Multi Academy Trusts in England , are they really accountable ?

This article first appeared on Discover Society at :https://discoversociety.org/2018/08/01/multi-academy-trusts-in-england-are-they-really-accountable/

 

Since the 1988 Education Act changed the educational landscape in England, heralding a new era of school self-management, the changes to English education have continued at a pace that is without precedent within other developed democracies. This has led many to describe it as ‘the lab of Europe.’ One of the most profound changes to take place has been the introduction of the academies programme in which schools, formerly overseen by Local Education Authorities (LEAs), have converted (or been coerced to convert following poor performance at an Ofsted inspection) to become semi-autonomous state subsidised schools in the form of Academies.

Operational drivers, such as the need to combine in order to cost effectively buy in services once provided by LEAs, combined with research that implies that inter school collaboration contributes positively to student progress, (Chapman et al 2009; NCTL, 2013), have also resulted in the creation of Academy Chains, Multi Academy Trusts and other less formal forms of collaboration between schools. As the literature on multi-level governance in the public and third sector reveals, (Foss et al, 2010), providing effective governance and accountability for complex collaborative organizations, which may also be widely geographically dispersed, creates a number of accountability challenges for organizations and the governance of such organizations.

Accountability past and present
Until 1988 the system of Educational accountability in England was focused on the LEA combined with an inspection system known as HMI – Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. The LEA combined their monitoring role with one which included both educational and pedagogic support with supply of back office services. Specialist advisers, very often subject specific, would work with schools and teachers to improve performance. HMI carried out regular inspections of schools, both general and thematic, in order to evaluate the quality of teaching and learning.  This changed in 1992 when, prompted by John Major’s Citizen Charter, and accompanied by broader international trends premised on the rationale of public choice theory, Ofsted – The (then) Office for Standards in Education replaced the collegiality of HMI with a high stakes form of inspection and regulation. The system also introduced use of school league tables to evaluate the quality of schools. This too formed part of a broader educational trend that has become known as ‘Governing by numbers’.

A changing system
The introduction of the academies programme under the Blair administration, originally offered freedom from LEA control (both financial and curricular), for failing schools in the London region. The programme was so successful that it was extended to other schools, at first on a meritocratic basis- only successful schools could apply to convert – but following the Academies Act in 2010, the programme was intensified and schools were offered substantial financial incentives to convert. Over time this began to radically change the educational landscape as more schools were either incentivised, or in the case of failing schools, were coerced into conversion, following unfavourable judgements by Ofsted. Ofsted’s remit was increased to incorporate inspection of whole Education Authorities (LEAs), a good number of which, were found to be failing.

This also coincided with a dramatic reduction in LEA funding, justified by austerity policies, which effectively undermined their capacity to offer its former wide range of services to schools remaining under LEA control. Although, in response to widespread protest, the government subsequently did a u-turn in terms of turning the plans into legislation, (Whittaker, 2016); there is little doubt that, in practice, they have not deviated from their plans and the number of schools joining MATs continues to rise. In November 2017 there were over 20,100 state funded schools in England, of these 6100 were academies with 1668 standalone academies and 4,432 MATs. MATs may have anything from 2 to over 100 schools.

The accountability maze
Since then the system of accountability has become increasingly complex, diluted and fragmented as figure 1 illustrates.

MATs are regulated financially by the EFA (Education funding Agency), their expansion is overseen by 8 regional schools commissioners and their schools are inspected by Ofsted. However, Ofsted are not permitted to inspect MATs as a whole. This means that they cannot inspect /monitor boards at the apex of the organization- trust boards and their CEOs. In addition to this, their regions (and regional directorates) do not coincide with the RSC regions, thus, there is little joined up approach between them. This has been widely criticised by both the Education Select Committee (Parliament, 2017), and in numerous press reports, particularly in light of the increasing number of MAT failures.

The pressure on good MATs to expand is enormous. Regional Schools Commissioners are under a great deal of pressure to re-broker (find a new sponsor) for poor schools, and as LEAs are increasingly unable to cope with the many demands placed on them, schools turn to MATS for support (J.  Baxter, 2018). In addition to this, due to the complex multi-level governance structures within MATs, they are having to work very hard and creatively to ensure that they are in touch with their school communities (Baxter, 2018). A recent report by the Education Select Committee questioned the rationale behind MAT expansion in light of the numerous MAT failures that have recently been in the press (see Baxter, 2018).

