Lessons in geography: school dispersion, collaboration and performance

15 March 2016

Last week Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, offered a critical evaluation of the performance of seven Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) in a letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. In addition to concerns regarding socioeconomic attainment gaps and chief executive pay levels, he criticised certain MATs over the wide geographic distribution of academies within their trust, suggesting they lacked the leadership capacity to effectively monitor academies over such a wide area.

Sir Michael is not the first to suggest that close school dispersion may be conducive to better MAT performance. A survey conducted by the National College for School Leadership in 2012 found that 22 of the 28 Chief Executives interviewed thought close school proximity was either “important”, “very important” or “absolutely essential”. In 2014, the Department for Education (DfE) found that “[h]igh performing sponsors plan growth in terms of developing geographical clusters of schools and maximising opportunities for collaboration”.

A commonly cited reason for why close academy proximity improves performance is that it increases the scope for collaboration between schools. For example, a guidance paper produced by the National Governors’ Association (NGA) in 2015 claims that “[e]merging evidence…suggests that the benefits of collaboration are much easier to realise when schools are physically close”. However, there is a lack of robust research to support this, and the NGA make no reference to any such evidence.

In fact, the DfE found no systematic relationship between sponsor performance and the geographical spread of academies within a chain. Whilst poor quality performance data and difficulty in isolating variables mean these findings are far from conclusive, technological advancements allowing for efficient long-distance interaction alone seem a good reason to be at least sceptical about the importance of proximity for collaboration.

Aside from there being reason to doubt any negative impact on collaboration, there may also be significant merits to wide academy dispersion. For example, MATs that operate across a wide geographic area may be effective at addressing regional performance disparities. As Professor Toby Salt, Chief Executive of a cross-regional MAT of 33 schools, Ormiston Academies Trust, has argued, attracting talented staff to isolated areas presents a significant barrier to addressing the poor educational performance often associated with such areas. Large MATs that operate in several different areas may be better positioned, through flexible working initiatives, to attract the high quality staff needed to improve educational attainment in these areas.

Without more evidence it is not possible to draw conclusions on the importance of academy proximity for MAT performance. Hence, one aim of Reform’s ongoing work on schools is to cast light on the level and nature of collaboration between academies within various MATs. Comparing this information with the geographic dispersion of academies within the MAT may help uncover whether close proximity is associated with better collaboration. If no such evidence is found, the argument that close dispersion improves performance will be weakened. The question then becomes whether all geographically dispersed MATs have the most effective strategies for monitoring performance and attracting high quality leaders to address Sir Michael’s valid concerns.

Ben Dobson, Research Assistant, Reform

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