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Wild, Wild West – the development of Multi Academy Trusts

The way that the development of the Multi Academy Trust has transformed the educational landscape has been rapid and unpredictable. It has provided innovation and energy and led to notable successes, but it has also brought controversy as a result of actions that have thrown all MATs into disrepute. This article argues that MAT leaders have a duty to uphold the highest ethical standards if the sector is to thrive

I’m the CEO of a small MAT, currently two small secondary schools that were previously part of a hard Federation. My job title is Executive Principal. The advantage to this title is that when people ask what I do for a living, I don’t have to say that I’m a MAT CEO. That’s helpful, because if I do admit to being a MAT CEO, then either they don’t know what it is, or they believe that I spend my days discussing which is the next school to forcibly academise with the Regional Schools Commissioner, signing permanent exclusion letters or flying business class on a study trip to New York – all paid for by hiring unqualified teachers and moving TAs to term-time only contracts.

The widespread introduction of Academies by the coalition government (as opposed to the few isolated examples that had existed previously) started the revolution but it is the introduction of the MAT that has fundamentally changed the educational landscape. MATs are doing exactly what they were set up to do, in line with the vision of Michael Gove. They have disrupted the system, which has led to creativity, innovation and entrepreneurism. They have provided a test bed for radically different approaches, from highly centralized ‘franchise’ school operations to the introduction of the Co-operative vision into education. I believe there is some potential in this re-imagining of education, whether that is in curriculum development, cpd or models of leadership, but there are risks and dangers as well.

A necessary consequence of the way this development has happened is that there are huge differences between the many different models of MATs. A MAT like ours is far similar in nature and scale to a maintained secondary school than it is to a nationwide MAT with more than 20,000 students. We’ve been shaping a new landscape, and that’s led to a varied and fragmented system.

But this system is maturing now. At some point the lawlessness of the American Wild West, which allowed a few intrepid, risk-taking individuals to colonise and subjugate a continent, had to give way to a structure of laws, public services and government otherwise nothing sustainable and lasting would ever have taken root. In the same way, we need to put some roots down for this system to prosper. I believe that we’re still in the Wild West stage and unfortunately for every Wyatt Earp, there’s a Billy the Kid.

When I read of some of the excesses perpetrated by MATs, my heart sinks. I can’t defend the indefensible, and whether that’s a small minority or not, if it’s the MAT structure that allows it, then that’s a problem for us all.

Recently, I was contacted via twitter by a colleague from a school in a different part of the country. He shared evidence with me of shocking practice from a MAT he had worked in, off-rolling, excessive exec pay, harshly punitive behaviour systems. All the evidence had been seen by inspectors, but the full pressure of a wealthy and influential MAT organization was brought to bear and the school was not censured, but was in fact lauded. This colleague is now an active campaigner against the MAT programme, and no wonder. I can tell him it’s not like that in all MATs, he may even believe me, but it doesn’t take away the bad taste or the feeling that it’s the MAT structure that has allowed this to happen.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The vision of schools working together in a MAT with a distinct identity, sharing resources, good practice and capacity, making itself locally accountable, working in partnership with other schools and the LA, and making a net contribution to the wider system is a hugely positive one, but if it’s not underpinned by an ethos of integrity and public service, then the problems will keep coming.

I love the Ethical Leadership Framework highlighted in ‘Navigating the Educational Moral Maze’ – the final report of the Ethical Leadership Commission. It describes in practical detail what ethical leadership in education looks like and the standards we should hold ourselves to. If you haven’t seen it, the whole report is here, with the framework on pages 11-12

It’s a fantastic piece of work, a perfect summary of how we should expect leaders to behave. In our MAT, we are adopting it as the rule book for leadership. I’ve proposed that we add it to the job descriptions of everyone who takes on a leadership role. My only criticism of it is that so many of the provisions fall under the category of the bleedin’ obvious, that we really shouldn’t have to set them out. So, in the interest of keeping it simple, here’s my suggestion of a few basic rules for MAT leaders:

Don’t get rich – you didn’t go into teaching for the money. At what point does someone decide that they are personally worth more to the children in their schools than ten teachers, or fifteen Teaching Assistants? What do they want all that money for? On its own, excessive MAT CEO pay is a strong argument for the view that the system isn’t working. It is taking millions of pounds out of the system every year. At a time when we have Head Teachers marching on Parliament, campaigning for desperately needed funds, how do we justify this? Why is the percentage differential between a MAT CEO and a Head Teacher so much more than the differential between a Head and a Deputy, or a Head of Department and a class teacher? If we don’t want people to think that the development of MATs is about lining our pockets, we need to stop lining our pockets.

