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26 February 2016
Today the new National Schools Commissioner set out his blueprint for improving performance in England’s schools. In an interview with the Times Educational Supplement, Sir David Carter outlined plans to create a four-tier academy trust system that would see multi-academy trusts (MATs) having to pass an assessment before taking on many more schools. MATs would be grouped into one of four categories – a starter, established or national trust, or a system leader – based on the number and geographical distribution of their schools. Progression ‘up the chain’ would be based on evidence of the capacity for running more schools and the ability to deliver high standards in their current schools.
Improving the performance and capacity of MATs is absolutely the right focus for a schools commissioner. Over two thirds of secondary schools and just under one fifth of primary schools are now academies, and the expectation is that all schools will be academies before too long. Yet, as indicated by Sir Carter’s proposals, the groups running many of these schools – MATs – are of variable quality and capacity. Research has found that the attainment gap between richer and poorer students ranges from 40 to 3 per cent across different MATs, and data published by Reform (Figure 1) suggests the capacity for strong growth among MATs is limited. The announcement earlier this week that CfBT Education Trust would ‘drop’ three schools and pass on their management to local trusts supports the view that there is a lack of capacity for growth in the system.
One welcome output of Sir Carter’s proposals would be a clear and transparent definition of high performance in each category of MAT. This is not an easy task; questions such as how long a MAT should reasonably be expected to improve individual school performance need to be answered first. Last year the Department for Education produced a working paper setting out the key challenges of assessing school performance within MATs and local authorities. There has been no new published thought on how MAT performance should be measured since then.
Assuming that such a performance measure is created, the question becomes whether schools require a school commissioner to implement it. One alternative is to allow schools and parents to use the four MAT performance categories to determine whether a school should join or leave a particular chain. Rather than requiring a Regional School Commissioner to ‘broker’ the agreement between schools and MATs, the choice would remain with the school and its governors. Leaving aside schools that have been identified by Ofsted as underperforming, such a system could harness the well-established benefits of school choice – improved outcomes for pupils. Thus the proposal for a hierarchy of school chains could, if implemented in the correct way, help raise educational performance.