Setting schools free

2 September 2015

This article first appeared in EY’s publication Citizen Today. Matthew Robb and Anna Grotberg are co-authors of Reform’s report Education in chains.

Governments around the world need to do more with less. In many countries, fiscal pressures mean that spending rises on key services cannot match the levels seen prior to the financial crisis of 2007-08. But at the same time, demand for better services is rising. This is the case with education in England.

In the early 2000s, spending on English state schools rose significantly under the Labour Government. This was accompanied by the beginnings of a reform program that saw power over schools start to shift away from local authorities. The Conservative-led Coalition Government continued the reform process. But it is far from complete. The population in England is rising and awareness is growing that the country must get better at equipping its young people with the skills they need to compete in the ever more globalised jobs market.

So, the English schools system must do more. But the challenge will be met not by more money, but by better governance and economies of scale. And the vehicles for achieving this are school groups.

Unfinished revolution

Currently, the governance and management of state-funded English schools is a mess. Previous, and ongoing, policies promoting academies and free schools – which are independent of local authority control – are well-intentioned. They liberate schools, reduce bureaucracy and increase autonomy. However, mechanisms of governance and accountability are now too dependent on ‘willing amateurs’, on school governing bodies, and on an over-stretched and compliance-oriented government watchdog.

The move towards more freedom and autonomy for schools in England has brought greater diversity to the school system. However, it has not achieved a generalised or sustained level of innovation, or spread best practice. This has left many schools trailing behind the best and many children unable to reach their full potential.

School groups offer a solution to this problem. School groups are organisations, such as not-for-profit trusts, that run a number of schools, usually in a local area. They offer a more coherent governance system that addresses the key issues currently damaging the system: unclear governance; inexpert governance; a lack of capabilities and professional development; and a lack of economies of scale and clear operating models.

Group therapy

With the declining role of local authorities, school governance is shared with a whole range of bodies, not all of whom have clear roles. This results in confusion and, in practice, means that a large number of schools are independent of any expert guidance or support. Performance management is often a reactionary, fault-finding conversation that only bites once a school is deemed to be ‘failing’.

School groups create an additional tier of governance automatically: the group governance structures sit over and above the governance of the constituent schools, each layer with clearly articulated roles and decision-making powers. This central governance enables a constant performance dialogue with the individual schools, creating a proactive, supportive and developmental managerial conversation which encourages continual improvement.

The quality of school governing bodies is far too mixed. Governors often lack the core skills required to do the job of supporting school leaders and holding them to account. In addition, voluntary governors – many of whom have full-time occupations – lack the time needed to fulfil this role adequately.

School groups can offer expert governance across their network of schools via the group-level board and the corporate centre. Only a small number of people are needed to fulfil these roles, making it easier to identify and recruit highly skilled individuals. The individual school-level governing bodies are then free to focus on local needs: to represent community and parent interests rather than try to drive up performance.

Many head teachers do not have the necessary financial and commercial acumen to navigate a schools landscape in which they have more autonomy. Increasing numbers work in silos, without the support and challenge to improve their school’s performance. Best practice teaching models are not shared and standardised across schools.

Schools within groups can benefit from the corporate centre’s staff, who have considerable experience within their field. They might be ICT, human resources and financial professionals as well as educationalists, and are dedicated to their roles full-time. Excellent head teachers are also able to develop in their profession by undertaking group-level leadership roles, and promising school-level head teachers can learn from these leaders.

Individual, and small, groups of schools do not have the economies of scale necessary to invest in their development and improvement. Few schools have a comprehensive and holistic blueprint for running their school and, when they do, the scale of the group is too small to drive improvement across the school system.

Large school groups are able to make significant cost savings in procurement and shared staffing. The development of an effective operating model, which requires the sort of investment only large groups can make, provides a mechanism for reaching a much larger number of pupils with high quality education.

Policy action

In our view, a school system in which more schools belong to large groups, with strong corporate centres, will provide better education for many more pupils. They create the right structures to harness the best, and drive high performance across the system. However, this system will not develop on its own. Currently, only half of academies are part of a group, and the majority of these are in a group of 10 schools or fewer. Our view is that the following actions should be taken to encourage schools to join groups:

  • The government should expect most schools to join groups.
  • The government should strengthen the ability of school groups to develop strategic corporate centres. It should expect school groups to invest between 8 and 10 per cent of the group’s revenue in its corporate centre.
  • Individual schools that are part of high performing school groups should be exempt from inspection by the government watchdog. The school group should be inspected instead.
  • The government should devolve school capital budgets to competent school groups.

Stronger structures, better performance

Through Parthenon-EY’s work in education around the world, we have seen what is required to create high quality governance, performance and support in schools. We strongly believe that our experience, and the evidence, shows this is best done in school groups that have clearly defined operating models. These operating models ensure a clear curriculum, pedagogy, management structure and labour model, aligning these elements around a coherent vision for all schools in a group.

We believe that school groups are the best way of achieving this in the UK and in many other school systems. They should be helped to grow as quickly as they are able, providing they can demonstrate that a consistent operating model is being implemented. Schools should be encouraged to join successful school groups with a range of incentives, including a lighter inspection burden, and more flexible access to capital via the group.

There is an emerging sense in England that enough work has been done on structure and it is time to focus on the teaching practice. We do not accept this. School structure and governance – specifically larger, more centralised and more professional school groups – is vital to a successful school system. And this in itself will improve teaching and student performance.

Matthew Robb, Managing Director, Parthenon-EY



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