Guest Blog: Multi-Academy Trusts: A grassroots view…

The following blog was written by a colleague with whom I have communicated regularly on twitter and who is a supportive and positive presence in the #edutwitter community. Following my blog ‘The Golden Rule of Multi Academy Trusts’, he wanted to share his thoughts and experiences, but is nervous about doing so publicly under his own name, which perhaps gives an indication of the uncertainty that people feel when dealing with MATs. I’m happy to host his thoughts here.

Twitter’s @DrHeery who I greatly respect and enjoy corresponding with on Twitter galvanised me into writing this with the blog he published on 12 April 2021 entitled “The Goldilocks rule of Multi Academy Trusts.” Before I go on, I’m afraid I’m having to post this anonymously (thank you @DrHeery for hosting this) as I know from painful first hand experience that senior colleagues lurk on social media and while what I have to say is largely positive, there may be some “home truths” that will make less palatable reading.
Before I go on, I feel too I need to declare my political colours so others reading this might have a better understanding of my approach. I first started working in schools when David Cameron became Prime Minister so have been working within a political landscape where the controversy of academisation versus local control was one of the big headlines of the time. I actually did some supply work at the school formerly known as Downhills soon after it become part of the Harris Federation. That experience was so traumatic, I ended up having to step away from classroom duties and received NHS funded psychotherapy for over a year. It was therefore interesting to read in 2018 that this happened:
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/harris-primary-academy-ministers-philip-lane-downhills-school-sats-exam-chearing-parents-letter-gove-a8482556.html (last visited 13 April 2021)
Coming back to my political colours, Politics was a significant part of my undergraduate degree and at the time, in the immediate aftermath of the death of Labour Leader, John Smith and the talk at the time of party reform, I was a card carrying member of the Labour Party. The subsequent controversy over “Clause 4” made me revoke my membership. In recent elections I have voted with a much more critical eye and for candidates who I truly believe have the interests of their electorate at heart rather than aspirations for high office.
I thought it important to set out the political context of what I’m about to say as I don’t want those scrolling by to think “Oh what does this voice know about the politics of academisation? They’re just a foot soldier and lacks any leadership experience, especially in schools”. That might be true, but as a keen observer of politics and the economic as well as social policy impact of Central and Local Government decision making, I’ve seen that ideologically the Conservatives during my lifetime have maintained a very clear approach with rolling back the State as it were and I see the academisation of schools as part of that. Furthermore, reading through so much about the History of Education too, the creation of the National Curriculum in 1988 and Jim Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976
were or are symbolic of how I believe successive Central Governments irrespective of political colour have a fundamental distrust of Local Authorities. This in school terms manifests itself as taking schools out of Local Authority control or responsibility and not for any other pedagogically sound reasons. Of course, in soundbite terms it sounds better when the Whitehall Wombles say its about “control of curriculum design being given to the teachers and other educational experts” rather than “Local Authorities don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to
teaching and learning.”
During my teacher training too, the emergence of academies was a big talking point and the subject of many written assignments during my University based training. The consensus view amongst the cohort was that “we” would try to avoid working for Academies owing largely to rumours among the student body, as social media was in its infancy
at that time, poor pay and conditions for their staff and draconian working practices.
I had a very chequered and erratic start after I qualified, working in short bursts in many schools. The faith based schools I’ve worked in are experiences I never want to repeat, not just because I felt like a complete classroom novice and unknown to me at the time in desperate need of psychotherapeutic support. In my recovery phase as it were, I had the good fortune to work in some schools which were still in Local Authority control – albeit under a structure which had a “Director of Education and Children’s Services” which operated at arms length from the rest of the machinery of Local Government. I also spent one and a half terms working at a fee paying school in an exclusive part of London which merits its own story for another time. As @DrHeery says the array of strategic school structures from “soft Federations” to fully branded large Multi Academy Trusts means I can’t clearly recall what type of schools I’ve been in during the time I did supply work.
