This week's research, published by Ambition School Leadership (ASL), shows that there is no blueprint for what makes an effective multi-academy trust (MAT).
Having considered the geographic spread of schools, school type and phase mix within trusts alongside their rate of growth they have concluded that no single characteristic is consistently associated with success.
Perhaps this isn’t at all surprising – because the same is true of schools. There is no single contextual factor that determines success or failure at school-level, no single model of organisation, whether academy or local authority maintained, that promises higher standards than the other. One size does not fit all for schools and neither will it for multi-academy trusts. The research reaches the inescapable conclusion that leadership matters. Relationships matter. Local understanding matters.
What is clear is that effective growth of MATs is not about imposing a one size fits all solution, irrespective of circumstance, through force of will.
What is right for individual schools will vary considerably depending on local need. Instead, effective MAT leaders need to take time to get underneath the context within which the prospective partner school finds itself and build strong relationships with the school and community. Effective MAT growth requires both top-down adaptability and bottom-up commitment.
One without the other is unlikely to be an easy ride, nor is it likely to get you where you need to be.
While the research focuses on characteristics of an effective multi-academy trust, it is timely to consider what the characteristics of an effective academy system might be. Three important aspects spring to mind:
- Concerns regarding blurred accountability to government and the communities that academies serve.
Ofsted recently reiterated their call that they should have powers to inspect multi-academy trusts in the same way as they inspect local authorities. They have a strong case, in the interests of equity, but this might further blur the line between where Ofsted powers end and those of the Regional Schools Commissioner start. We would argue that greater clarity in the roles of those that hold schools to account will be necessary.
Likewise, we’d like to see greater clarity of expectation nationally regarding the importance of local accountability to parents and communities. Public services should be both accountable and responsible to those that they serve. This requires a strong local board, empowered to take real decisions on issues that really matter.
- The exorbitant salaries – in the multiple hundreds of thousands – for a handful of top MAT leaders need to be addressed.
It reinforces the perception of a "wild west frontier", with great riches for the lucky prospector, rather than a mature and effective school system. I struggle to believe that any MAT can be considered truly effective if they pay their leader a salary so far above the norm to suggest that they are irreplaceable – it surely gives little confidence for the sustainability of their success when that individual finally leaves.
- Retaining fluidity of movement within the system and the element of choice. Once a school has joined a MAT, there is no legal provision to allow a school or community to choose to leave.
At the start of the Brexit discussions, I reflected that whilst the UK had the right, through Article 50, to trigger the process of leaving the EU, there was no equivalent provision for academies to leave trusts.
The absence of an established exit route for any school in a trust, other than those deemed failing, must surely be a major barrier to system improvement in the long-term. Without it, once fluid structures risk becoming as fixed as those that they sought to replace. Whereas maintained schools have been able to choose collaboration partners to meet their current challenges, and change these over time as needs evolve, the MAT approach risks creating an unhelpful rigidity.
ASL's findings provide a helpful contribution to the continuing debate on structures and standards – and bust a few myths along the way. Their conclusion of the importance of leadership in securing effective outcomes, for schools and for MATs, is a powerful reminder that the system is only as good as the people that work in it. Those people should be valued, treated well and trusted to do their job. Perhaps, the secret to effectiveness isn’t rocket science after all.
Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union. He tweets at @nick_brook