What’s in an academy chain?

20 September 2016

Reform’s latest report, Academy chains unlocked, raises many important points about the untapped potential of an increasingly academised school system. The National Schools Commissioner’s suggestion that we can expect 1,000 more multi-academy trusts (MATs) in England by 2020 means that policymakers and school leaders have got to ensure we get the most from this emerging landscape. The authors of the report explore these potentials, and identify four barriers to them being fully realised:

  • academy chains do not have enough financial autonomy over their academies;
  • the matching process of chains to schools is too opaque;
  • this hinders competition between chains;
  • chains are not incentivised to take-on ‘problem’ schools.

The authors’ recommendations would go a long way in removing these barriers and would allow an increasingly chain-led system to mature and garner the benefits that collaboration brings. At present, there is too much variability both within some MATs and between the best and worst MATs.

Central to this discussion, perhaps, is the question of what an academy chain or MAT is: both theoretically and in practice. With the system changing so much over the last five years, it is perhaps unsurprising that we lack a national understanding of what a chain should be, what its relationship with its schools should be, and the correct balance between autonomy, accountability and school improvement.

School leaders we work with at the Schools Network (SSAT) express a range of different views on this. Some heads see themselves as leaders of self-governing, autonomous schools, who pay a 5 per cent top-slice to the MAT, in exchange for certain central services and support. Others feel more closely bound to the identity of the MAT itself, seeing their role in the wider structure of the chain.

Such variation of opinion blurs clear lines of accountability. Whilst an individual school’s performance is ultimately the responsibility of its trust’s members and directors, if the school only views the MAT as merely a service-provider, this creates a tension. Moreover, with multiple layers of governance and leadership, accountability can become unfocussed. It’s interesting to note that from September 2016, Ofsted require academies to ensure their schemes of delegation are available during inspection, in order to make clear which level of governance is accountable for what.

Evidence given by Professor Daniel Muijs at a SSAT roundtable in 2014 suggested that the most successful chains are highly centralised. Looking at 26 ‘items’, and whether the chain delegated decisions on these at a local level or centralised them, Muijs concluded that around an 80:20 split in favour of centralisation is desirable. This certainly goes beyond chains as a supplier of back-office functions.

If we are going to fully realise the benefits of a chain-led system, we all need to move beyond thinking of chains as service-providers, seeing them as a wider whole, greater than the sum of their parts. The Reform authors’ recommendation to fund chains directly would certainly help achieve this paradigm shift, and allow chains to practicably fulfill their role in system improvement.

The policy recommendations in this report will remove some of the barriers highlighted in chapters one and two – but to get the most out of the system we need everyone in the profession to think differently about what, exactly, a chain is.

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, SSAT

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