Anyway, since the end of 2015 I’ve worked for what I think is a wonderful Multi Academy Trust. And this is the first really contentious statement. There are so many on social media who would “block” and “mute” me for simply saying that for no other reason than their own ingrained belief that “Multi Academy Trusts are bad”. I saw this first hand as one of the Board of Trustees was presenting her emergent findings from her PhD about her observations of managing the Trust at an academic conference we both attended. From where I was sitting in the audience, I heard tutting and booing from a senior academic at a fairly prestigious University. I suspended my disbelief at such unprofessional behaviour and instead found comfort in the Newman and Baddiel “that’s you that is” comedy routine from early 1990s British television.
I also hear and see all of those reasons why Local Authorities are doing a good to great job of providing a community based service through the schools they have retained responsibility for. There are some Local Authorities who have a wonderfully comprehensive service that they provide to support schools in their catchment area as it were – with
music teaching, professional development opportunities, cross school cross curricular learning provision, SEND support and much, much more. Sadly such practices are not only not universal but are very dependent on individual personalities and commitment. Today’s leading Local Authority could and can rapidly descend because of political whims and a change of focus or Leadership. And this is true not just of Local Authorities but any organisation – whether in the private or public sector. I think I can say this with legitimacy given my extensive management and executive professional paid experience of supporting change management projects across a large (8,000 plus staff) organisation for almost 24 years before I became a teacher.
Anyway, coming back to the wonderful Multi Academy Trust I work for. Why are they amazing? Because they have had a vision from the outset of allowing their Headteachers a “can do and want to” approach in the way the schools locally run. I’ve heard such an approach being described as “collegiate leadership” although I haven’t fully researched what this might mean – although it would make it an interesting aspect of the Action Research that the Trust are sponsoring me to undertake. Yes, and this is another reason why I think the Multi Academy Trust I work for
is a brilliant employer. They have made the commitment to support the professional development of its staff by partnering with universities so that colleagues who want to can study at postgraduate level. I really should be working on my dissertation at the time of writing but exercising my mind in this way is much more appealing.
The Trust have also established a “Hub” type model where individual schools with leading experts in subject fields deliver and support other schools across the Trust to raise teaching and learning standards. The Director of Music and former Director of Art did and continue to do amazing work raising the profile and standards of teaching and
learning for their respective subjects. The Trust brings all of its schools together for memory making Trust wide events like Sports Olympiads, Science Symposiums and a fortnight long annual Arts Festival. I am trying to emulate the same in my own subject specialism – not because I want to return to the lofty heights of Executive Leadership again but because I’m passionate about the subject I adore teaching. The Board of Trustees and the Headteacher at the School I’m usually based at has allowed me to do exactly that.
You’re probably thinking, ‘but surely there must be “weeds” in this beautiful garden I’ve described’. Well, yes there are. The bureaucratic process in parts of any organisation slows down decision making. As a classroom practitioner who thinks about these things, the cost of “administration” for any Multi-Academy Trust in any shape or form means money being taken away from “front-line” delivery. As @DrHeery reflects, the exorbitant salaries of some Executives for any organisation makes me question every day, when I don’t have the resources to enable every learner I work with, the opportunity to receive the outstanding learning experience I expect for my own daughter and son. The examples of best working practice can also be lost in large organisations too to what Economists call “diseconomies of scale”. As an experienced classroom practitioner, I do not expect to be given a “rulebook” to follow but would appreciate strategic decisions on working practices to be unambiguous and not seemingly constantly changed as pedagogical fashion dictates. This personal frustration is perhaps more of a wider observation or reflection of how schools have had to operate since March 2020 and requiring all of us to have a much more adaptable and flexible approach. From my previous experience of change management processes, new structures
and practices do need to be communicated effectively and allowed a period of time to be embedded and reviewed for its impact before any further changes are made. Once again, such observations apply to any organisational structure.
I guess in summary for me, based on my professional experiences and personal observations, I prefer thinking about the Multi Academy Trust model of managing schools as, taking the analogy that @DrHeery has applied, one technique of preparing porridge that some will find is “just right”.

Thank you for reading.

Author: Dr Heery

I'm the Chief Executive Officer 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. My blog is a place where I share my thoughts and ideas on the world of education and school leadership, with the aim of provoking debate and discussion. Click the logo above to read more.

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