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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Evolving models of governance in public services

A recent paper written with Prof Catherine Farrell of The University of South Wales, investigated changing models of governance within four public services in England and Wales : Fire; health; policing and education.

The paper, which was given a the Policy and Politics Conference in Bristol (Sept 14-15 2015)  investigated the theories underpinning public service governance models and how far each could be said to be ‘democratic’.

What came through very strongly in the research was that Wales, in contrast to England, still focused largely on democratic modes of governance in services that were devolved : education and health. Whereas in England the marketised approach , particularly in education and health has led to adoption of very different modes of governance . For example-

The Health and Social Care Act 2012 introduced more changes in the way that the NHS is organised in England. These reforms, implemented on in April 2013 included a move to clinically led commissioning groups, (CCGs), responsible for planning and purchasing health care services for local populations and now responsible for 60% of the NHS budget. There are 121 of these groups and they have replaced the 152 Primary Care Trusts (PCTs).  The CCGs operate under ‘NHS England’ which is an independent organisation which in common with many networked governance structures, operates at ‘arm’s length’ from the government (see for example Burnham, 2001; Clarke and Newman, 1997). NHS England’s role is to provide national leadership in health, to oversee and allocate resources to the CCGs, and to commission specialist services.

In Wales , the original model of stakeholder representation is still operational, remaining relatively unchanged since the 1940s- this is also the case for education. Compared with the highly complex systems of governance in education and health in England, the stakeholder model appears relatively straightforward. Models of educational governance in England have been radically changed since the inception of the academies programme- a move that gave schools financial and curricular independence and removed many from LEA control. These schools have necessitated a very different approach to governance – an approach that largely reflects the weighty financial and other responsibilities that are now shouldered by governors.

The Trojan Horse affair in 2014 revealed just how far England had moved from the system of local accountability, based on Local Education Authority control. It also highlighted the gaping vacuum left by their demise, a factor that prompted the advent of a new innovation in local control. School commissioners , supported( and possibly but by no means probably) held to account by head teacher boards. There are to date just 8 Regional School Commissioners, whose mandate is to provide a local focus of accountability for academies in their region , unfortunately these individuals are also held to performance criteria, one of which is the opening of new academies on ‘their patch’.

The government have been slow to recognise this fundamental conflict of interest, only recently announcing their intention to look again at the role of RSCs: a forthcoming inquiry into their role and function, will no doubt reveal to what extent the system is functioning.

Investing power in a single person seems to be an increasingly common facet of public service accountability in England. Police and Crime Commissioners elected in 2012 have radically changed the whole area of police governance. Purportedly held to account by Police and Crime Panels, the system has suffered from considerably more than ‘teething problems’, as the Stevens report reflected.New proposals by the government that would enable PCCs to encompass fire and rescue services within their remit , will no doubt provoke considerable opposition by those who feel that the PCCs already wield too much power and are not in effect held to account by their PCPs due to the ‘toothless’ legislative powers that bind them. 

Prompted by an interest in exploring cross service learning, this is our first foray in looking across the public sector at governance and accountability. We will be following this up with a paper that examines the role of  public service inspection in England and Wales. We hope that this work will yield practical and theoretical insights to the complex and changing world of public service governance and democratic accountability.

You can find a full copy of the paper here

Pupils at academy chains being failed by inspection loophole

The Conversation

By Jacqueline Baxter, The Open University

Recent inspections of schools run by academy chains have shown many of these schools to be failing. Yet Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, is still not allowed to regulate the very organisations that are responsible for this.

In a recent sitting of the Education Committee’s inquiry into academies and free schools, its chair, the Conservative MP Graham Stuart, detailed the long list of academy chain failures now occurring with increasing regularity.

Ofsted have said that AET [Academies Enterprise Trust] has low expectations and are leaving schools to founder; that E-ACT provides poor-quality teaching intervention and support and that an overwhelming proportion of pupils in the Kemnal Academy Trust are not receiving a good education.