Do unto others…if schools in a MAT only collaborate with other schools in the MAT, then their collaboration is doing more harm than good. Our family of primary schools is a brilliant group of schools, who collaborate with openness and generosity. Every school takes part with the exception of three schools who are part of large regional MATs. There is no particular reason why this means they wouldn’t meet with their local HT colleagues, why their children wouldn’t take part in shared activities, why they wouldn’t have a voice in developments in the area. Nonetheless, they are absent.

With secondaries it’s worse. How have we ended up with a system where one school’s downfall is another’s opportunity? I know healthy competition is a good thing, and there’s always been some schools that have a dominant position in the local community, but nowadays it sometimes seems that one school’s problems are another MATs opportunity. We all have a stake in the system, and we all gain when the system is successful. As the saying goes ‘A rising tide raises all ships’.

No macho management – Of all the memorable quotes from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the stand out one has to be ‘If anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low, you know you are doing something right’. Celebrating the fact that working in our schools is affecting the wellbeing and happiness of staff seems to me to be the behaviour of a pantomime villain. Anyone in a senior position in school has occasions when tough decisions have to be made and difficult conversations have to take place. Anyone who enjoys or celebrates this part of their job has lost their compass, and forgotten that these are real people’s lives that they’re dealing with.

A consequence of the MAT system is that the senior managers in a MAT very often don’t know the staff on a personal level at all. They don’t pass in the corridor, chat in the staffroom, queue at the photocopier in the way a Head Teacher in a school would. There’s no personal relationship with the staff in the school, which means that when life-changing decisions are made, the people affected are simply statistics or names on a list. In this context, it’s sometimes too easy to be tough. There’s no such thing as a great leader who doesn’t demonstrate compassion and humility in the way they treat people.

Show some love – when you’re dealing with children and young people, they’re not just customers or clients, their whole future is in your hands. We’re in loco parentis, after all, so that’s how we should behave. Parents can’t permanently exclude their children or suggest that they might be better off moving in with the family next door. Once they’re our children, they stay our children. One example – I can accept that permanent exclusion is sometimes a necessary evil, but by doing so, I’m also acknowledging that it is an evil. If we get to the point where students can’t come back into school, then it should be the school / MATs job to sort out what happens next.

How can we make the case for the purpose of MATs when practices such as flattening the grass (public humiliation and traumatizing of children), off-rolling (sacrificing the life chances of vulnerable learners to boost meaningless statistics) and industrial-scale gaming (forcing students through meaningless qualifications solely to distort league tables at the expense of other schools) bring us into public disrepute?

Don’t believe the hype – Humility is the most underrated virtue among leaders. Whether it’s bragging in the local paper or humblebragging on twitter, there are too many leaders who think it’s all about them. (I blame Michael Wilshaw again). Schools are the ultimate team effort, and as in all the best teams, no-one is indispensable. Sometimes, we fall lucky – right school, right time. Sometimes, it all goes wrong and there’s almost nothing we can do about it, and it’s a case of there but for the grace of God.

Finally, embrace hypocrisy –  in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve broken all of the above rules, and many times over. The important thing is not whether you keep them as much as whether you’re trying to. Recognise mistakes, and try not to repeat them.

I’m proud of working in a MAT with colleagues who I like and respect, serving amazing, positive young people in a community of which we are an integral part. I don’t think it’s inconsistent to recognize the positive contribution that MATs can make whilst at the same time expecting higher ethical standards from MATs as a whole. It looks like MATs are here to stay, so it’s time to put down some roots.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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