The annual Academies Show was held in Birmingham in November and gave more than 3,000 attendees the chance to listen to a line-up of more than 100 leaders in the sector.
As a member of Prospect’s Education and Children’s Services group, based in the West Midlands, I was particularly interested in hearing from national schools commissioner Sir David Carter and Christine Quinn, the regional schools commissioner for West Midlands.
In addition to the speakers, more than 200 leading suppliers of education products and services were present, while seminars offered valuable insights into recent legislation and six teams from the Department for Education were on hand to offer advice.
Topics covered included conversion to multi-academy trusts (MATs), working with regional schools commissioners, funding guidance, primary assessment, procurement and protection arrangements, protecting children from extremism and radicalisation, and higher and degree apprenticeships.
Many education unions and associations were represented at the show, including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).
‘Driving more improvements’
Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, outlined his vision for the future of academies to a large audience of mostly academies staff.
Acknowledging the structural changes of the past 10 years, he said that the system was still maturing and that the aim was to increase the number of academies.
He said that, while the press tends to focus on failing academies and poor practice, 68% of sponsored academies – many of which have had serious performance challenges in the past – are now rated “good” or “outstanding”.
He went on to list what the he felt the 10 best academies do, including:
- Deploying workforces across schools so that the best teachers and leaders are used to maximum effect
- Forging strong partnerships beyond the MAT, with system leaders collaborating to make each part of a region stronger
- Devising clear trust-wide improvement plans that use data monitoring to work out what each academy needs
- Aligning key educational strategies, such as assessment models, curriculum structures, exam boards, data systems and key policies
- Setting performance management targets for academy principals
- Implementing talent management strategies that include succession planning but don’t necessarily exclude external applicants
- Managing growth strategies so that standards are not compromised
- Ensuring that MAT boards focus on improvement strategies while also holding leaders to account
- Creating opportunities for children across trusts to work together in smaller clusters in sports, the arts, science and technology
- Basing any actions or decisions on strong evidence.
Sir David was asked about the division of responsibility in the relationship between regional school commissioners and the schools inspectorate Ofsted.
He said that they share accountability and that the regional schools commissioner’s responsibility begins once an Ofsted inspection has been completed. He said a protocol for Ofsted and regional schools commissioners will be published soon.
He went on to say that the role of education advisers is not to replicate the work of Ofsted but to advise regional schools commissioners on their confidence in the capacity of schools to improve. In time, education advisers will rarely visit individual schools but will instead visit regional improvement boards.
Prospect will be following up the work we have already started engaging with some regional schools commissioners seeking to understand how this relationship might work, as well as examining the impact it may have on our members and their work.
Another question related to the large salaries that academy CEOs are reported to receive. This is a highly contentious subject, with salaries seeming to be out of control and Sir Michael Wilshaw, former Ofsted chief inspector, having warned about the reputational damage of this.
Sir David said that 87% of CEOs receive salaries under £150K, and that he considered this a reasonable amount considering the scale of their responsibilities and what comparable professions pay.
With the need for public and political support for MATs, I suspect that this issue won’t be so easily brushed aside.
‘Governance fit for purpose’
Christine Quinn, the regional schools commissioner for West Midlands, said that the short-term focus in education must be on “governance fit for purpose”.
She described how, with the growth in MATs, there has been an increased drive to review and adapt governance arrangements because the trustee board of an MAT is likely to be responsible for the education of thousands of people.
She said that schools could bid for funding from the Strategic School Improvement Fund and Education Endowment Fund, which are valued at £140m and £2m a year, respectively, for the next two years.
Prospect believes that professionals working in education should play a critical role in establishing that governance and maintaining robust standards.
‘Good, and want to do better’
One of the other key messages I came away with was delivered by the CEO of an academy trust, who said: “The education system is in good shape, but school and MAT leaders can do more to inspire school staff to deliver further improvements.”
While controversy over chief executive pay and damaging educational and financial failings of MATs like the Wakefield City Academies Trust might seem like wake-up calls to many of us, I was struck by the confidence of colleagues attending the show.
With the academisation programme approaching its adulthood it’s clear that MATs are here to stay. Prospect’s new group executive committee will be giving some thought to how we can support our increasing number of members providing services to, and working in, MATs.