Multi-academy trusts: Welcome to The Godfather, Part IV

Do we have the Mafia in England? Well, says Stephen Petty, there's certainly a 'Mob' amassing serious wealth and power...

Stephen Petty

Still from the film The Godfather

I recently introduced our son to The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. He responded by asking whether the Mafia had ever come to the fore in this country.

Not really, I replied, though I did explain about multi-academy trusts. It’s our own, very English version.

Most of the MAT Dons over here – as opposed to the Mob Dons over there – are perfectly decent, well-intentioned types. They are usually not in the same league as their Italian-based counterparts. The prevailing image is of them shopping at Waitrose, rather than shooting the Sopranos.

Most of them are hopelessly small-time compared, say, with the notorious five families in New York. 

Sometimes a Don in England only “looks after” perhaps one local secondary and a couple of village primaries. But everyone has to start somewhere.   

Serious power and wealth

Some of the country’s most powerful Dons, on the other hand, do now control many schools, across vast swathes of the country. The geography may sometimes appear to be fairly odd, but they are all held together by the classic close-knit familial tie. 

Serious amounts of power and wealth are involved at the top of this particular "cosa nostra". The mere whisper of names like “Reach2”, “The Ark”, “Delta” and “Harris” is enough to bring some of us out in a cold sweat.

Their websites are laden with thinly disguised menace. The mighty “Academies Enterprise Trust” refers darkly to a “golden thread that binds us all together”.  

Other formidable families, like “Kemnal” and “United Learning”, openly declare that they “improve the life chances” of their members – with ominous implications for the life chances of any non-members.  

Swimming with the fishes

Though, in fairness, even these grandest of English Godfathers are nowhere near as ruthless as their counterparts overseas.

The family’s targets are less extreme and ambitious over here. If the Don’s family collectively achieves a decent league-table position, then he is generally happy to leave it at that.

As long as that average Progress 8 score is convincingly positive, no one is going to suffer, and no one will end up sleeping with the fishes (or “off-rolled”, as we sometimes euphemistically call it over here). 

Yes, the occasional Don may sometimes get a bit irate at some of the voices of criticism over the amount of money he earns (it is usually “he” by the way – very few Godmothers), but they rarely retaliate in quite as brutal a way as De Niro, Pacino and company. 

Offers that can't be refused

As far as I know, no MAT chief has ordered the full Don Corleone treatment and left a horse’s head on the bed of any of their more outspoken opponents. So the duvet of ASCL chief Geoff Barton seems safe for now.

Besides, with friends and influence in the highest places, the Dons don’t really need to listen to anyone. From the top down, the growth of academies and multi-academies has always been about making offers that cannot be refused. 

Those who continue to complain about how uneconomic the new set-up is, about the lack of democracy and about the lack of national coordination are all missing the point: it’s not about sensible anymore. 

Bananarama saw it coming years ago: “Robert de Niro’s waiting.” He’s poised to take over us all one day.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams' School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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