Having opened 36 schools within a year of its foundation in 1873, the Girls’ Day School Trust is one of Britain’s oldest school chains.
But today, with multi-academy trusts (MATs) increasingly seen as the fashionable solution to school improvement, its leader believes that you can have too much of a good thing.
Helen Fraser, chief executive of the GDST, has used a TES interview to warn against the dangers of chains overexpanding and losing their ability to “manage and inspire” schools.
Groups needed to “think carefully” when considering taking on more schools, she said, arguing that there was a “human brain limit” to how many institutions a trust could focus on at any one time.
The comments from Ms Fraser – who will retire from the GDST in August after six years in charge – come after Ofsted criticised two large academy chains, E-Act and the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), over low standards.
AET – the biggest academy chain in England – had cut the number of schools it ran from 77 to 68 in 2014, after earlier criticism from the inspectorate. Its website now lists 67.
“I think when I see a chain that is 70 schools, I wonder how one can really monitor and manage the individuals,” Ms Fraser said. “You can obviously manage the data really well but school leadership is really important.”
She insisted that in her own group – which includes 24 independent girls’ schools and two state-funded academies – the relationship between the executive and headteachers was “unbelievably important”.
“I would find it very hard to see how we could do that if we are three times the size,” Ms Fraser added.
Asked about what she would consider to be a general limit for the size of academy chains, she stressed that it would all depend on the geographical location of a chain’s schools, as well as the size of the MAT’s management operation.
Ofsted’s last annual report found that the MATs that were performing less well did not have “a clear rationale” for the schools that they selected or a clear strategy for creating “coherent geographical clusters”.
Ms Fraser said: “I think there is a sort of human brain limit – how many individual parts of an organisation can you hold in your head at the same time?
“It’s a bit like a commercial company looking at how many operating companies it has, and you need to be able to focus on all of them and not suddenly find that you’ve completely forgotten [something.]”
The chief executive said that chains should “think carefully” before increasing their size: “You just need to think, have you got the structure and the manpower to really manage and inspire those schools?”
Ms Fraser also used the wide-ranging interview to speak out on the importance of reading for teenagers (see box, below) and to sing the praises of the move back to “linear” GCSE and A-level courses this year.
She said that former education secretary Michael Gove’s decision to ditch modules would get rid of “the whole drag and drop mentality” towards learning, which meant young people were studying content early on in the course that they never had to visit again.
“What you had was universities saying they had maths students who had enormous gaps in their brain because at no point had everything been pulled together holistically and examined”, she said.
Latin trains the brain
The chief executive also backed the emphasis on grammar in the new primary curriculum. “I think that understanding the building blocks of your language is incredibly important,” she said. “Being able to write complex sentences with subclauses actually helps with higher-order thinking – it’s hard to do it if you don’t have those building blocks.”
And she argued that Latin could also have a key role to play at primary level: “I think Latin in primary schools is a fantastic help with that because it makes it so clear how sentences are put together. I’m a big fan of Latin and Classics generally – it’s the most amazing training for the brain. It’s brilliant.”
For more on multi-academy trusts, see the feature on pages 26-34
Why parents should read aloud to teenagers
Parents should read weighty Victorian novels to their teenagers to help them develop “intellectual stamina” in the era of social media, Helen Fraser tells TES.
Enabling young people to access books such as Bleak House and Great Expectations can counterbalance the effects of apps such as Snapchat, which have reduced people’s attention spans, according to Ms Fraser, a former managing director of Penguin Books.
Once young people have been helped through the “slow” initial chapters, they are usually able to enjoy the novel on their own, says Ms Fraser, who was 2014 chair of judges for the Baileys (formerly Orange) Women’s Prize for Fiction.
“The one thing I think parents can do – Victorian novels start slowly, they don’t get you into the plot on page one, so actually read aloud to children, right into their teenage [years],” she says. “These ‘tough’ books are an antidote to short attention spans. It’s a counterbalance to that, it’s all about building up intellectual stamina.”
Reading to children as they grow older is also important to help counteract the “dropping off” in reading that is common around age 14, she says.