Whoever would have thought that we would return to a day when schools were so dependent on a local authority that any budgetary decision – from staffing to loo rolls – would require sign-off from on high?
And yet this incredible situation is precisely where some schools tied into multi-academy trusts find themselves.
E-Act, for example, is typical of the growing number of such organisations that pool individual school budgets, inviting schools to set out their wish-list for spending before deciding what they can each have.
(Quite what the school governors’ role in the process is remains unclear – although it’s worth remembering that in 2016 E-Act looked to abolish the governors’ function altogether.)
Back to the future
This pooling of budgets and then forcing schools to act as supplicants for what they need is an accelerating trend: one thinktank reported recently that, in a survey of MATs, more than a third either had this process or were actively thinking about it.
I have even heard of one MAT asking each school to save £5,000 – presumably as a “clawback” to pay for bad central budgetary control.
This really is a case of “back to the future”. It is deeply reminiscent of the worst of old-style LEAs, which often prided themselves on having one sub-committee acting as the governing body for all their primary schools.
The CEO or his – they were all males – staff decided where teachers taught and how much would be spent in each school on books, materials and lavatory rolls. When I first wrote an article in 1979 advocating that every school should have its own governing body, my contemporaries made me a pariah.
So when the Local Management of Schools reforms emerged in the late 1980s, I was delighted they required by law that schools have both budgetary freedoms and their own governors. These advances in school autonomy are now being put at risk by the behaviour of a small but growing number of MATs, which appear unwilling either to be open about individual school budgets or to content themselves with a percentage top-slice (say 3-4 per cent). Headteachers within these MATs are not in a position to protest, particularly if they don’t have the support of a governing body with proper powers.
No democratic restraint
Before widespread academisation, at least the elected councillors brought the “bright light of ordinariness” to illuminate bad practices by overmighty officers. No such democratic restraint exists in the world of MATs, where the danger is that some are guilty of paternalism or nepotism. Moreover, Department for Education officials seem content to overlook such considerations in the interests of “what works”. Yet surely by now they have had their fingers burned by financial mismanagement in MATs enough times to be a rather more fussy?
It is time for Justine Greening, who shows a welcome willingness to look at matters afresh, to ask her officials to consult and set out statutory requirements for MATs analogous to those governing local authorities. If she decides against, there is a real danger that in the helter-skelter of expansion, reminiscent of the wild west, MATs will ape the dodgy practices of the worst in the private sector rather than comply with the best conventions of public service organisations.
Our children and their families deserve the highest standards of probity in their schooling.
Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London