The pressure of accountability emanates from a number of sources: from the high stakes inspection system that considers schools within MATs in a fragmented way; Regional Schools Commissioners, keen to add failing schools to MAT portfolios and from the Education Funding Agency, who monitor MAT finances. Unfortunately, the unrelenting pressures on MATs to prove that their model is the best one, is a key pressure within the highly marketized system of English education. And leading to lack of collaboration between MATs, as one MAT CEO put it: ‘MATs don’t share, they compete against each other.’

Managing and governing collaborative organizations is no mean feat, as the literature on collaborative advantage illustrates (see for example, Vangen, Hayes, & Cornforth, 2015). Even when all of the collaborating organizations are keen for it to work, the challenges of factors such as: the creation of a coherent organizational identity; ensuring that the tension between conformity and autonomy of organizations within the group is well managed, and, ensuring that internal as well as external accountability is clear and productive- i.e. that it works towards the organizational mission and not against it; are demanding of the most able management and leadership teams.

The English system of education after 30 years of government tinkering, is in a very difficult place. Support and accountability systems provided by the LEA are in many cases either gone or so deprived of funding, due to cuts and academy conversions that they have little or no capacity to support or provide local accountability. Ofsted, for so many years the schools’ ‘watchdog’, no longer has the capacity or the skills to inspect these new structures. The vast cash injection it would take in order to train up inspectors to oversee MAT boards with budgets of millions, is unlikely to be forthcoming under present government policy.

Where do we go from here?
So where do we go from here? Well a good place to start would be to join up the existing accountability mechanisms so that Ofsted’s educational expertise , the EFA’s financial oversight and Regional Commissioner’s growing local knowledge , could provide a 360 picture of, not only what is going on in MATs but equally, provide some sense of impending and serious failings.

Any such system should also have some way of measuring exactly how and to what extent these large organizations are serving the communities in which they are situated. Only then could the public be reassured that we have anything remotely resembling a democratic system of Education in England.

References:
Baxter, J. (2018). Engaging with local communities: the challenge of board engagement with school communities in multi- academy trusts. Under review.
Baxter, J. (2018). MAT Accountability : Challenges and Opportunities for Inspectors and school Leaders. . Keynote speech presented at the ‘Raising Standards through MAT inspection’ Conference ,19th June. London, Holborn .
Chapman, C., Collins, A., Sammons, P., Armstrong, P., & Muijs, D. (2009). The impact of federations on student outcomes.
Foss, N. J., Husted, K., & Michailova, S. (2010). Governing knowledge sharing in organizations: Levels of analysis, governance mechanisms, and research directions. Journal of Management Studies, 47(3), 455-482.
NCTL. (2013). Governance in Multi Academy Trusts. London: National College for Teaching and Leadership.
Parliament, U. (2017). Multi-Academy Trusts: Seventh Report of Sesssion 2016-17. In H. o. C. E. Committee (Ed.). London: House of Commons .
Vangen, S., Hayes, J. P., & Cornforth, C. (2015). Governing cross-sector, inter-organizational collaborations. Public Management Review, 17(9), 1237-1260.

 

Jacqueline Baxter is Senior Lecturer /Associate Professor in Public Policy and Management , based in The Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise at the Open University Business school. Her research interests lie in the area of public service governance, accountability and trust. This article is part of a current funded project. She is Editor in Chief for the Sage publication Management in Education, and tweets at @drjacquebaxter. The author gratefully acknowledges funding received by The British Academy Lever Hulme Trust grant number SG161312

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The Government ‘Vision’ for Education : where are we now ?

The government’s vision for education is difficult to swallow – here’s why

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

If you were in any doubt about how complex and opaque the education system in England has become, a new report by MPs has outlined it in no uncertain terms. The report by the House of Commons education select committee into Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) raises a number of concerns about the role and function of the people charged with overseeing the growing number of academy schools in England.

The report questions the role and function of England’s eight RSCs and the whole area of democratic accountability in education, particularly in light of proposals to expand the academies programme contained in the Education and Adoption bill making its way through parliament. Combined with reports that over 500,000 primary school children are now being taught in super-size classes and that we are facing a chronic shortage of teachers, the whole area of the government’s strategic planning in education is called into question.

