Over the past few weeks, all three candidates for the Labour Party leadership have written in Tes, outlining their ambitions for the English education system.
What is remarkable is that all three adopt an anti-academy position.
Sir Keir Starmer said in his Tes article: “If Dominic Cummings completes his project, we face the farce of 25,000 schools in England being accountable only to Whitehall.
“The academisation of our schools is centralising at its core and it has fundamentally disempowered parents, pupils and communities.”
Lisa Nandy writes about tackling teacher anxiety, and says: “Schools should meet the needs of the local area and be locally accountable.
“For all Michael Gove’s rhetoric of returning power to school leaders, since 2010 the Conservatives have replaced community accountability with remote multi-academy trust boards and an unprecedented centralisation of power in a Department for Education that is not equipped to wield it.”
Rebecca Long-Bailey puts forward a socialist vision for schools. She says: “We see parents, communities and even teachers being shut out of decision-making as a result of academisation.”
I struggle to understand how the Labour leadership contestants have so badly misunderstood the sector.
Academy trusts are education charities that are set up purely for the purpose of running and improving schools. Trustees hold public office – they are required to advance education for public benefit. They must uphold the principles of public life.
Working as a single entity
A group of schools working together as a single entity can do lots of things that are harder for standalone schools to do:
- Teachers work and learn together to improve the way they teach.
- Schools share practices that make a difference to the quality of teaching.
- Teachers and leaders can work together on the things that matter, like curriculum and assessment.
- Failing schools can improve: only one in 10 schools that were required to join a trust were judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted before they converted, compared with almost seven in 10 of those that have been inspected after joining a trust.
- It is more possible for teachers and leaders to move to another school to help improve the quality of education where that school is struggling – and these moves are more likely to be to schools with more disadvantaged pupils.
- It is more possible to be efficient, and thereby to invest money in supporting pupils to have wider opportunities.
As is the case in the maintained sector, trusts must ensure parents are represented in the governance structure. This is typically done at the level of the local governing board. Parents are not shut out.
There is always more to do in any school structure on engaging parents and communities.
The Confederation of School Trusts (CST) is working with the sector to help trusts understand and articulate their role as new civic structures and “anchor institutions”. This includes engagement with parents and communities. But it is wider than this.
Anchor institutions are organisations with an important presence in a place. Other examples include local authorities, NHS trusts, universities, trade unions, local businesses and housing associations.
Anchor institutions are significant, because they have a large stake in their local area. Inexorably and unavoidably, trusts have a very large stake in their local area and in the communities they serve.
Delivering a civic role
There are five principles, which I think should be borne in mind for a trust that is thinking about how it best delivers a civic role:
- Civic work has the most impact when it is delivered in partnership with other civic actors: local government, the NHS, housing bodies, cultural institutions, local businesses, and so on.
There will be some areas where it makes sense for trusts to take the lead, working with some or all these partners. And there will be some areas where school trusts work to support initiatives or programmes that are led by others in a local area.
- Work should be designed around what the local community actually wants.
Any programme of work should be preceded by a period of activity of consultation with the community – with a particular focus on those more disadvantaged and marginalised groups, who may find it harder to articulate their priorities and needs.
- Work should be appropriate to the scale and the strengths of the trust and its partners. This is explored more below.
But, in general, larger trusts will be able to – and ought to think about – impact on a larger scale than smaller trusts. But all trusts should be able to make a civic impact in some way.
- Civic work should be a conscious part of a school trust’s activity. Real impact comes when it is seen as a core part of the trust’s activity and strategy.
This means that for civic work to be meaningful it should have an executive-level sponsor as well as support from the trust’s board. It should receive regular scrutiny from the trust, to ensure it continues to be focused and useful.
- Civic work should sit alongside the trust’s broader strategy.
It need not be a huge amount of additional work, nor should it require significant additional financial resource from the trust.
There should be no conflict between the trust’s broader charitable purposes to advance education, and the civic work it engages in with its local communities.
Three key relationships
I think there are at least three key audiences or relationships for this work, which should be considered when trusts are scoping their civic work:
1. Parents, carers, the local community and other local schools, both trust schools and maintained schools.
2. Local governmental partners: local authorities as well as larger areas of regional government, where they exist.
3. Wider civic partners in an area, like the health services, the police, other educational bodies (most likely to be colleges, universities), other charities, local cultural institutions (such as museums, galleries, sports teams), and local businesses.
As part of our advocacy work on behalf of the sector, CST will be working with all political parties to enable a secure understanding of trusts as new civic structures.
Leora Cruddas is the chief executive of the CST. CST is strictly apolitical. We work with the government of the day, political parties and politicians across the spectrum to advance education for public benefit.