Multi-academy trusts

7 October 2016

For five decades, several policy initiatives, including Tony Crosland’s circular 10/65 (comprehensive schools), Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College Speech, Ken Baker’s 1988 Education Act, Tony Blair’s introduction of academies and Michael Gove’s turbo-boost to the academies programme, have all amounted to incremental pushes against the local authority system. Today, local authorities are still in place but, in many cases, alongside multi-academy trusts (MATs) and, of course, individual academies. This raises two salient policy issues: the future purpose in education of the local authorities and the suitability of MATs to be deliverers of state education. If MATs are, ultimately, the answer, the still outstanding question of their ‘supervision’ becomes absolutely critical.

The Education Select Committee has already started our inquiry into MATs. The strap line for this work is, simply, ‘what does a good MAT look like?’ A straightforward question, definitely, but it has lots of interlocking facets. The Committee anticipated part of the answer to this in our first report The Role of Regional Schools Commissioners whose role to oversee improvements in the schools in their region, generate new sponsors for academies and look at convertor academies, clearly interfaces with the evolution of MATs. The role of MATs in the context of other intermediate structures, otherwise known as “the missing middle” is one of our key terms of reference. We’ll also be looking at the number, size and geographical coverage of MATs.

We hear a lot about some of the well known larger trusts, linked with sponsors such as ARK and Harris. However, over half of MATs (over 500), currently have just one or two schools. This suggests that ambitious approaches to expansion may well run ahead of capacity.

An important discussion for the Committee during the inquiry will be the balance of decision making at the individual school level and the appropriateness of formal governance structures employed, and how a MATs expansion should be monitored and managed. These issues of accountability have been raised by many who have submitted written evidence to the inquiry.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, who has led the way in setting out the challenges in education to government, set out the importance of getting the growth of MATs right in March this year. In an advice note to the Secretary of State he identified that many of the trusts manifest the same weaknesses as the worst performing local authorities, and in his view, offered many of the same excuses.

I share Sir Michael’s view that one of the great challenges of our education system is the huge variation in regional performance. This applies both to local authorities and MATs. Given that the Academies movement was initiated principally to improve the performance of disadvantaged pupils, it is concerning that some trusts are underperforming. This inquiry seeks to identify examples of good practice and governance to allow MATs to prosper and contribute fully to addressing the challenge of raising the attainment of our poorest children.

Neil Carmichael MP for Stroud, Chair of the Education Select Committee

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