I do not recognise the picture painted of our school system by the UCL Institute of Education research reported in the Observer yesterday.
It is certainly the case that economic and regulatory frameworks are putting huge pressure on schools and trusts. But I do not recognise all of the behaviours described in the IoE’s statements in the Observer about its research.
The research report is not yet available but the headlines make a number of claims which may be substantiated in some areas among some schools, but by no means all. It is worth remembering that this research is based on four localities – two of which have a low density of academies and multi-academy trusts.
The report in the Observer says that the language of the "self-improving, school-led system" is an idealised account benefiting higher-performing schools. I am simply not persuaded by this.
Take the example of some of our most successful trusts – they take on schools in the most challenging circumstances (in areas where generations of children have been failed by the education system), and turn them around. They create schools of which local parents and communities are proud. This is certainly true of Outwood Grange Academies Trust and the Harris Federation, but it is also true of small and medium-sized trusts. In fact, the IoE research cites evidence that pupils in smaller MATs (those with two or three academies) tended to perform better than in comparator schools.
Of course, the Observer article also claims that pupils in larger MATs (those with 16-plus schools) did worse, particularly in secondary schools. I have yet to see the data that supports this claim, but it is certainly true that we can deal with failure in the system now in a way that we could not previously. This seems an important and overlooked point.
The article also describes recent cases of what it calls "corruption" in MATs. I have previously been a local authority chief education officer. Unfortunately, I know first-hand that there are sometimes cases of wrongdoing. This is true for local authority maintained schools and it is true for multi-academy trusts. I am certainly not defending this. And we have systems in place to deal with the very small number of instances of corruption. I wish we didn’t have to deal with cases of fraud and wrongdoing, but we do. The point is that this is not an exclusive feature of multi-academy trusts.
It may be true, as the research claims, that the system is more fragmented now. I’d like to propose that we are in the middle of a half-reformed system. The response to this fragmentation, I believe, is for all schools to be in a strong and sustainable group. It is unlikely that any political administration will now act on what Steve Munby calls the "voluntary but inevitable principle" that schools should group together. So we must.
In truth, the multi-academy trust is just a legal vehicle. Much is claimed both by detractors and supporters of MATs – but in the end, the MAT is simply a legal vehicle. The fact that local authorities have retracted and many have abandoned the school improvement space means that it is now more important than ever that schools collaborate in strong and sustainable structures to form deep partnerships.
'Don't abandon academies reforms'
Are we there yet? No, we are certainly not. A fact that this research makes clear. But this is not a reason to abandon what might be achieved if we could take our half-reformed system to a logical conclusion.
So this is a call to action. Let’s stop the endless fault-finding, the pernicious antiphony of detractors and supporters, and start working on building a great education system together.
As for the narrative of forcing schools to become academies on the premise that they will be freed from red tape, I am not sure this is accurate either. It is true that some schools are required to join a trust if they have been judged to require special measures. But, in this instance, they are certainly not being freed from red tape. They are being supported to improve.
The Observer article says “one bad Ofsted report and a school can be removed from its local governing body and handed to a multi-academy trust – after which the school ceases to exist as a legal entity”.
This is a fundamental misunderstanding of a multi-academy trust. The schools in the trust are, in fact, the legal entity. Unlike local authorities, there is no quasi-separate structure – an "authority", This is about a group of schools working together as a single entity.
The Observer article goes on to talk about providers and markets. Let me be clear. Academy and multi-academy trusts are not businesses operating in markets. They are first and foremost charities with a single charitable object – the advancement of education in the public interest.
At the legal and ethical heart of all academy trusts is this single charitable object – this core moral purpose: the advancement of education in the public interest.
If it is the case that some leaders are putting market positions above pupil interest or professional values, then this is a direct contravention of the charitable object – and, if true, it would be a serious infraction of their obligations under charity law. But, frankly, I do not believe this is the case. I continue to believe that the leaders of our education system are made of stronger moral fibre.
So rather than applying theories of marketisation and market forces, let’s reclaim our moral purpose and build an excellent education system in England – one that ensures education is and remains a public good.