Time to move on from the "top down" or "bottom up" debate: multi-academy trusts (MATs) should give serious attention to collaborative standardisation.
Accountability and autonomy can be a hot topic for a principal who has moved from being head of a standalone academy to one that is now in a MAT. On the one hand, they are still the leader of their school, and responsible to their students, community and teachers for all that happens in it. On the other, the MAT CEO is now the most senior executive, accountable to their Board and the DfE for results as well as finances, and there may be more than one layer of executive leadership between the CEO and the school.
As James Toop, Chief Executive of Ambition School Leadership explains, “This is a key issue that comes up for CEOs of growing trusts on our Executive Educators programme and in our research. At some point in their growth, MATs have to agree what they will align around and when. Some set the standardisation parameters early so that new schools joining the trust are clear on what they are joining, whereas others wait until there are more schools in the trust and standardise then.”
It can feel, though, as if there has to be a trade-off between autonomous schools, and a strong MAT HQ. But my contention is that this viewpoint – in which a MAT gains power only if an academy loses it – is an avoidable distraction, if instead a MAT focuses on collaborative standardisation.
This practice is highly visible in the context of Outwood Grange Academies Trust. There is, famously, a strong "80/20" principle in play – that is, 80 per cent of what is done in a school is standardised, and 20 per cent is left to local innovation.
All schools use the same exam boards, have the same structure for principal, vice- and assistant-principal roles (related to Professor David Hargreaves' "Deeps" – deep learning, deep support, deep experience and deep leadership). They use the same approach to regarding good behaviour and good engagement with learning, and the same approach to intervention. They share a common school day and week.
All of this has obvious benefits – teacher collaboration is facilitated by having the same time available across schools for professional meetings, using the same nomenclature, and capturing and analysing information on the same systems. Teachers and leaders can move quite seamlessly from one school to another. This could run the risk of feeling very top-down, but for the principals and teachers that I have spoken to, it doesn’t, because all of these approaches are decided, reviewed, and adjusted through a collaborative process. It is a collective view of best practice that is being applied, not one person’s. This has the benefit of being dynamic: if a better approach comes along – say, Shanghai Maths – then after discussion and testing, this becomes the new standard, the new practice across the whole trust.
I recently saw similar developments in Ormiston East, which has had specific support from Ormiston’s central team to accelerate progress in raising the quality of teaching and learning for all students, while holding true to Ormiston’s core values of being inclusive, community-based schools. Streamlined and sharper governance aims to reduce burdens on principals, provide clear and timely information to the MAT board, and help to make sure that each forum (local governing bodies, school leaders and teachers, and trustees) are playing to their strengths.
At the heart of the approach, "Raising Achievement Groups" bring teachers and leaders together to use data and discussion to understand progress for students, and to agree action, with a sharp and detailed focus on subjects, curriculum and pedagogy. Professional dialogue is supported by the move to a common set of exam boards, alongside enhanced data analytics and reporting. This seems to me to contain many of the same features of collective standardisation that can be found in OGAT, despite the two MATs being very different in many other ways.
Collaborative standardisation is much more than a way to move on from the “80/20 or 20/80?” debate. It is an engine for raising standards and meeting the needs of all students. The MAT CEO can assure the board that he/she has the levers to be responsible, as well as accountable, for success, but within a highly distributive structure that can unleash professional expertise. Financial and support services, as well as academic, will benefit from this approach, allowing control of costs and service quality so that educational staff get the best support.
There are, in my view, some conditions for success of collaborative standardisation:
- It is vital that it is good and best practice which is standardised – thought needs to be given to how this is ensured.
- Some practice is only good in its context – for example, pedagogy that is specific to the subject and stage of learning. But be wary of allowing contextual difference to be the barrier to all standardisation.
- Collaborative standardisation of subject pedagogy is difficult in a MAT with a single school in each phase (although there may be cross-phase collaborative opportunities, and for sharing practice between special and mainstream schools); and difficult for schools where teachers can’t easily meet to share planning and practices, although technology has a role to play in overcoming distance.
- There is quite a difference between an informal invitation to teachers to find ways to share practice, and a structured approach to ensuring that this happens. It is possible that good intentions from MATs to avoid being prescriptive will result in woolly and burdensome additional processes, rather than creating something new and streamlined.
- And having said all of this, the MAT should consider that, as Martyn Oliver, CEO of Outwood Grange Academies Trust puts it, “just because it can be standardised it doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be”. At the heart of every decision is the self-evident truth that you should only intervene to improve outcomes for children.
I would acknowledge that this approach is not the only way. Other MATs focus on very strong investment in increasing the professional capacity of academies to enhance their autonomous performance – through for example strong input to local governance capacity, and the development and support to senior leaders and teachers. Even within this approach, though, I sense that as MATs mature, they identify more areas where a collaborative approach to identifying and sharing excellence can be applied, and underpinning systems of information and support that need to be standardised to ensure success.
As the EPI and others have noted, MATs in general are not yet making the difference to academic and financial improvement that is intended. I believe that the design and high quality implementation of systems to support collaborative standardisation should be given serious consideration.
Chris Kirk is an experienced education leader