Shining examples, but no gold medals for MAT-land

6th May 2016 at 00:00

So the government has decided, in its wisdom, to force all schools to become academies. Even as someone who is an ardent cheerleader for academies, it’s hard not to think that the Department for Education has picked an unnecessary fight, as the move to full academisation – ghastly phrase – was happening anyway.

But having got itself into this hole, and by refusing to back down, where does the DfE go? Let’s just assume, that by some miracle, the government manages to get the legislation through Parliament. What then?

We’ll have shiny new legislation. But what we won’t necessarily have is the means to make it so in the way that the government intends: in other words, that by compelling full academisation – there it is again – our schools will be transformed overnight – suddenly, the UK is top of the pile, shaming the Shanghais of this world in the Pisa tables.

But we all know that’s not how it works. Heads know that. Teachers know that. Even – let’s be generous – the DfE knows that. What it will come down to is whether multi-academy trusts (MATs) are up to the task of transforming base metal into gold.

Let’s consider that for a moment. Cast your eye around MAT-land. What is immediately apparent is that all MATs were not created equal. Even without considering smaller MATs (which, let’s be honest, aren’t really MATs anyway, but more soft groupings or federations of schools), the picture is one of abject mixed ability.

Typically heralded as the high performers, you have Ark and Harris. Undeniably, on one level, both do an extremely good job. But, like some sort of Franco-German alliance in the EU, they repeatedly say “non” and “nein” to any suggestion that they might, y’know, want to spread their largesse elsewhere in the country.

They shrug off any questions of moral duty to extend their educational beneficence to – just to pick a part of the country at random – the North, for instance. If, like Ark, I had the deep pockets of hedge funds on my board, I think I would be trying a damn sight harder to press the moral argument. Or, indeed, if I had a carpet giant behind me (oh, the irony of this, when Harris pretty much treat everybody else like doormats) I’d feel compelled to reinvest my enormous wealth outside of the M25.

Perhaps they have been scared off by the fate of the AETs and the E-ACTs of this world, which, having flown too close to the sun with their hubris aflame, have come plummeting back down to earth. Together, they have forged the golden rule that big is bad. Writ large: BIG is BAD.

But what’s this? There is a young pretender on the scene that goes by the bizarre name of Reach2 (what is the “2” for? Where is 1, or 3 for that matter?) Having emerged out of nowhere, this new kid on the block is already one of the largest chains in the country. The sun shines on them at the moment, but those of us who have been around for a little bit longer nod knowingly from the sidelines.

Others have taken a more righteous path, and have God on their side – the likes of Oasis and Cast in Plymouth. With the Almighty backing you, surely anything is possible? But wherefore art thou in the blessed summer months when results start to come through?

Our roll call would not be complete without mention of Perry Beeches in Birmingham, and the sad and parlous state of affairs there.

It is hard, if not impossible, to point to shining role models in MAT-land. We are but a rum bunch of flawed organisations: some of us do some things extremely well, but not one of us has yet cracked the model in its entirety. As things stand, there is no first amongst equals and, with the government still hell-bent on pursuing “academies for all, not the few”, that is what should worry Nicky Morgan the most.

The Secret CEO is the chief executive of a MAT somewhere in England

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