The government today confirmed it will trigger Article 50, which sets out the process for leaving the European Union. Article 50 states that: “Any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” In other words, should the country be willing, then they are able to leave the EU.
There is no equivalent to Article 50 for schools in multi-academy trusts (MATs).
On joining a MAT, the vast majority of schools cease to be individual legal entities; staff transfer to become employees of the trust, and the Mat becomes the funding body. There is no 28-day money-back guarantee should you change your mind, and there are few rights in law to pursue a divorce should irreconcilable differences emerge. Like Hotel California, "you can check out any time you like but you can never leave". These chains bind.
While the regional schools commissioner has the power to "re-broker" where performance issues persist, there is still no official Department for Education guidance for other schools on leaving a Mat, should they want to "take back control". Informal advice from the Education Funding Agency says that the academy would need to produce a business case explaining why it wants to leave, which would ultimately need secretary of state approval to proceed. What happens then is unclear – the school cannot revert to its pre-MAT state if it has given up its unique legal identity, so it may well find that it has no other choice but to join another MAT. "Out of the frying pan" springs to mind.
'Lack of freedom and autonomy'
Is this an issue? Well, increasingly, yes it is. Some school leaders are concerned by the lack of freedom and autonomy experienced within chains. Changes in MAT leadership have destabilised other partnerships and placed a strain on relationships.
Consider the future scenario of a MAT which has decided to open a selective school within the trust. A headteacher, in discussion with their governors, is deeply concerned about the change and the detrimental impact this will have on their particular school and community. They may well determine that the school’s interests are best served outside of the MAT. However, the prospect of leaving, perhaps even starting their own chain of schools, would seem dependent upon the goodwill of the leadership of the MAT, with little incentive to release a school that is performing well. Indeed, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that raising this issue with the CEO would carry enormous professional risk for the school leader who poses the question.
In the long term, 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, by restricting, not unleashing, potential. Without a "schools edition" of Article 50, once-fluid structures risk becoming as fixed as those that they sought to replace.
Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union. He tweets as @nick_brook