Over the summer there are have been many media articles and political interventions raising questions about the growth and increasing power of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), and their lack of accountability to parents and local communities.
Revelations about senior MAT staff salaries - when teachers are facing real cuts in their pay -and the free movement of senior staff between MATs and senior DfE civil servant posts including Regional School Commissioner (RSC) roles have made front page news. And rightly so.
Earlier this year the House of Commons Education Select Committee published a report which was highly critical of MATs and which raised fundamental questions about them.
The Committee's concerns included:
- the underperformance of some MATs and the lack of evidence that they were improving school outcomes - indeed the evidence from the Committee was that two thirds of secondary schools in MATs had Progress 8 scores that were below average
- insufficient DfE and Education Funding Agency (EFA) capacity to oversee the expansion of academies, free schools and MATs
- how MATs are assessed and the confused roles of OfSTED and Regional Schools Commissioners to oversee, monitor and assess MAT performance
- school governance with many MATs centralising key decisions which would clearly reside with school governors in local authority maintained schools
- poor and in some cases no accountability to parents and local communities with heads being held to account and often directed by central MAT executives and boards - some MATs do not have local governing bodies and when they do some do not allow for elected parent and staff governors
- the problem of smaller and often rural schools that are not part of MATs being left behind and under-supported
- what have been called 'untouchable' schools which MATs do not wish to take on because of their physical condition, financial health and/or educational performance - unlike a local authority MATs can pick and choose which schools they will support though active RSCs may make this a very difficult choice but not always
One additional key issue I would add to this list is the lack of transparency in the decision making by RSCs including allocating - or even forcing - schools into MATs.
These are fundamental questions that the Secretary of State should answer and be held to account over. They are ones too which should exercise the Shadow Secretary of State and The Labour Party.
There are a further set of questions about the governance of MATs including who appoints their boards and their relationship with businesses that operate in the education markets.
There is an important question for the government: 'are MATs being promoted by the current Government as step towards the marketisation of education and allowing school providers in the 'public sector' to make a profit?'
Above all the major concern about MATs is that they too often diminish or eliminate local accountability and schools' links with local communities and local services, and above all local democratic government.
Whilst there are examples of 'local' MATs, including ones established by schools themselves building on previous federation arrangements most MATs are not local and are not controlled or accountable to their schools. this. Many operate nationally.
In promoting the policy of academies and MATs the Government continually speaks about 'empowering headteachers to take control and make decisions which are right for their school and its learners'. Ministers claim this is best or indeed, only possible, when schools become academies in MATs. This claim flies in the face of too much evidence.
For several decades, local authorities have devolved and delegated power and resources to headteachers and governing bodies. On the other hand, many MATs do 'micro-manage' schools and headteachers as if they were simply middle-tier managers not school leaders - behind the charade of greater empowerment MATs too many MATs disempowering head teachers, governing bodies and parents; distancing decision making from parents and local communities; and imposing bland pedagogical models that don't fit local circumstances.
If a parent has a concern about their child's school in the past they could have approached the school's governors and then, if not satisfied their local councillor or the local authority itself. Today parents must find out where power resides. They must locate the MAT chief executive and/or board. Or should they locate the RSC? And if located would these people want to hear from parents. Accountability should be a non-negotiable for public services.
Local authorities are elected and locally accountable. MAT boards are not.
Local government should be more vocal in promoting its democratic credentials in challenging Government policy, the role of RSCs, the growth in number and power of MATs. It is time for local government to speak up and to make the case for the restoration of local accountability.
Interestingly in the last few days the Local Government Association (LGA) has been demanding powers to direct academies and MATs when there is a major shortfall in local school places. This demand should be supported but local government should go further. It should develop and promote for itself a democratic and comprehensive role in terms of local schools and the education of young people.
Such an approach could be core to Labour's commitment to a National Education Service which is locally accountable. The aim should be for all academies, in time, to be returned to local control and accountability but there inevitably would need to be transition arrangements.
This is not a call to go back to the pre-2000 model but for local democracy and accountability.
Significant delegation to maintained schools must continue and academies can play a major role in local education provision, but only when there is local accountability and local governance.
On this basis, local government's role could be to
- commission, plan and co-ordinate schools
- facilitate local federations and co-operative based MAT style arrangements for school collaboration
- agree local education and social outcome targets with schools that are consistent with local with goals; and ensure that schools are integrated with other local public services
- quality assure schools
- lead on capacity planning, capital expenditure and new school building and
- through their scrutiny roles hold academies, governors and existing MATs to account during a transitional period
- build their internal capacity but do so in partnership with local schools, academies, federations and local co-operative MATs by working with 'lead schools' and 'lead professionals' based in schools
During the transitional period, local authorities should have the right to appoint a proportion of governors to academies and of directors on MAT boards.
There would be no longer a need for RSCs or the EFA. Local government alone would be held to account for education performance by local people.
I believe that the approach suggested here is probably the only sustainable way of addressing the concerns raised in recent media articles, by parents, by trade unions and professional bodies, and in the Select Committee report.
Parents, communities, head teachers and governors should be taking back control with local accountability.
This should be appealing to progressive national and local politicians in The Labour Party and other parties.