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Stop! Collaborate and listen…

As someone who leads a small Multi-Academy Trust, I am acutely aware of the range of views about the MAT sector that exist within colleagues and the wider public. If scale of impact is the measure, then MATs have been a huge success. Many can point to their achievements in turning around historic poor performance, in leading debate and innovation, in developing models of leadership across the sector. The sector has gone from pretty much a standing start less than a decade ago to the point where over half of the pupils in the country are educated in academies, and some Multi-Academy Trusts have grown to rival the size and influence of a small Local Authority.

However, it’s an understatement to say that the growth of MATs has not been universally popular. Let’s face it, we haven’t done ourselves any favours by the steady stream of headlines exposing practices that range from the questionable to the clearly immoral, introducing a bonus and expenses culture in some cases that is entirely at odds with the Nolan principles of behavior in public life.  

The worst excesses can be put down to the ‘bad apple’ principle, emerging as the sector became established, drawing up rules and standards as it went along, and fortunately they are increasingly likely to be exposed. However, there are deeply held objections to the core principles underpinning the MAT structure. Having recently been in situations where I have had to defend and justify the role of MATs, including to a hall full of deeply suspicious people, I think that the key objections come down to two main themes.

Firstly, the lack of effective democratic oversight. How does the public who pay our wages ensure that their voice is heard and that poor practice can be challenged? We know that accountability exists – through Ofsted, RSC, performance tables etc – but if I’m a parent who believes that my child has been unfairly excluded as a result of unfair MAT policies, and this particular MAT is based 100 miles away and runs 40 schools, how on earth do I effectively challenge that decision? Where is the independent local democratic accountability that was represented (however inconsistently) by Local Authorities? I worked in an LA Children’s Service at a time when our voice had some authority in schools, and we had some levers to hold schools to account on behalf of an elected local council. No longer. MATs will never fully gain public trust until they are fully accountable to the public.

The second key problem, and the one I want to focus on here, is that MATs seem to be inherently competitive. Many are predicated on a model of continual growth, and their key performance indicators are explicitly tied to competitive criteria – ‘top 20%’, ‘among the best’, ‘well above national average…’ and so on. Norm-referenced public accountability measures such as Progress 8 make it essential for performance not just to be good, but to be better than others.

Even the word ‘Outstanding’ to describe the highest Ofsted grade, which is so coveted by schools and MATs (just look at their vision statements) implies competition. If lots of schools are judged ‘outstanding’, then they no longer ‘stand out’ – the judgement doesn’t simply mean ‘excellent’, but better than the vast majority of other schools.

Of course, it is well-established that competition can bring benefits, and the theories behind New Public Management (Hood 1994, among others) which have been so influential in the redrawing of public services in western countries in the last 30 years have established this principle as a key driver for improvement. The availability of accountability measures, the direct link between pupil numbers and budgets, the prestige and reputation that comes with the public acknowledgement of success – all incentivise us to improve performance urgently and to develop effective practice (according to the theory).  There is undoubtedly evidence to support this analysis, and the idea of competition driving performance is absolutely mainstream.

I believe, however, that the growth of the MAT sector has heightened this process to the point where even if it is beneficial for an individual school or trust, competition between MATs is no longer pushing overall performance forward but is now having an increasingly detrimental effect on the system as a whole.

Firstly, the impact of league table culture distorts curriculum choices. The Ofsted shift in focus away from data and recognising diverse curriculum approaches is welcome, but as long as there are real-world consequences for poor placing in performance tables, then schools will always be driven to ensure that they give themselves the best opportunity to succeed. What if a group of pupils might be better served by focusing on a small number of vocational / entry-level qualifications? Impossible – that would leave 3 empty Progress 8 gaps. How about this high attaining group managing a broader offer by shaving a couple of lessons from their existing subjects? What’s the point – only the best 8 count. I’m not suggesting that it’s quite as cynical as this, but the experience of ECDL was instructive – a qualification that swept across our schools as a way of boosting league table performance. Some have argued that it wasn’t about league tables, it was genuinely used to equip pupils with real-life ICT skills – well, in that case why is almost nobody still using it?

