Posted on 25/04/2016

Think National, Act Local

In my last blog I talked about the general approach I thought we should take in achieving the holy grail of ‘educational excellence everywhere’. My blogs over the next few weeks will deal with specifics; and where better to start than with the government’s proposal to turn every school in England into an academy.

I agree with it. At least to an extent. If a school is outstanding surely it is logical to encourage other schools along the same lines. Doesn’t it make sense to replicate something that is proven to work really well?

Taking FBS as an example: we believe strongly in our brand of education. We have outstanding teachers, senior leaders and support staff whose expertise is crying out to be shared more widely. If we were to become a multi-academy trust (MAT), we’d have the means to extend the reach and influence of the most successful leaders and middle leaders. We’d have greater capacity to retain them by promoting them within. We’d have the opportunity for the best teachers to lead on their subject across many other schools, influencing hundreds of teachers and inspiring thousands of pupils – all the while reducing workloads by sharing resources, Programmes of Study, professional development and coaching.

There are also benefits for assessment – schools within a MAT can more readily moderate work, check each other’s standards and pupil progress. And if the Trust includes both primary and secondary schools, there’s a real opportunity to ensure slick transition for pupils, avoiding the Year 6/7 dip.

Financially it makes sense too. MATs allow for greater efficiencies in back office arrangements, freeing up more funding for teaching and learning – the core business of schools. And if schools can pick and choose what educational services to buy in, there’s a strong argument that providers – whether MATs or local authorities or others – will improve the quality.

For all these reasons, FBS is exploring becoming a multi-academy trust.

However, I have two main caveats.

First and foremost, structure and governance. There’s no one size fits all for education and government shouldn’t considering a model which suggests otherwise. I’m convinced that each individual school within a MAT should be grounded in its community. You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach – pick up a school in Fulham, drop it in Darlington and expect it to work just as well. You need outstanding local governors with a love of their community, who understand local nuances, to take the tried and tested ‘product’ and acclimatise it. This was the strength of free schools, as originally envisaged – set up by local people with a passion for the area the school serves, understanding the particular strengths, weaknesses and opportunities of that community.

MATs need skilled local people to be an outstanding governing body, to dress the Trust’s vision, ethos, standards and provision in local clothes. The role of the MAT is then to hold them to account, drive up standards and look after the legal side, recruitment and finance across the group. And to be totally transparent in how it does so – both locally – to its school communities – and nationally – to central government.

My second caveat is this: If a Local Authority is doing well why shouldn’t it become an academy chain? If the schools they support are at least better than good and are addressing robustly those which are not, then why not let them operate as a chain? Once proven, they could stretch their influence to other authorities in the same way as any other academy chain.

This would create competition, drive up standards and ensure everyone is on top of their game. Brands that are nationally acclaimed, tailored to local settings, ensuring educational excellence everywhere.

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