The government’s vision for the future of the school system in England was unveiled in the recent White Paper. Following the enforced diminution of the role of local authorities after more than a century of largely positive influence on education, there seemed to be nothing between the individual school and the Department for Education and its new agents, the eight regional school commissioners. This was clearly unsustainable in a country with a population of well over 50 million.
So the search has been on for an effective middle tier – a mediating layer considered in international work to be critical to successful system performance.
Various proposals have been made, but the government has opted for multi-academy trusts, a fancy term for chains of academies operating in a “self-improving school system”. Although the great majority of existing chains have six academies or fewer, the government wants all chains to have at least 10 schools, in order to benefit from the economies of scale. While standalone academies will still be allowed, this is not the preferred model. With all schools required to become academies by the end of 2022, and none any longer maintained by a local authority, the government wants most to join or form chains.
High-street chain stores
Think of a high street, where a large proportion of the shops belong to chains of varying sizes. There are a few niche independents, but they are frowned upon by the planning authorities who think that customers get a better service when shops are in chains that give them strong back-up support.
That is in essence the government’s plan for the corporatisation of the school system. It is deeply ironic, since Tony Blair championed the original academies set up by the Labour government in the 2000s as “independent state schools”. His vision for them was based on his experience of – and veneration for – the uniquely British model of the fee-charging public school, an institution running itself with minimal regulation and responsible mainly to its owner or trustees.
The MAT concept is quite different from this. In fact, it probably offers individual schools less independence and autonomy than at any time in the history of English state education. After all, most high-street chains accord rather limited discretion to their individual units.
The future is competitive
The approach is strongly advocated by the right-leaning thinktank the Centre for Market Reform in Education, which promotes the importance of competition in schooling. Reviewing research on school-to-school collaboration, it has argued that the only form of collaboration likely to be fruitful for school improvement is that arising from corporate structures such as MATs: “While many in the profession may resist it, the future of school collaboration is, in fact, competitive and corporate.”
So how is this new world of corporate schooling likely to fare? Well, first we need to understand the expected scale of the operation. Sir David Carter, the new national schools commissioner, told a conference ahead of the White Paper’s publication that 1,000 new trusts, each responsible for at least 10 academies, would be required by 2020.
As of last July, there were just 39 trusts with more than 10 academies. So the new middle tier will comprise over 1,000 separate units – a highly fragmented and disparate layer.
Each new trust will need a chief executive, and heads of some of the largest chains now have salaries in the range of £150,000-£225,000. While such salaries may be appropriate for the level of responsibility, how could paying bosses of more than 1,000 trusts possibly be affordable, even assuming that enough high-quality leaders could be found for them? It appears certain to be a highly inefficient and costly structure, and a misuse of public money at a time of such stringency.
Then there is the issue of chain performance. Studies of existing MATs, conducted for the Sutton Trust, have shown that there is enormous variation between chains, and that a majority have underperformed the mainstream average for their disadvantaged pupils.
Just before the White Paper was published, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Ofsted chief inspector, wrote to Nicky Morgan savagely criticising the performance of some of the larger trusts, and saying that much more needed to be done to reduce the variation in performance between trusts.
Creating so many new ones seems bound instead to increase it. How can the model be vastly scaled up in just a few years in a safe manner if the capacity and quality of many of the existing so-called sponsors – more accurately operators - of chains are a serious concern?
Important as it is, the issue of feasibility shouldn’t obscure the question of whether the corporate model fits public education at all. The White Paper says that academy trusts will be given the freedom not to have to reserve places for elected parents on their governing boards. School governance will become fully skills-based, and it’s entirely up to the central trusts whether to have school-level bodies at all and what delegated functions these can have, if any.
That is exactly in line with the corporate model. Whoever heard of consumers being on the board of a company, or of individual branches having their own distinct boards?
But are pupils and parents simply consumers, buying a service from a chain controlled by a distant head office which is entirely unaccountable to them, with no necessary relationship to their local community and whose only real masters are in central government? This is the fundamental question posed by the government’s proposed switch to widespread corporate schooling.
Ron Glatter is emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University and a visiting professor at the UCL Institute of Education.