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'We don't need to get rid of multi-academy trusts – we need to find out how they work best'

The multi-academy trusts model of school oversight has faced controversy – and there is much that needs to be fixed – but a return to local authority control would be a disaster

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The multi-academy trusts model of school oversight has faced controversy – and there is much that needs to be fixed – but a return to local authority control would be a disaster

I agree with Ed Dorrell that the scale of the recent educational, financial and systemic failures at Wakefield City Academies Trust was profound and unacceptable. And I agree that the academy system needs to self-administer an urgent fix.

The importance of good governance

The failure of Wakefield City Academies Trust is first and foremost a failure of governance. The biggest challenge that the emerging multi-academy trust sector faces is to understand that governance of a large and complex organisation, which is its own legal entity, is significantly different from other forms of school governance.

The governing bodies of local authority-maintained schools do not have the same legal and financial responsibilities of a single academy or multi-academy trust (MAT) board. In addition to the duties of a school governor, the directors of academy and multi-academy trusts are directors under company law and trustees under charity law. They are also the employer and the holder of land titles.

The level of responsibility is, therefore, significantly greater, and the requirement for board to have the skills to lead the organisation is correspondingly greater.

In relation MATs, directors are governing a complex organisation with multiple schools. The level of knowledge, skill and experience is, therefore, greater even than the requirements on a single academy trust.

Why don’t we simply return to local authorities?

So, you might ask, why not just return the whole thing to local authorities? That system was, at least, easy to understand. The answer is that it is both undesirable and impractical. And I say this as a previous chief education officer in two local education authorities.

It is undesirable because local authorities previously held (and still hold for schools they maintain) a number of conflicted roles. They are:

  • The employer: local authorities are the direct employers of all staff in community and voluntary controlled schools;
  • The improver: local authorities, through their improvement services, act as the improver of schools in their locality; and
  • The intervener: since 1996, local authorities have had powers of intervention in schools they maintain.
     

Thus, if a local authority-maintained school is causing concern, the local authority can direct its school improvement service into the school. Who, in this scenario, should be held to account if the school fails to improve? The headteacher? The governing board? The local authority? As the employer, the maintained school is not a separate legal entity from the local authority. Therefore, the local authority is technically intervening in itself. And this is before we bring local politics into the mix.

Perhaps most importantly, it is also impractical to return to local authorities. Fiscal policy has removed the capability and capacity of local authorities in relation to schools.

As I’ve written previously for Tes, I believe in local government. But local government does not "maintain" GP surgeries or health services. Democratic accountability for health outcomes is exercised more strategically. The same could be true for education and educational outcomes. We just need a sensible grown-up conversation about this.

In defence of multi-academy trusts

MATs, unlike local authorities, are created as purely educational organisations. They exist to improve educational outcomes for children and young people in the communities they serve. They have no other function – just that sole purpose. And the most successful MATs are doing the most extraordinary things.

I believe it is desirable to have organisations responsible for schools and their improvement whose sole purpose is education. Albeit with some key differences, Ontario, one of the highest-performing education jurisdictions, organises its schools in groups called school boards. The boards are the employer of staff and directly responsible for improvement. They exist purely as educational entities. They are not part of the municipal authority.

The MAT is not a panacea for all things good or bad. It is simply a legal vehicle. It provides the legal basis for schools to group together in strong and sustainable structures: a system in which groups of schools work collectively in deep collaboration to improve outcomes for pupils.

And, to be clear, the legal basis of the MAT is a charitable organisation. The sole object is to advance education for the public benefit. The income and property of the trust must be applied solely towards its objects – to advance education for the public benefit.

There is no private benefit here. Schools are not "owned" by a profit-making business. They are part of a charitable organisation whose sole focus is education for the public benefit.

The system is not perfect. There is much about it that needs our attention. And there are too many controversies, the most recent of which is the Wakefield City Academies Trust. I am certainly not defending the chronic and unacceptable failures of this trust. It failed the children and communities it served. But I do want change to come from within the system itself.

The MAT could be the single biggest positive intervention in our education system. It could achieve change at scale and transform educational outcomes in local areas. Yes, it is a structural intervention – but unlike any other structural intervention, the best MATs are using the power of the group of schools to bring about rapid and fundamental change, based on powerful models of school improvement, deep collaboration and professional learning across the group.

We need to know more about how the most successful MATs are improving outcomes for children and also closing gaps for the most disadvantaged. We need to be much more intellectually curious about this. My challenge to the academic community is to help us to do this. And my challenge to the sector is to step up.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said: “There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children." Let’s build our system of multi-academy trusts on this principle – the ethical principle that first and foremost, we are holding trust with, and on behalf of, children. 

Leora Cruddas is CEO of Freedom and Autonomy for Schools – National Association

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