The recent report published by the London School of Economics and Matrix Chambers into school autonomy in the multi-academy trust system makes certain assumptions that cannot go unchallenged.
Specifically, there are 10 corrections I would like to offer:
- It is not correct to say that academies are "owned" by "private" trusts. Academy trusts are registered with Companies House, but they are first and foremost charities whose sole charitable object is the advancement of education in the public interest. In the final analysis, academy trusts are simply legal vehicles that enable deep and purposeful collaboration between and among schools.
- It is incorrect to claim that academies are now in "chains". There is no such thing as a "chain" in legal terms. This is simply a nomenclature that has grown up to describe a group of schools. Schools within a MAT are in fact in a charitable trust – not in a "chain". It is true to say that the schools in a trust no longer exist as legal entities – they are in fact part of an organisation established purely for the purposes of education as a public good.
- The report describes the schools within a trust as having less autonomy than they would have had as maintained schools. The whole question of autonomy needs careful thought and analysis. Autonomy should never be exercised as an inalienable right of adults or institutions. It should only ever be practised in the interests of children. The best MATs know and understand this and practise a form of subsidiarity – the exercise of adult and institutional interdependence in the best interests of children and young people.
- The report criticises academy governance. It argues that decisions which, in maintained schools, are taken by governors appointed by an open process through meetings which must be publicised and reported on, are – in academies – now often taken by "trustees", whose appointment remains opaque. This is incorrect. Governors of maintained schools are not appointed through meetings that must be publicised. Two categories of local authority-maintained schools are elected – parent governors and staff governors. Other governors are appointed by the governing board and the process is typically very similar to that in academies. Regulations specify that anyone appointing governors to the governing board must only appoint someone they believe has the skills to contribute to the effective governance and success of the school. Their decisions should be informed by interviews and references and made in light of the skills that governing bodies identify that they need.
- The comparison between the regional schools commissioner (RSC) decision-making process and local authority decision-making process with regard to powers of intervention is incorrect. The report states that these decisions in relation to maintained schools, are taken by local authorities under the oversight of elected local councillors operate in meetings subject to "public participation" obligations. RSCs have powers of intervention, as indeed do local authorities for schools they maintain. But the decision for a local authority to intervene in one its maintained schools is absolutely not taken in meetings subject to public participation. In fact, the statutory power of intervention in local authorities sits with the statutory director of children’s services – not with locally elected councillors and certainly not in meetings subject to public participation.
- It is also not correct to claim that local authorities, which remain under a duty to ensure there are sufficient schools in their areas, have no direct power to do anything about this, given the role played by the RSCs and the free school presumption. There is a specific requirement in free school applications to evidence the need for pupil places in an area. Local authorities can and should work with the local ecology of trusts to establish high-quality educational provision.
- The report correctly states that academies are not required to follow the national curriculum, but it goes on to assert that they are therefore potentially reducing educational opportunities for pupils who attend them. Where is the evidence for this claim? Unevidenced assertions of this kind are potentially misleading and therefore dangerous.
- Likewise, the report states correctly that academies are not required to adhere to the national school teachers’ pay and conditions (although, in fact, most do), but it then goes on to claim that this creates potential impacts on teacher retention in maintained schools. Once again, where is the evidence for this assertion? I do not know of any research that supports this claim.
- The report correctly says that academy trusts must be audited by external auditors. However, it goes on to claim that the accounts themselves do not provide a detailed account of how public money is spent. The report contrasts this with maintained schools. This is completely erroneous and misleading. There is no requirement on maintained schools to publish their accounts or to show how public money is spent. The requirement on academy trusts to be publicly accountable through the publication of their accounts is a form of transparency that has never applied to maintained schools. The transparency issue here is in fact for maintained schools – not for academy trusts.
- I would like to understand the assertion that there is a lack of reliable information about the way in which the academies policy is working. This is, once again, an unevidenced assertion. Which elements of academies policy do the authors believe are unreliable?
I have not dealt here with the policy solutions proposed in the report. The lack of valid and reliable analysis in my view renders the proposed policy solutions implausible.
I am not saying that there are no problems that need our attention. But we do need to build public confidence in our education system through accurate and robust analysis. It is time now for all actors in the system to move away from unsubstantiated rhetoric and work together in the interests of all children to build an outstanding education system in England.
Leora Cruddas is the chief executive officer at Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association (Fasna). She tweets @LeoraCruddas