There have been many column inches on what may and may not be in the imminent Schools White Paper – in particular, the Secretary of State’s vision of moving to a position where all schools are within a strong multi academy trust. There’s been less on how we get to that vision – and absolutely nothing on what those who will be making the decision on whether to and which MAT to join are thinking.
At the National Governance Association we have trusts of all shapes and sizes in membership, and we talk to trustees on a daily basis, as well as providing services for those governing at academy level within a MAT or for a maintained school. We take great care to listen and we know the experience from every angle. We have been sharing this with the Department for Education.
And a big thank you to all those chairs and vice chairs who have shared their experiences with us – your intelligence has been vital and your care to do the right thing by your pupils shone through. On most issues it takes quite a lot of skill to balance what different members in different parts of the country tell us, but on this topic the feedback we receive all points in the same direction. We thought that trustees of single academy trusts (SATs) might have a different take from governors of maintained schools, but barely so. Michael Barton reported on SAT voices some months ago.
First, there is a huge attachment to locality and the importance of local collaboration.
Second, there is a fear of being ‘taken over’ by a large organisation that will not have the interests of ‘their’ school and their community at the heart of their decision making in the way the current board does. We can debate what is large – in fact we have been frustrated over the past few years at the lack of appetite within the sector to have that debate.
While all efforts to-date to find the optimum size of trust have floundered, this is a slightly different argument about participation, connectedness, understanding of the context, risk and in effect who ‘owns’ our state schools. Very much principles which should be at the heart of a vision for England’s schools.
Third, they found a lack of persuasive evidence on the benefits to pupils of being in a MAT, including by MATs with whom governing boards have had exploratory conversations, and sometimes even extensive negotiations.
Of course these three factors are nuanced and overlapping, and the strength of feeling differs from place to place and school to school with their history and past relationships. In particular, the views of headteachers usually carry a lot of weight with boards. The change to leadership positions, especially heads of school in MATs, can be very substantive and unappealing for some, especially experienced headteachers joining an existing MAT with very little ability now to shape it. The resignation of a headteacher is a time when governing boards are more likely to consider changes of structures.
However together given the perceived lack of potential benefits, they lead to boards and leaders unwilling to prioritise the work of joining a MAT, especially when leadership capacity is needed for other current pressures. There is also another level of issues faced by smaller schools and those with financial stress, the schools sadly dubbed SNOWs (schools no one wants) where most usually it has been the MATs who have not wanted the conversations. That will be a very tricky topic for the Secretary of State to resolve.
NGA was an early adopter of the benefits of families of schools; in 2015 we published the first edition of guidance with ASCL and Browne Jacobson on forming or joining a group of schools at the Houses of Parliament with a response from the then minister Lord Nash. A fourth edition will be forthcoming as soon as possible after the White Paper’s publication. Its original subtitle ‘staying in control of your school’s destiny’ has been a sentiment adopted and echoed ever since. But that is where the issue of size of trust is deeply relevant. Boards who have carefully and painstakingly crafted groups of schools to come together or negotiated with a local small or middle-sized trust made it very clear to us they didn’t want to see a few years later those trusts outgrowing the locality or even being subsumed into a larger trust.
We are thrilled to the see the DfE going public last week on its intention to strengthen governance at local level within MATs; this is without a doubt the right move. Local governance is absolutely vital to good governance – but needs to be done effectively, ethically and accountably, not just for show when Ofsted comes calling. As well as providing guidance to our members, NGA has written extensively on local governance – including last year in MATs moving forward: the power of governance.
Several years ago there were many voices heralding the demise of this local tier, but this has not been the case as more and more trusts understand its benefits, valuing that support, challenge and connection with communities. However this has not been universal, with - often but not always – some larger trusts diluting their functions. Generally, the innovation of replacing academy level committees with the regional ones has not worked; most value is added when the academy committee is based at the school and in the area it knows (although relatively local small schools sharing an academy committee can also work well).
However, on its own changes to local governance are unlikely to persuade everyone in the decision-making seat. When push comes to shove, the board of trustees is the decision-making body once the school is within the MAT.
So if the Secretary of State wants his vision of all schools within a MAT achieved, as well as setting out the benefits to pupils fully alongside evidence, he will need to reassure those governors and SAT trustees that:
- he is not attempting to create huge trusts, but just to have more middle-size trusts, preferably defined by the number of pupils they educate and with an emphasis on geography; and
- there will be a mechanism for ensuring MATs are held to account for promises made during a negotiation.
We have suggested a number of routes, and we look forward to continuing these conversations with our members and the DfE after the White Paper appears.
A shorter version of this blog appeared in today’s Schools Week.
As NGA’s Co-Chief Executive, Emma promotes the interests of the school governance community nationally with legislators, policy makers, education sector organisations and the media. Emma is an accomplished writer and speaker on a range of school governance policy and practice topics.