By education journalist Warwick Mansell
I keep hearing the following refrain from respected contacts on the governing bodies of maintained (ie non-academy) schools: “We are being told that we have little option but to become an academy and join a multi-academy trust. We’re doing well as we are, but it’s argued that we need to take this decision now: to take some control of the process by jumping before we are pushed.”
I’ve been writing about and investigating the academies policy since its inception. Given this, I greet the above with a sense of disbelief. Why?
Here are six reasons.
1 By joining a MAT, the school’s governing body is essentially signing its life away
It is opening itself up to being written out of existence, if not straight away then at some point in the future. In a MAT, the ultimate decision-making authority rests with the over-arching MAT board and the Secretary of State, rather than with individual schools.
These powers include the ability to scrap local governing bodies. Even if a MAT preserves them for now – and many, of course, do – it can remove them in the future, as cases such as this one. The MAT system is basically doing away with the near-30-year-old concept of local management of schools. Governors opting to “jump” in this way, then, should be clear as to what they are signing up for.
I have covered another case where a MAT has scrapped local governing bodies, and where parents, the local MP and many of the staff want the sponsor out of a particular school. But the community now depends on the Department for Education and the sponsor to implement that – it has no formal leverage.
Some large Christian dioceses have recently proposed putting all their schools into multi-academy trusts, with overarching, multi-school, boards. But some experienced governors argued that this would threaten school-based scrutiny through the existing governance structures.
Interestingly, one of the diocesan boards of schools seems to be stepping back from any move towards blanket academisation, its chief executive conceding in a letter this month that the voluntary-aided (non-academy) status which most church schools have is superior legally to academisation.
In the words of Inigo Woolf, CEO of the London Diocesan Board for Schools, “voluntary aided schools already enjoy many of the freedoms that academies have and it is my view that the statutory legislation that underpins the voluntary sector is superior to the law of contract under which academies operate”.
If the time ever comes for those in control of MAT decision-making to take the most controversial decision, such as whether or not to close a school, the absence of a local decision-making body may be crucial, as discussed further below.
“But isn’t it better to opt for a chosen MAT, given that we could be forced into an unwanted partnership with another MAT later?”, comes back the argument.
2 Well, if your school is successful, the government can’t currently do anything to force you into academy status
Ministers proposed greater enforcing powers last spring with their plans to compel all schools into academy status by 2022. But these were abandoned following backbench protests. It was also proposed that schools across entire local authority areas could be forced into academy status. But that was ditched too, by Theresa May last autumn.
As things stand, schools can only be forced into academy status if they are in an Ofsted category, or in the small minority categorised as “coasting”. The vast majority of primary schools, for instance, are not in either position. So the government has no power to academise them.
“But don’t the regional schools commissioners want more schools to academise; aren’t they very powerful; and shouldn’t we follow them?”
3 Schools only go into the ambit of the regional schools commissioners once they are academies, or are “eligible for [RSC] intervention” as described above
By staying maintained, successful schools are not subject to any of the less-than-transparent decision-making powers of RSCs.
4 Overall, if schools do enter the MAT field, they are entering a much more unstable world than the LA-maintained sector, despite the pressures facing maintained schools
Schools can and have been transferred between MATs entirely on the basis of private discussions between regional schools commissioners and trust boards. There are no formal rules and the public has no right to consultation or even of explanation by the RSCs.
There is also talk of mergers in the MAT world, as a result of financial pressures. Ministers and officials seem to want larger chains, and have often not seemed overly keen on the idea of local governing bodies. I also know of one MAT where virtually all the senior staff have changed over a two-year period. Summing up, the organisation you joined might not be the one you are with in a few years’ time. Again, you are not in control of your destiny.
“Ah, finance: given the pressure on local authority budgets, aren’t we better to move to a MAT?”
5 But are MATs really in a better financial position than local authorities?
I am yet to be convinced by this argument, given that academies are supposedly funded on the same basis as non-academy schools.
Someone suggested to me on Twitter this weekend that MATs could offer greater savings on purchasing decisions over local authorities. I’m not sure if this is the case but, even if it were, the potential gains may seem small when set against the risks.
In terms of risk, should the worst financially-driven scenario present itself, it seems to me that local authority schools have a key advantage over those in MATs.
This is that local authorities have to answer democratically and with some transparency to a local community if they are considering closing a school.
By contrast, MATs and the DfE have no formal local links, as illustrated by the sad case of Baverstock comprehensive in Birmingham, which went academy in 2013 but is set to close with budget problems and with seemingly nothing the local community can
do about it and no local body having responsibility.
I predict very controversial times ahead, as more cases emerge of the DfE and MATs proposing school closures, and local communities then protest in despair that they have little or no influence over the process.
Yes, local authorities have always had to close some schools. But there will always be institutional pressure on them from their communities not to do so. This is not the case with the MAT/DfE set-up.
There is one final aspect to consider.
6 Once a school opts for academy status, it is irreversible
Act in haste, repent at leisure. There is no going back later, even if a MAT runs into trouble; essentially, as mentioned, the school has entered a world where all decisions will ultimately rest with the MAT board and/or the RSC.
Some local authorities are actively pushing schools towards academy status, and this will no doubt complicate matters. But where a school is successful, and backed by a supportive local authority, there is no doubt in my mind that staying there is just about the safest place to be, in what are very unstable times for state education in England.