This week has seen the last of the party conferences, the Conservative party conference. Education had a higher profile than usual with the Prime Minister’s inclusion of grammar schools in her speech, and fringes on education’s role in social mobility packed with party members, often with a majority of them against the expansion of selection. But there’s more on that elsewhere, so what I want to share is my exasperation with the continued use of autonomy when referring to schools within multi academy trusts and sometimes to headteachers. Can we stop it now please?
- the right or condition of self-government, and
- freedom from external control or influence; independence.
It was Gove’s initial plan to give individual schools more autonomy but this is now very much the last Government’s approach. The rise of the standalone academy is over: conversions are now happening in groups. Schools within multi academy trusts (MATs) do not have autonomy: that is not rhetoric; that is not opinion. It is a fact. The board of trustees of the MAT has control, not the individual schools. To suggest otherwise is quite frankly displaying an ignorance of school legal structures.
If the Government’s aim was to give individual schools autonomy, then it needed to maintain Gove’s plan A, but quite rightly they choose to morph it into plan B. All the talk amongst those who understand school improvement is about collaboration, looking outwards, not ignoring the external world. For some years NGA has been championing the improvements for pupil outcomes, curriculum offer and staff development and retention which come about from growing groups of local schools - whether local authority maintained federations or multi academy trusts: Forming or joining a group of schools.
Indeed a few years ago on an Academies Show panel when all about were encouraging small schools to convert as stand alones, I caused a bit of an uproar by advising this wasn’t a good move for pupils or financial sustainability, and was demoted from the main plenary stage for a year until this became a more acceptable message.
The Department for Education has since begun to moderate its own use of ‘autonomy’ by using the phrase ‘supported autonomy’, for example in this year’s White Paper. The phrase ‘earned autonomy’ is also a common one, and we adopted it as one of our models when developing our very well received schemes of delegation earlier this year. Those four models have been borrowed by many in the field, but when we revise them shortly, we are going to come up with a different phrase: we have played into the very idea that if it plays by the rules and performs well, a school can end up with autonomy which is misleading. It cannot.
And in the last month there has been a bit of a resurgence in championing autonomy, especially from minister Nick Gibb who did turn up at some Conservative fringe meetings. The minister, who speaks as though local management of schools wasn’t introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988, compounded the mistake by talking about autonomy, freedoms and power for headteachers in multi academy trusts. Headteachers, while of course very senior school leaders, are employees of the trust, and as such do not have autonomy. Moreover in a MAT and usually in a federation, they will be line managed by an executive head or a chief executive, who in turn is held to account by the governing board.
How much freedom a trust or a federation gives a headteacher will be determined by a combination of its values, ethos, culture, leadership style and performance: it has nothing to do with legal status. Some MATs are very command and control, while others allow more diversity.
Even suggesting that a headteacher in a stand alone school has independence overlooks the role of the governing board, and this perpetual and repeated refrain may be one reason amongst many why the majority of those governing are really not pleased with the powers that be. Raising the profile of governance and an understanding of its importance is one of NGA’s continuing tasks, but I really don’t think it is too much to ask that those who decide schools policy in England understand what is it they have introduced. Groups of schools have a number of features, but autonomy for schools and heads is not one of them: quite the opposite.