A sticking plaster approach

As parliament’s public accounts committee pointed out in January 2015: “The DfE [Department for Education] presides over a complex and confused system of external oversight.” This confused system is made up of state schools that continue to be maintained by Local Education Authorities (LEAs), as well as academies and free schools, which are free from LEA control.

RSCs were introduced as “a pragmatic approach to academy oversight”, a sticking plaster over what has become such a convoluted form of accountability that not even those working in schools can understand it – not to mention parents. According to PTA UK, a charity that helps parent-teacher associations, just one in ten parents know what role RSCs play in their child’s education, leading to confusion when it comes to deciding where and who should address any problems.

Effective strategic planning is recognised as one of the cornerstones of effective public services, as a number of research projects have highlighted.

Yet as the boundaries between public and private become increasingly blurred, this planning becomes ever more complex. Reforms of the English school system that have intensified since 2010 have produced a hybrid system of accountability in which numerous bodies compete and collaborate to provide educational governance. These reforms have also led to a serious planning deficit in terms of school places.

This lack of strategic foresight is all the more concerning given that none of these issues have come out of the blue. Researchers have been predicting a teacher shortage for some time now, and the number of children entering reception classes has been rising in relation to population over a number of years.

The ability to plan locally has been severely compromised by the undermining of resource and statutory powers of local authorities, not least in the areas of school planning. This led the Local Government Association (LGA) to urge the government to expand academy schools to meet demand for school places, or else to give back powers to councils to open new state-maintained schools, something they currently are not permitted to do.

Patchy solutions to big issues

The government response to the places shortfall has largely been to advocate the opening of new free schools. The prime minister, David Cameron speaking in March 2015, committed his party to providing another 270,000 school places in free schools, if re-elected, by 2020.

Since 2010, free schools have taken a disproportionate amount of funding compared to state-maintained schools. But they have also compounded the places problem by opening in areas where there is already a surplus of places.

Crammed in.
Smiltena/www.shutterstock.com

And even when they do open in areas of need, they often don’t immediately operate at full capacity, but admit just one year group and build up to a full complement of pupils over a number of years.

A survey by the LGA published in August 2014 found councils had spent more than £1 billion in attempting to make up the shortfall. This was based on data which revealed that 66 of the 152 council areas with responsibility for schools would have more primary-age pupils than places for them in 2016-17, rising to 85 areas in 2017-18 and 94 areas in 2018-19.

The government response to the accountability gap – which has already led to issues such as the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham – has been to implement the system of regional commissioners. But as the education committee’s new report points out, the flaws inherent within the reach and remit of the role are wide-ranging, affecting crucial areas of safeguarding, inspection, school improvement, democratic accountability and variation in standards between regions. The committee also points out that conflicts of interest need to be addressed far more cohesively, along with the thorny issue of who exactly holds these increasingly powerful individuals to account.

An uncertain future

The Education and Adoption bill stands to place further pressure on what education scholar Martin Lawn describes as a “systemless system” of education. This is one in which strategic planning is almost impossible given the number and overlapping remit of organisations involved in the governance of English education.

Jon Coles, chief executive of academy chain United Learning, giving evidence to the select committee, suggested that the whole area of education needed a “back to basics” approach, stating:

I think we are reaching a point where we need a new settlement. We have not had a settlement that has been national, clear and comprehensive since the 1944 [Education] Act … there has been a progressive erosion of some people’s roles, development of new roles, changes to the key functions of key actors in the system the landscape has changed hugely I think we just need to have a fresh look.

The government assures us that it does have a vision for education: “A world class education system in which all schools are academised.

Yet it is becoming harder and harder to buy into this “vision” when viewed through the prism of the issues that currently beset education in England. No doubt the parents of those pupils being taught in a portacabin by the fifth supply teacher in as many weeks, and who have little idea as to where to address complaints, may have problems buying into that “vision” too.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter, Lecturer in Public Policy and Management , The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Like it or not, schools are being converted into academies – that’s anti-democratic

Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

As children head back to class this week, another school will be opening its doors for the autumn term as an academy – in spite of opposition from parents and the community. From early September the Hewett School, a secondary school in Norwich, will form part of The Inspiration Trust, a not-for-profit charity which runs a chain of academies. In yet another blow for democratic governance the school is the latest in a long line to be converted against the wishes of many of its parents and the governing body, raising renewed questions about the democratic governance of the English education system.

