Schools have been "swamped" by bureaucracy and centralised management from the Department for Education during the Covid pandemic, the outgoing leader of the country’s biggest primary-only multi-academy chain has said.
Sir Steve Lancashire, the chief executive of REAch2, has used an exclusive Tes interview to call for schools and their leaders to be able to decide how to lead the country’s Covid education recovery effort.
"I'm a big believer that we're the experts in this," he said. "There's a lot of experience, there's a lot of capacity within the sector, and we understand how children and young people learn.
"And we've got years and years of experience of that. And so my hope is that we are allowed to find the solutions ourselves.”
Profile: Sir Steve Lancashire
Sir Steve is to step down from REAch2 next year after 10 years leading the trust.
Schools 'should take the lead in Covid catch-up'
He said: “My experience of the past 18 months is of constant government guidance coming out and it has felt a bit like we are swamped by bureaucracy, by centralised management of schools, and what we have had to do is assert ourselves.
“Actually we are the leaders of our own organisations and we have had to say, 'Yes, we are going to work with the guidance which you are providing,' but what I found as chief executive of REAch 2 is that we have had to take control of our own agenda, because, ultimately, I am the one that is accountable and responsible for 20,000 children.”
Education recovery from the Covid crisis has been a source of major controversy in recent weeks after the government announced a package of measures worth around a tenth of what its own recovery commissioner had wanted to see invested.
The government is now considering the benefits of lengthening the day with a review that will feed into decisions made in the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
Sir Steve told Tes that the government should be looking at a bottom-up, rather than top-down, approach to help pupils recover from the pandemic.
He also said that delays in academic development were only one part of the impact of the pandemic.
“Of course, we're going to need some support from central government, from the Department of Education," he said. "But actually, certainly as far as REAch 2 is concerned, we've developed our own Reach Forward strategy, which is around catch-up, which is around making sure that children get the kind of support, the kind of intervention, the kind of teaching that they need.
"But we very much want to do it in a way which we know works for our school communities, because not all children learn the same way, not all children have the same experience, and we need a sophisticated, bespoke approach to every one of the children in our schools.
"So, what the DfE can do is to make sure that they've got sufficient finances, sufficient resources, for us to do that, but I very much hope that they allow us to develop the recovery programme ourselves.”
MAT leader backs plan for full academisation
Sir Steve also gave his backing to education secretary Gavin Williamson's goal of moving more schools into multi-academy trusts by 2025.
"Well I am a MAT leader, so of course I'm going to think it is desirable," said Sir Steve. "And that's not just because personally I believe in academisation. I think it's very much borne out by the experience of the last 18 months and the pandemic.
"I think what we're seeing across the sector is that those schools that have been part of strong multi-academy trusts, and some of the larger multi-academy trusts have really fared better than schools that are either standalone or in smaller groups of schools and federations."
He added: "It's not been easy for anyone, but the kind of collective capacity of the trust, the collaboration of the trust and just general togetherness of being a strong family within the multi-academy trust structure has really fared us well."
Sir Steve added: "I do think it's the right way to go. What I would like to see is a really firm timescale on that. And I think that [moving all schools into trusts] would be achievable within the next five years."
A government spokesperson said: “We have committed to an ambitious, and long-term education recovery plan, including an investment to date of over £3 billion and a significant expansion of our tutoring programme, to support children and young people to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.”
“Recovery programmes have been designed to allow early years, school and college leaders the flexibility to support those pupils most in need."