'Short on political cover, the MAT system already looks vulnerable'

The negative headlines just keep on coming for the multi-academy trust system. How long before a politician decides enough is enough?

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Another week, another scandal lands slap-bang in the middle of the academies system.

This week, it’s news that the troubled Wakefield City Academies Trust had requested that it be allowed to, um, drop all its schools. Education, which one might have assumed was its raison d’etre, isn’t really its thing, it turns out.

This comes hot on the heels of the stunning news that the directors of a medium-sized multi-academy trust (MAT) in Kent and Sussex have decided that they really can’t do their jobs without a top-of-the-range Beamer.

All this, and we’re only in the second week of the school year.

The summer, however, didn’t provide any let-up in the political crossfire. It featured former schools minister Lord Adonis having a not-unreasonable pop at Mat boss pay – yes, Sir Dan Moynihan and your £420,000 per annum, I’m looking at you – and the never-ending conveyor belt of regional schools commissioners (RSCs) resigning to go and work for one of the chains they were supposed to be overseeing.

And that’s before we have a look at the mysterious vanishing of pupils off rolls, the related-party indiscretions and all the other “issues” that keep cropping up. These even include the occasional academy head going to the slammer.

Here’s the thing. Many MATs are brilliant. Many have broken the mould in terms of what is possible. Many have injected new life into the education ecosystem.

But that doesn’t mean the structure is not ripe for reform. The government may still be a dark shade of blue, but that doesn’t mean that the MAT system – which was reverse-engineered long after widespread academisation was out of the trap – isn’t in political hot water.

Neither Theresa May nor Justine Greening has any reason to be loyal to the MAT structure: neither was in place when full-scale academisation was rushed through, and neither was there when David Carter and his MAT model was revealed by the DfE, which was under Nicky Morgan’s watch.

Greening seems considerably less interested in structures and considerably more interested in workforce development and funding. And her schools minister Nick Gibb has his hands full keeping the reformed assessment and accountability system from derailing.

Only Lord Nash, also schools minister, a former academy sponsor and a Michael Gove appointee, is providing political cover for the system as it stands. And it’s not much of a secret that he is keen to retire from the DfE sooner rather than later.

The fact is that both May and Greening – May, especially – are risk-averse. And MATs with their oversight model based on the back-of-fag-packet RSCs and stretched Education and Skills Funding Agency are looking very, very politically risky at the moment.

Quite what they might do to mitigate this risk is anyone’s guess (and is likely to be as ad hoc as the RSCs) but there’s a good chance they will do something – especially if Lord Nash goes.

And especially if the terrible newspaper headlines keep coming – and if MAT bosses keep behaving like “masters of the universe”.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes. He tweets @Ed_Dorrell

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