As in the case of a number of other schools graded inadequate and subsequently turned into academies, it is only a short time ago that the Hewett School was judged to be “good” by schools inspectorate Ofsted. In May 2013 it received a “good” report in all areas – an improvement on its previous grade of satisfactory – with teaching graded as good and sometimes outstanding. But in November 2014 the school was placed in special measures after a follow up Ofsted inspection.

A monitoring visit paid to the school in February 2015 showed that although there were still outstanding issues, progress was being made. A follow up visit in May 2015 confirmed that the school was making reasonable progress towards the removal of special measures. But in March 2015 the Department of Education (DfE) had already informed the school that it was to constitute the governing body as an Interim Executive Board (IEB) and that it was possible that the school would become an academy. The final decision, that the school would be academised and taken over by The Inspiration Trust, was made in August 2015.

Of the parents that participated in the consultation, 4:1 were against it. In some cases respondents to the questionnaire accepted conversion to academy but questioned the process, the lack of choice of sponsor and a failure to communicate effectively why such a decision had been made.

A pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the choice of sponsor was a key reason why many were so against it being turned into an academy. The reasons given for this in the consultation were: “perception of the ethos of schools in the trust, political links of the trustees, the governance arrangements of the trust and lack of accountability.”

The Inspiration Trust has been linked to controversy. The trust, headed by Dame Rachel de Souza, ran one of three schools that were the subject of an investigation by Ofsted following allegations in 2014 that they had received prior notification of inspection dates due to De Souza’s position as both a “superhead” of the three schools and as a part-time school inspector. This raised questions about the detrimental effects of employing practising headteachers as inspectors. In January 2015, the schools were cleared of wrongdoing by an independent review of Ofsted’s original investigation.

Convert or close

The government’s academisation project took another leap forward earlier this year when the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced her intention to address the problem of “coasting schools”. The government plans to convert these schools – who fail to ensure that 60% of pupils gain five A* to C grades and don’t have a “credible” improvement plan – to academy status. This is in spite of the fact that to date there is no convincing evidence that the current system of academies improve performance.

Morgan and Cameron continue the academy drive.
Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

As the education and adoption bill – the legislation seeking to implement Morgan’s proposals – makes its way through parliament after the summer recess, the outlook for coasting schools that resist conversion looks decidedly bleak.

Resistance against “forced” conversion is not a new phenomenon. The Anti Academies Alliance contains a catalogue of conversions of local authority-run schools into academies that were bitterly opposed by governors and parents. Many within education and outside of it are opposed to the highly politicised nature of conversions and the lack of evidence that these conversions are in the best interests of the students.

Holding school commissioners to account

Tensions surrounding the whole area of forced academisation are also reflected in the new system of local accountability, set up by the government in response to the public and political outcry surrounding the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair in 2014, and fears over an Islamic extremism agenda in Birmingham schools. The affair exposed the dearth of local accountability that prevails in many regions of England, caused by an erosion in funding and consisted media attacks undermining public trust in local education authorities.

Under the new system, eight regional school commissioners (RSCs), appointed by the DfE are advised by a headteachers board made up of four elected academy heads and “experienced professional leaders” to provide sector expertise and “local knowledge”.

The scheme immediately provoked questions following the announcement that one of the key performance measures for RSCs was the number of academy conversions they had each achieved within a given period. Although this may yet be reversed, the whole area of school commissioners, how they are held to account and how they manage the vast areas that fall within their remit, is still not clear.

The relationship between regional commissioners and headteacher boards is also fairly vague and is contained in a single line on the DfE website which states that:

Each RSC gets support from a headteachers board (HTB). HTBs are made up of experienced academy headteachers who advise and challenge RSCs on the decisions they make.

What is not clear is what power headteacher boards have to veto any decisions made by a regional commissioner.

The whole system of accountability in education is worrying to say the least. It is far from clear how the current arrangements are fit to ensure that those in leadership positions are abiding by the seven principles of public life: that they are acting in the public interest with integrity, objectivity, openness and that in their leadership roles they are acting in accordance with these principles.

Parliament’s education select committee is now starting a inquiry into how RSCs will be held to account, and will also explore their relationship to Ofsted, individual schools and local communities. It is hoped that MPs’ findings will do something to provide clarity in the increasingly muddy and obfuscating system of educational accountability in England today.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter is Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.