I sat up and took notice when Tes reported last week that around 68,000 traditional school governors had been lost because of more than 5,200 schools now being in multi-academy trusts (MATs). "Traditional" school governors in that they had legal rights and responsibilities when it came to their school. Once a MAT takes over, those rights and responsibilities are whipped away. The legal entity, as Ed Dorrell pointed out in the Tes podcast, is the MAT, not the school.
And so it is that the handful of MAT trustees takes on all those rights and responsibilities, for all those schools in their trust. I wonder how many governors of maintained schools realise this.
The first thought that struck me was: how do these MAT trustees do it? My colleagues and I on the governing board at Hilton Primary School find it an increasingly onerous task, taking up ever more time. Please don't take this as a complaint – every single one of us feels privileged to be in our role and we're determined to do everything we can for this school and its pupils. We love this place and delight in its progress. But there's no denying the increase in workload. We are a substantial governing board of one primary school, albeit a large one. How do nine or 10 volunteers offer the same level of governance to five, 10, 20, 40 schools? Who has the time? Who has all those skills?
To reiterate, the trustees have the same rights and responsibilities, broadly, as maintained school governors. So that's setting the vision, ethos and strategic direction; holding the headteacher to account; financial performance and budget setting; attainment and progress; safeguarding; employment, appraisal, grievance and organisational structure – to name just a few.
The only way it could possibly work is through either a token local representation backed by enforced uniformity and allied to continual excellence – or through schemes of delegation to the schools, where power and responsibility is devolved formally, if not legally. But in the latter case, if the schools remain unique and discrete entities, what is the MAT but a glorified bulk-buying organisation, a mini local authority, a reinvention of the wheel?
Leap of faith
The truth is that joining a MAT voluntarily is a huge leap of faith. It could be the most amazing opportunity, where the MAT's ethos matches your school's and its resources enable your school to expedite and supersize all its ambitions. With so much more capital – both financial and human – at its disposal, joining a MAT could be an absolute game-changer, a high-speed ticket to Outstandingsville.
Equally, you don't have to look far to find schools that have suffered badly at the hands of MATs, such as MATs that have walked off with the schools' cash – except, of course, it isn't the school's cash anymore: as part of a MAT, the school owns nothing – MATS that have presided over disastrously falling standards, MATS that have pushed an overtly religious agenda...
So what can you do if you join and it's not working out? Well, not a lot. The journey from maintained school to academy is a one-way ticket. No pressure, governors, but you're signing your school over for adoption and there's no changing your mind, no going back. You sign over your legal rights, your assets and your future to the MAT. Your school is no longer run by 15 enthusiastic local governors and the SLT, it's overseen by nine people based 40 miles away who have only visited a handful of times.
Even if you and your MAT are a match made in heaven, who's to say things won't change with a change in leadership at the MAT? When you sign up, there's no clause to say that if the MAT's ethical, pastoral, pedagogical or governance stance changes, then you can have your money back and no hard feelings – and it's not like MATs can't fail completely either, as recent evidence demonstrates.
Concerns such as these make this a historic decision for one group of governors to be making at one moment in time. It's a monumentally huge call. Ultimately it's not about objecting to the principle of the MAT system but about the decision governors are being asked to take having so much intrinsic and inviolable uncertainty.
Our governing board has kept its ear to the ground on MATs for some years, but we remain a maintained school at the moment. My colleagues and I love our school and are proud of what we've achieved alongside every single one of our leadership, teaching and non-teaching colleagues. The school is doing well despite having been woefully, painfully underfunded for years. We have a sound vision for how we want our school to be and the opportunities we want our children to have. We know the teachers, we know the children – well, some of them: 850 is a lot – we work very closely with the SLT. We support and we challenge, always with the school's interests at heart. I've been a governor nearly eight years and I know it takes some time to build the relationships, rapport and trust between all parties.
Our governing board has a strong system of committees and working groups, with robust reporting procedures, to ensure we get through all the work. There are plenty of school visits – always a huge pleasure – and plenty of policies and procedures to read. There are meetings, interviews, reports and plans. I suppose a strong scheme of delegation may mean a school's governance model remains, superficially at least, unchanged. However, the security of being a legal entity would still be replaced with the uncertainty of becoming the Damocles to the MAT's Dionysius.
This is not a one-sided story, however. In recent weeks, I've enjoyed speaking with a number of senior MAT figures and have been impressed by their enthusiasm, brilliant ideas, holistic approach and genuine determination to do their best for the children in their schools. Clearly, there are many very good people in good organisations doing excellent things for a lot of children – I do not doubt this for a moment.
However, it feels like we are increasingly faced with a choiceless choice. No, we are not being compelled to join a MAT now. But the direction of travel is unmistakeable. At the moment, local authorities – some, at least – retain a critical mass that allows them to continue to offer a centralised service. So we're OK where we are, but it's unlikely to stay this way. That critical mass is eroding and the erosion means fewer services from the local authorities, making MATs more attractive, meaning more schools leap, the local authorities weaken and so on. You might call it a vicious circle, but sometimes it feels more like the circular saw of progress, edging towards the 007's genitals of the maintained school system. Delaying will only make the process more painful and we might be entirely emasculated.
As a school, it feels like we do it now or we do it when we are forced to further down the line – when all the competitive advantages have been abraded away by this becoming the dominant model, when our bargaining power is zilch.
We are standing at the edge of a cliff. The view is beautiful – below, it looks like the land of milk and honey and there is sunshine as far as the horizon. Standing with us are 850 children, all our teaching and non-teaching staff and every child in the area who is yet to come to school in the approaching decades. If we jump, they come too. But there's no safety harness, no parachute, no way back – and no telling if the view is a mirage. Amid this heady mix of opportunity, uncertainty and irrevocability, should we jump?
Nick Campion is a parent governor and co-vice-chair of governors at Hilton Primary School, Derbyshire