UK: Education's March Hare

Last Updated: 5 April 2016
Article by Louise Thomson

Time is up for the current school system

Judging by the newspaper headlines, time is up for state-funded schools overseen by local authorities in England.

The Budget 2016, the associated education white paper (Educational Excellence Everywhere) and the Commons Education Select Committee's inquiry into multi-academy trust (MAT) governance have confirmed what many suspected: the future of state-funded schools is academy shaped and MAT governance is in much need of support.

Introduced in 2000, academy schools were initially seen to replace failing state-funded schools. Since 2010 there has been a significant drive for all state schools to become academies. Now, of almost 3,390 secondary schools just over 2,000 are academies. Primary schools have not been so quick to become academies, with only around 2,400 converting out of almost 17,000. The direction of travel has been chalked on the blackboard for some time and the pre-budget announcement of all state schools to be 'academised' by 2020, or have plans to do so by 2022 at the latest, is unsurprising. That said, there are some ongoing concerns that need to be addressed before such wholesale changes can be declared a success.

Academisation means that academies can opt out of the national curriculum and pay scales. The benefits of this being more innovative approaches to teaching could be utilised to improve results and schools could pay more to attract better teaching talent.

Research into the academic success of academy schools does not prove that they are better or worse at delivering quality education than existing local authority schools. The jury is still out as to whether the policy will improve educational attainment which will filter through to raising economic productivity.

Governance professionals with only limited experience of the academy sector know that the governance arrangements in MATs leave a lot to be desired. It is not a case of if, but when, a governance scandal is going to hit the media.

The white paper's commitment to improving governance provides some ideas for strengthening arrangements in MATs, but enhanced data disclosure, skills-based boards and competency frameworks only go so far. With each academy trust being nudged towards an MAT, and an MAT consisting of approximately 15 schools, the governance challenge is not going to be resolved by a more professionalised MAT board. Local school governance and accountability needs more than standardised complaints procedures that can lead to a public service ombudsman.

It is likely that the total number of state schools yet to convert will not make it to academy status as rationalisation will occur and many of the smaller schools, especially primaries, will be required to merge. Even with a reduction in the total number of schools, the current dearth of successful sponsors to lead MATs points to the conclusion that MATs will get bigger. This will impact on the senior leadership team's ability to transfer good practice from one school to another, especially where the MAT operates across the whole of England. The white paper proposes to establish capacity building measures to ensure there is a sufficient number of successful schools available to lead MATs.

Although local authorities are being removed from the academy picture in terms of oversight, they continue to play a role in ensuring that there are sufficient pupil places available in their area, especially for those with special educational needs. Educational Excellence Everywhere states that the role of local authorities will be to ensure each child has a school place, that the needs of vulnerable pupils are met and to act as champions for parents and families. However, the levers they used to have to fulfil those responsibilities no longer apply and it is unclear how they will be able to fulfil this function effectively.

The rhetoric of setting institutions free from central or local government control, providing additional funding and pushing through mass-conversions will ring a bell for those familiar with NHS foundation trusts (FTs). With several deadlines set and missed, it is questionable if every NHS trust will make it to FT status, either on their own or in partnership. Those trusts that qualified early have not necessarily maintained their perceived high performance, with all trusts struggling with tight budgets and rising demand.

It is questionable whether the 2020 deadline will be met by all schools, especially those working with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. NHS FT chains have been muted as one way of raising excellence and sharing successful leaders. The tenure of an NHS FT CEO can be short (less than three years) and the talent pool is shrinking as people prefer to stay as directors rather than take the step up in responsibility. There has also been some reluctance by successful NHS FTs to take on failing trusts, without financial inducements. Will government inducements to persuade high performing talent from MATs in well-off areas to move to more challenged areas be enough? Will successful MATs be willing to risk a dip in overall educational performance when accommodating a less successful school into the group? What is certain is that public funds should be spent in a manner that is effective and efficient and delivers value for money. Without appropriate governance arrangements in place, backed up with appropriate transparency and accountability, academies are going to struggle to demonstrate how they operate in the best interest of their pupils and wider society.

The ICSA Policy team will be providing evidence highlighting its concerns about MAT governance for the Education Select Committee inquiry. For more information and details of how you can get involved, see the ICSA website.

ICSA academy governance resources

ICSA understands the challenges involved in developing the right knowledge and standards of practice in governance professionals, trustees and volunteers. We can support academy trust governance with expert guidance, training and advice. Discover all our guidance and good practice guides for free on the website.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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