'I hear too many stories of teachers being left in tears by academy chain bosses'

24th May 2017 at 15:01
The behaviour of the top dogs in multi-academy trusts is too often erratic. It is becoming increasingly urgent to ask who is overseeing them, writes one teachers’ leader

Is it becoming acceptable for chief executive officers of multi-academy trusts (MATs) to go around their schools shouting at school leaders and teachers?

I ask this because, over the course of the last two weeks, I have heard three stories of bullying and intimidating behaviour by three CEOs.

One, I was told, strode around his schools, with the school leader in tow, barging into classrooms and shouting at teachers in front of pupils. It was not uncommon, apparently, to have teachers in tears while in the middle of a lesson, with the pupils rallying round with tissues and support, assuring their teachers they are doing a good job.

While this behaviour might be a ruse to improve pupil/teacher relations in the MAT, I doubt it somehow...

Then I talked to a trainee teacher. Highly qualified, with an MSc in mathematics, and keen to follow his long-held vocation to teach, he was taking leave of absence from his training year. Signed off with stress, he told me that he was afraid to go back to school, not because of any interaction between himself and the CEO, but because of behaviour he had witnessed by this CEO towards other teaching staff.

That behaviour regularly included shouting and humiliating teachers when they crossed his path. (This is a potential maths teacher, let me remind you, whose subject knowledge should be valued like gold dust, who may well leave teaching before he has even started, so shocked is he by the unprofessional and nasty behaviour he has witnessed.)

'Who is guarding the guardians?'

And then I talked to a female teacher in her 30s who told me that she would not be applying to go to the top of the upper pay range (UPR3), which is for experienced teachers whose work has a school-wide impact, because the CEO in her school, when he deigned to drop in, targeted UPR3 teachers for particular bouts of nastiness. He asked them – again in front of pupils – to demonstrate why they should be paid so much. (This from someone paid many multiples of the teachers he is intimidating and bullying.)

Now, I am sure that this type of CEO behaviour is rare – but three examples in two weeks makes me think that this may be a small but growing problem. Is it the case that rising numbers of CEOs are getting away with appalling treatment of school staff?

And it makes me ask: who is guarding the guardians?

Where are the safeguards for school leaders and teachers against CEO bullying? Who is holding CEOs to account for the often hugely-inflated salaries that they are paid? And what, exactly, is it that they do?

There are no clear answers to these questions. Governing bodies of MATs are charged with holding the CEO to account. Too often, however, governors lack the necessary information, or the professional skills in evaluating the performance of senior staff, to hold CEOs to account. And, in the absence of proper checks and balances, some very poor employment practice can emerge.

My union, ATL, has consistently argued that there needs to be a serious look by the School Teachers’ Review Body into effective structures for school leadership. What is it that CEOs should do? And what should school leaders working within a MAT, and under the direct line management of a CEO, do?

For example, is it the CEO or the school leader who is responsible for the standards of pupil achievement in the school?

Living in fear

In too many cases, I fear that the answer to this crucial question is unclear. This is a massive problem, because what is the CEO or the school leader for if not to raise standards of teaching and learning for pupils?

And how can this happen if teachers and school leaders spend their professional lives in fear of arbitrary, unchecked and intimidating behaviour by those who should know much better?

As the English state education system fragments, splintering into MATs of varying size and effectiveness, the Department for Education continues to struggle to exercise proper national control of school spending and standards. The Education Select Committee recently published a report into MATs which raised key issues about effective governance.

In particular, the MPs on the committee were worried about the lack of clarity about the relationship between the governing body of individual schools and the board of its MAT trust. Which body – that of the MAT or the school – has power over what? And what should be done if there are disagreements between the two, as has recently occurred?

And how much do these added layers of leadership, at school and MAT level, cost? What percentage of a school’s budget should be held centrally by the MAT? What economies of scale are possible in hundreds of MATs of different sizes? What capacity do they have to liaise with other MATs in the procurement of services and supplies to secure the £3 billion of efficiency savings which the current Government is relying upon to balance education spending in schools in England?

And finally, what evidence is there that MATs raise educational standards? The research thinktank, the Education Policy Institute, compared the performance of MATs with local authority schools, finding: “Taken in aggregate, there is not substantial or consistent evidence for MATs being more effective than local authorities.”

Which, given the current direction of travel to more and ever larger MATs, is a bit of a worry, isn’t it?

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

For more columns by Mary, visit her back catalogue.

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