Since 2010, both single Academies and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) have increased significantly in number. The government and Secretary of State for Education remain committed to academies at policy level, so they look set to continue unless there is a change in government.
Currently 3.8 million pupils (47% of the total pupil population) attend the 7,500 or so academies in the UK. £36 billion has been spent on conversions with a higher percentage of secondary schools making the transition compared to primary schools. For the most part, the schools that converted were performing well in terms of Ofsted rankings, and converted without having a sponsor.
Most schools that have converted have joined an existing MAT and the average MAT consists of 10 schools or fewer.This trend is likely to continue, with a healthy conversion pipeline and itis the government’s preferred model as it is thought such a structure leads to efficiencies in terms of procurement, collaboration and sharing of staff where individual schools are geographically close.
Questions remain as to whether an MAT should be made up of similar schools and hence be very consistent or whether diversification should be encouraged to improve choice within a community. The primary question when it comes to conversion, or whether a maintained school should join a MAT should always be viewed as how any potential change will benefit the education of its pupils. This should be looked at carefully and if there is no benefit, then there should be no compulsion to do so.
Collaboration should occur when it is right and ‘natural’ to do so, enforced collaboration by a distant ‘head office Trust’ is unlikely to be beneficial for the Trust, or, more importantly, the children being taught in its schools. Collaboration should also include working with third parties such as the local authority and universities to further broaden the success of the Trust.
Trustees sitting on multiple boards is another powerful way to improve collaboration and the results of the Trust. Overall the MAT should aim to have a simple leadership structure to draw people together and their decision making should be driven by the MAT’s values.
MATs are facing a number of key issues. Increased pressure, for instance, to take on struggling schools, often without the additional funding and support required to integrate and turn them around is a common problem. MATs should ensure they conduct their own due diligence before taking on additional schools, as a lack of funds and resources could lead to severe financial issues for the enlarged MAT.
Recruitment of staff is also a significant challenge. Here, local authorities could support MATs indirectly by ensuring that there is sufficient low cost housing to support newly qualified teachers. This is unfortunately prevalent in economically deprived areas, or areas within an easier commute to London, where higher salaries can be obtained.
The pooling of the General Annual Grant (GAG) funding is also something that MATs need to consider, particularly how individual schools often see their own money as being separate from the pooled funds of the Trust. The key here is for everyone to feel part of the Trust rather than operating in silos, bringing enough people into decision making processes so they truly feel part of the Trust and not a single, independent school.
While MATs sometimes receive bad press in terms of governance, there have been successes too.
One of the challenges the sector has faced has been not feeling comfortable in sharing these successes and not highlighting the good results many academies have achieved. In reality, the sector is commonly misunderstood with failure rates (such as failed Osfted inspections, or going bust) being no higher than maintained schools. A common misconception is that academies are run for profit and are a form of privatisation. This however is not the case, and are run purely for the advancement of education. In some ways, the greater transparency that academies are subject to has given the impression there are more issues than in other schools simply because these issues are in the public domain.
The focus at present centres around good governance, increased transparency, related party transactions and higher pay – all issues which have been highlighted by high profile failures in the sector. Part of the issue has been the rapid growth in the sector since 2010 and therefore it has been difficult for people and systems to keep up with developments and for training to develop sufficiently. It could be argued that training of management and Trustees should be given the same level of priority as safeguarding is.
MATs are becoming larger and more complex and therefore require a different approach to governance than small MATs or single Academy Trusts. As MATs grow it is important that the systems and governance at the MAT evolves and the Board of Trustees becomes sufficiently diverse to deal with the enlarged MAT, to ask challenging questions and to correctly reflect the interests of the pupils attending the schools and wider community. It is important that the CEO works collaboratively with the senior leadership team and does not become the single point of failure for the Trust. In some cases, where training has not kept pace with the rapid growth in the sector, those people responsible for the academies do not always understand their obligations or even the structure if the MAT is large and complex.
Funding continues to be a major issue and there is a continued focus on cost cutting and efficiency. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, if it is driven by striving for value for money and towards the long term goal rather than cutting costs. Forecasts therefore remain key and sensitised forecasts (that is, having different forecasts prepared for different assumptions) are a must. The Trustees should question the key financial risks they face and devise plans to avoid or deal with this eventuality. Budgets should also be prepared on a realistic basis as the government has repeatedly said it needs to know what the future holds for the sector and optimistic budgets are misleading and unhelpful.
The sector has developed significantly over a relatively short period of time and as with any new initiative there have been teething problems. However, it must be remembered that there are lots of outstanding academies achieving outstanding results for the children they serve. Whatever happens, the sector looks set to grow and support needs to be given to ensure MATs are as successful as the government hopes.