All schools should operate in groups because there are not enough “outstanding” headteachers, according to England’s national schools commissioner.
Frank Green, appointed by ministers to head their academies and free schools programme, has also warned that free schools will struggle to survive in isolation.
“I don’t think any school should be an academy on its own,” he told a conference in London last week. “I think we should always put them into groups.”
Mr Green’s vision would mean a huge rearrangement of the schools system and a change in government policy.
He told TES that no more than a third of academies were currently in formal multi-school groupings and a quarter of new free schools approved by ministers would operate without being part of multi-academy trusts.
But Mr Green argued that staying outside of larger groupings would threaten their very existence. “I think as free schools develop, particularly if they are only small, they will find it difficult to survive on their own,” he said.
The former academy chain chief executive said he had been convinced of the need for schools to operate in federations after coming across government research and Ofsted findings that showed only a third had leaders that were “outstanding”.
“So my simple engineering mind said, 'I know the simple solution now to the education problem',” Mr Green told a Westminster Education Forum event last week.
“We have got to put one outstanding headteacher in charge of every three schools, three schools at a time, and we will get outstanding education.
“As you know, life isn’t that simple. But we do have to do something like that and that is the purpose of federations and groups of schools.”
Mr Green's call comes after Ofsted's chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, told TES last month that he wanted all schools to be forced by law to join a cluster or a federation in a bid to drive up standards.
“If I were secretary of state, I would use legislation to compel all schools to join clusters, organised either by local authorities or by these new regional commissioners,” Sir Michael said.
Mr Green said the need to share headteachers was about to become more acute, particularly for small primary schools, as budgets were squeezed.
“I think for some of our rural schools, as money gets tighter over the next five years – as it will regardless of who wins the election – how are we going to provide the education in the villages and the small villages?
“We can’t do it if everyone’s got to have their own outstanding headteacher.”
He added: “Can we get it so that effectively one outstanding headteacher is running three schools each? That is where we have got to get to. Then we will have solved the problem of a tail in our education system. That’s what it’s all about.”
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union said: “I certainly agree that every school should be in a group. But I don’t think that’s because there are not enough outstanding headteachers to go around.
“It is because good people are better when they work with others. I really do think this government got it the wrong way round in the sense of them pushing autonomy on to schools and then hoping they would collaborate.
“What they should have done is push collaboration and they would have found them demanding autonomy as a result of that.
“Allowing lots of small schools to spin themselves off independently is going to be a very risky strategy because they do need to be in groups.”
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