Last month, Tes featured an important editorial that interrogated the future of the troubled multi-academy trust (MAT) model of school oversight. That this is even in question should cause anyone interested in the state of England’s schools to ask three questions. Firstly, does it make sense for an increasing proportion of England’s schools to be contracted to a single government minister, directly or through MATs? Secondly, how could this defective system be replaced by something better, but without destroying the worthwhile elements of the academy programme? Thirdly, if this was done, which structural problems would remain to be dealt with?
The answer to the first question starts from an understanding that every academy is a government school: created and managed by trustees chosen by a government minister, dependent for its funding on a contract with that minister that, in circumstances determined by that minister, enables the minister to assign that contract to another set of trustees.
The description of these government schools as “independent” derives from the definition of an independent school in Labour’s 2002 Education Act. Any school mentioned in the Act that is funded by the government, rather than a local authority, is defined as an independent school.
The important fact remains that any school funded and created by a government minister is a government school. It has been nationalised. If all schools were to become academised, as some have proposed, the academy programme could, if a secretary of state so decided, also be privatised. A future government minister of another kind might prefer to ensure that only trustees were appointed or retained who were in tune with his or her personal preferences.
The conduct of any future education secretary is unpredictable. That is why any system that depends on decisions made by a single individual is dangerous, as well as undemocratic. England is the only country in Europe unwise enough to allow its schools to be contracted to a government minister in this way.
The faults in the academy programme derive from the confused thinking of Kenneth Baker and Andrew Adonis: the two politicians mainly responsible for creating new kinds of government school.
Both of these Oxford University-educated historians wanted to create trustee-led schools. Kenneth Baker was driven by a desire to develop schools focused on technology; Andrew Adonis wanted enterprising trustees to take over and improve poorly performing schools. These were both excellent ideas. Unfortunately, neither of these historians knew enough history to understand that the trustee-led system they wanted already existed in the form of the voluntary aided (VA) schools created by the 1944 Education Act.
The principal characteristics of VA schools, academies and city technology colleges (CTCs) are close to identical. All are managed by trustees; all appoint their own staff; control their own buildings; use money given to them as they see fit; are free to settle their curriculum and make their own admissions arrangements.
The principal differences are that VA schools need no contract with anyone (their independence is otherwise assured) and, unlike academies, are not subject to intrusions by officials into meetings of their governors. Finally, neither a local authority nor a government minister can close a VA school, but a government minister can close an academy. With permission, a local authority can cease to maintain a VA school, but the trustees retain their premises and can use them as they think fit.
In an uncertain political world, academy trustees might find VA status, which many once had, together with its loose connection with a local authority, rather more secure than their status as government schools.
Oversight remains a structural problem. Contracts give the secretary of state a powerful right to oversee any academy, but regional schools commissioners and their helpers are too busy and too few to deal properly with schools that behave badly.
Fixing the system
So, how can this faulty academy system be changed without adversely affecting a number of excellent academies and well-run MATs? Here are three suggestions.
Local authorities have always known how to control expenditure. They could be made responsible, on behalf of the secretary of state, for ensuring that all academies in their area comply with the myriad financial regulations with which academies are required to comply.
The size of academy chains needs attention. If an academy chain can only manage five or six schools, something is wrong with it. Way back in the 1970s, oversight of some 1,200 schools in London was managed by one person with a staff of about 20. What is a sensible size for academy chain that wants to be able to offer its schools expert help with all of its needs? Lincolnshire Education Development Trust looks after some 370 schools. Is that too big? Perhaps the best academy leaders are responsible for too little rather than too much.
Finally, how about an experiment in devolving some school oversight downwards, and out of the hands of central government? London understands money. An enterprising education secretary could stuff all of London’s academy contracts into a couple of prams and leave them outside the Greater London Authority. The ministerial note on the pram’s pillow would say: “Mr Khan, you have been brokered; so anything that goes wrong from now on is your fault, not mine.”
Now, that would be interesting.
Sir Peter Newsam has formerly held the roles of chief education officer for the Inner London Education Authority, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, director of the Institute of Education, University of London, and chief schools adjudicator