Let’s be clear: the scale of the recent educational and structural failure at Wakefield City Academies Trust was profound. According to an internal report seen by Tes last month, there was “great concern” about its financial position, “inadequate” leadership, a “blame culture” and evidence that the organisation was “run on a basis of ‘fear’”.
To say that this projects the academies and multi-academy trusts system in a poor light would be a massive understatement. And that’s even before you read Will Hazell’s extraordinary story about the financial management of WCAT (bit.ly/WCATfall).
If you add to this the further revelations in today’s magazine about rocketing MAT chief executive pay and any number of high-value related-party transactions, you can see why I was not expecting to write an optimistic editorial.
What knits all these stories together is a drastic failure of governance that any reasonable observer would assume could call into question the entire ramshackle model of MAT management and oversight.
To make matters worse, it appears that both the public and the senior politicians in the Department for Education are running out of patience as the controversies just kept on coming. But now, just when it seems like it might be too late, two developments have given me cause for optimism.
As I’ve written before, the best hope for the MAT model (or the self-improving school system, as its cheerleaders like to call it) will be for the system and its leaders to do it for themselves.
A public voice for MATs
As such, we can only be pleased to hear that the Queen St Group of MAT CEOs last week decided to go public. It is to be hoped that this talking shop becomes more than that and attempts to put some best practice in place around salaries, procurement and governance. A public voice speaking on behalf of MATs wouldn’t go amiss either. Even more pleasing was news of the new Northern Alliance of five prominent academy trusts, which have committed to working together to improve education in the region.
Both developments point to a willingness within MATs to collaborate on some of education’s most troubling problems.
Given that one of the system’s biggest issues has always been suspicion and downright hostility between groups of academies, these are grounds for optimism. There are also noises from the Association of School and College Leaders and the network Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association, both under new leadership, that they want to drive forward a new approach to collaboration.
So, at long last, some of the MAT system’s biggest players appear to be aligned (though it would be nice to see more public leadership from traditional big names, Ark and Harris).
Another reason for a more positive outlook is that MATs and their representatives appear to have a bit of time on their hands. This is mainly because there is little desire – or, indeed, vision – for another wholesale reorganisation of schools. The Tories’ only remaining big educational idea – more grammar schools – is dead in the water, and Labour’s independent-minded shadow education secretary has said more than once that she doesn’t have any appetite for reversing academisation.
So time would appear to be on the side of those who want the slightly under-cooked idea of MATs to be allowed to mature into a fully functional education system.
That is, of course, until another WCAT comes along. One or two more scandals of this scale and demands for wholesale structural change will quickly become an unassailable political movement.
Best not muck about, then: fix the structural problems before subsidence becomes collapse.