Since 2012, Ofsted has intensified its focus on the inspection of school governance, insisting that it is integral to the leadership and management function of schools. In spite of this – and the concomitant furore surrounding the state of school governance in the wake of the Trojan Horse extremism affair in Birmingham – the inspectorate still has its hands tied when it comes to inspecting academy chains.

As part of its brief, Ofsted is allowed to inspect individual schools within academy chains but not the trusts that run them. Yet in many cases it is precisely these trusts and their sponsors that are failing the very schools they purport to support.

One area that has proved to be particularly problematic from a regulatory perspective is the lack of effective scrutiny in terms of conflicts of interest within academy chains. This is an area highlighted in a new report by the Institute of Education’s Toby Greany and Jean Scott.

They found that the mechanisms to identify and address conflicts of interest in academy chains are almost non-existent. They outlined a number weaknesses in the system, including that some trust boards are not adhering to national guidance or doing enough to mitigate the risks associated with conflict of interest. They also point out that the skills and capacity of bodies charged with auditing trusts may be weak or insufficient to “get under the skin” of what is going on.

Immune to public scrutiny

It was only a short time ago that the head of Ofsted, Michael Wilshaw called for more stringent inspection of Local Education Authorities following a spate of high-profile school failures of several schools within the same authority. The authorities concerned have been named and shamed for the dereliction of their duties.

Yet organisations at the helm of some of the biggest school chains in the country appear to be accountable to no one. As David Wolfe of law firm Matrix Chambers highlighted during the recent inquiry:

The power is concentrated with the trust and no longer really with local governing bodies unless it is delegated down and then the trusts are not under any great scrutiny. They are not subject to direct observation from Ofsted and they are not subject to the kind of public pressures that come from democratic accountability or a wider public transparency.

Such issues of accountability around chains of schools which expand too quickly are a common feature of the US Charter school system, a system that in many ways mirrors the reform intentions of the academies project. In states in which there are high levels of regulatory accountability such as Massachusetts, charter schools appear to do well, outperforming regular district schools on a number of criteria.

But uncontrolled expansion of charter schools and lack of concomitant accountability has given rise to a number of cases in which schools have been shut down and had their licences revoked.

Governance loophole

Research into school federations in the UK is beginning to unpick the new governance structures that are appearing. Although in its early stages, researchers have stressed the importance of retaining coherence in these multi-level governance structures that mirror so many in the wider not-for-profit sector.

It took some time for Ofsted to bring school leadership and governance into a single judgement, following a long period during which they were considered entirely separately in regulatory terms. Now this is in place, it would make perfect sense to apply it it to academy chains, yet their sponsors and trusts have been conveniently permitted to slip through the net.

This lack of accountability has caused a number of issues. It makes it almost impossible to be able to pinpoint why one or a number of schools in a chain are not performing well.

It also makes it difficult to see how multi-level governance is actually functioning if inspectors are only able to see part of the picture and not the whole. Inspectors look only at individual schools and their performance in isolation, rather than the chain as a whole. It is also almost impossible to evaluate how the strategic direction of the chain is operating through individual schools and evaluate to what extent those schools are working with and through that strategy.

Rudderless in the face of weak leadership

A lack of cohesion in accountability also makes it difficult to see how the goings-on at individual schools relate to overarching principles within the trust. This includes how pupil premium money is spent on children who qualify for it, or the direction of standards for teaching and learning. As trusts continue to grow, it becomes even more pressing to ensure governing trusts are accountable in financial and operational terms.

As researchers in the US point out, the challenges of retaining quality during periods of intensive growth are substantial. It’s not difficult to see how schools in academy chains can be left rudderless and lacking strategic and operational direction and prey to conflicts of interest.

It appears to be somewhat paradoxical that we pay £143m for an inspection system that is prevented from inspecting some of the key organisations behind so many schools in England, particularly in light of the type of failures that have come to light recently. According to the Department for Education, there are currently 1,226 open sponsored academies in the 2014-15 academic year.

Unless these failures are investigated in a holistic way that departs substantially from the fractured and dislocated manner of current regulatory practice, then it is difficult to see how errors can be pinpointed and addressed in the future.

The Conversation

Jacqueline Baxter does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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