Secondly, excessive competition incentivises schools to remove the most troublesome or hard to educate pupils. This may be as part of a completely legitimate exclusion process, or it could be through unscrupulous off-rolling practices, but let’s be honest, if a pupil has significant behavioural problems, or complex special needs, or is simply making very slow progress, then it is in the school’s objective interest not to have them on their books. I’m not accusing schools of excluding pupils for spurious reasons, but there has to be an impact of the fact that our system actively incentivises us to move them on, or to try and ensure they don’t arrive in the first place. Ask any Headteacher what their response is when they get a call from a parent of a child wanting to move from the school down the road because things aren’t going well – are we welcoming or downright suspicious? We have established a system which rewards those who don’t welcome our most vulnerable pupils.

Thirdly, it works against co-ordinated local initiatives including the sharing of expertise and CPD. Within a MAT, the capacity to improve teaching and learning, or to provide support for leadership development is a valuable currency, and is targeted across the Trust. Where it is offered outside the Trust, for example through a Teaching School, there is often a hefty fee and a lack of accountability for the impact in school. How often in the current climate do schools from a variety of Trusts sit down together and work on strategies to address local issues? (I believe that this was the principle behind the London Challenge, but elsewhere in the country, we’re still waiting for something similar).

In our area, we have the bizarre phenomenon whereby children from some primary schools are not able to take part in curriculum events (taster days, large scale music performances etc) run by the secondary school they will attend in Year 7, because it’s part of a different MAT. There could not be a clearer example of competition having a negative impact on children.

Education is a collaborative enterprise – we get better results when we work together. This is true in a classroom or across a school, but it’s no less true across a system. A MAT that is successful at the expense of other schools and students should not be considered a success. If we want the sector to thrive and gain public support, we need to work together for the benefit of all.

What does that mean in practice? Firstly, celebrate the success of our schools by all means, but not at the expense of others. The way that we take the toxicity out of performance tables is by making it clear that they are deeply flawed and hugely unreliable. Every school that describes their results as ‘in the top 20%’ is reinforcing the myth, likewise every school that puts up a slide at Open Evening showing how they compare in a particular (carefully-selected) measure. (Oh and Ofsted, it would help to get rid of Outstanding).

This could be done tomorrow, led by professional associations and a bit of gentle peer pressure. It’s all well and good the schools at the bottom of the league tables explaining to parents how closely Progress 8 correlates to disadvantage, it would be nice to hear all the schools at the top doing the same, rather than posing for pictures as part of a glowing article in the local paper.

Secondly, we need to work together to provide the most effective (and cost-effective) provision for our most vulnerable children in the locality, both morally and financially. I would like to extend the principle that exists in some areas whereby every child who has an EHCP, or is in danger of PermEx (I realise that I’m describing two very different categories) is the shared responsibility of a partnership of local schools. Additional funding is held centrally by the partnership, and allocated to an appropriate provision, whether that’s a mainstream school, special school or alternative provision. Partnerships could even establish their own APs, or jointly purchase special school places, or step up managed move protocols. In the vast majority of cases, the most appropriate provision is in the local mainstream school, but it will be possible for a partnership to see whether the distribution is equitable or sensible, and to react to circumstances e.g. one of the schools going into an Ofsted category. If we really wanted to establish this principle, we would also find a way of sharing responsibility for outcomes, to ensure that all local schools work together.

There are many other ways we can encourage and celebrate collaboration. I would suggest a simple leadership question for Ofsted – how have you contributed to the outcomes for pupils outside your own school or Trust? Unless a school can answer this positively and convincingly, Outstanding should be off the table.  Schools should also be encouraged to make curriculum resources widely available, to invite others in to observe their great practice, and to feel confident enough to pick up the phone to their neighbouring school when they need to do the same. The teacher networks that have grown so successfully through social media can be promoted and supported by schools. We can build on the example set by organisations such as PixL, CCT, or the professional associations, to unlock the power of collaboration.

In the end, however, it’s a question of integrity and values, as it so often is. It’s difficult to force people to be collaborative and collegiate, but we can celebrate and recognise those colleagues who are. Wherever you are working, if you are working with children and young people, then your success is my success.

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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