Fresh concerns about the government’s vision of a schools system led by large academy chains have been raised by new major research, the leader of one of England’s biggest education providers and a senior Department for Education official.
They warn, independently of each other, that the sweeping changes to school organisation planned by the DfE could hamper results and lead to large chains of academies working in isolated “silos”.
The government’s ambition is for every state school to become an academy, with most operating within multi-academy trusts (MATs), which will be expected to grow to take in at least 10 schools.
But TES can reveal that an academic study, assessing the impact of MATs on pupil outcomes, shows that it is small MATs of two to three schools, rather than large chains, that have a positive impact.
Meanwhile, Roger Pope, the chair of the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) – an executive agency of the DfE – is fearful that many MATs will end up becoming “silos” that do not help any schools outside of their own chain.
And Steve Munby, a former NCTL chief now heading the Education Development Trust, which runs its own MAT, has expressed similar concerns that chains will work in isolation.
The new warnings follow Sir Michael Wilshaw’s condemnation of the vast majority of MATs as “mediocre” last week. The Ofsted chief inspector also criticised the swift expansion of the country’s worst performing chains.
“They had what I called a Walmart philosophy,” he told the Commons Education Select Committee. “You know, pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. It was empire-building rather than having the capacity to improve these schools.”
Now Toby Greany, a professor at the UCL Institute of Education, has revealed that his research suggests that the DfE strategy of encouraging MATs to take on more schools could be misguided.
“One of the findings is that it seems to be the small MATs – two- or three-school MATs – over a three-year period that are consistently making a positive impact on outcomes,” he said.
“The bigger trusts, not so. The bigger you get, the less clear that is.”
He said that the results of his research, which originally began 18 months ago and includes a survey of 1,000 schools, made sense “because the road that is careful, managed, allows deep partnership between schools, makes a difference”.
However, Professor Greany told headteachers at last week’s Inspiring Leadership conference that the data from his study had also found that some bigger trusts could make a positive difference.
“It is not to say you can’t grow,” he said. “It’s just making sure that everything you do is sustainable, careful and thoughtful.”
Expanding ‘too quickly’
But the academic also said that the need for financial viability was pushing MATs to expand “faster arguably than you may be able to do”.
In evidence submitted to Parliament, the DfE says that MATs begin to enjoy their full benefits when they reach 10-15 schools.
“Over time, we expect there to be many more MATs of this size, and we will therefore encourage and support MATs to grow,” the DFE says.
In March, education secretary Nicky Morgan said that the government was placing “a premium on the growth of multi-academy trusts – because they allow for strong governance, sharing of resources, true collaboration and better opportunities for staff development”.
But one of her key officials is fearful that MATs could actually end up hindering collaboration between schools. “I see an important job for teaching schools going forward as providing the kind of overarching links and bridges between academy trusts,” Mr Pope, who also runs a MAT, told the Inspiring Leadership conference.
“Without that, the danger is that MATs just become silos – focused inwards on their own schools and not worried about anybody else outside.”
His warning was echoed by Mr Munby at the same event, when he said: “My worry is that instead of having isolated autonomous schools, we will have isolated autonomous MATs.”
National schools commissioner Sir David Carter said: “MATs play a vital and increasingly important role in the school system.
“They are enabling schools to come together formally to drive up standards, share resources and staff expertise and, in many cases, act as sponsors and turn around the performance of schools that have been struggling for some time.
“As well as working with schools within the trust, an increasing number of MATs are stepping up to play a wider role in the system.
“I see more and more examples of high-quality MAT to MAT collaboration…and as the system matures, this will become normal practice between trusts.”
MATs can quickly lose the public’s trust, says professor
The Dutch education system contains a warning against the growth of multi-academy trusts in England, according to Professor Toby Greany (pictured, below) from the UCL Institute of Education.
The academic found that school boards in the Netherlands have “almost identical legal similarities” to MATs.
And since the structures were introduced there decades ago, there has been “a loss of trust and legitimacy in the eyes of the public and teachers” and a “credibility crisis”, his research found.
Professor Greany is concerned that there could be a similar loss of confidence in the English system of MATs, and he argues that trust is one of the biggest challenges it faces.
He warned that “the legitimacy of the whole framework could come crashing down” if the public perception of academy chains worsens.
“A view among many school leaders and teachers is that often MATs, rightly or wrongly, are perceived to be ruthlessly playing the game in ways that are not necessarily in the interests of children,” Professor Greany said.
“There is a perception that if we get taken over by a MAT then we will be told what to do, have no control and no autonomy. I don’t think all MATs are doing that but if we don’t address these perception issues, then we are in trouble.”
He cited a YouGov poll from March, which showed that only 25 per cent of the general public supported academies, compared with 40 per cent in 2011.