision and ethos and, in many cases, an executive headteacher. If the federated governing body wanted to convert to academy status at a later date, the process would be simpler than it would be for standalone schools. Federations, like MATs, can vary in size, although federations tend to be up to half a dozen schools whereas some MATs have grown far more exponentially (as of February 2016, there were 53 MATs with over 10 schools across England, with the largest MAT having 62).
If the federated governing body wanted to convert to academy status at a later date, the process would be simpler than it would be for standalone schools.
What does the Federation First campaign consist of?