Many will be aware of the government's controversial plans to turn every school into an Academy by 2022, which have been watered down, but far from abandoned completely. Fewer may be aware of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs), the entities that are increasingly overseeing the activities of Academies.
There are now 973 functioning MATs across England and the number is growing rapidly. Estimates for the number of MATs that will be needed over the next few years range from 1,000 to an enormous 10,000. The Department for Education's recently published White Paper says it expects "most schools [to be] in dynamic MATs".
Whatever you think about the rise of MATs, such a seismic transformation of the structure of England's school system needs to be carefully monitored. This is one of the reasons the Education Select Committee is currently undertaking a wide-ranging inquiry into the role of MATs.
Last week, the two "Knights" of education were summoned to give evidence to the inquiry. Sir David Carter, the National Schools Commissioner and Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of school inspection body Ofsted, were given a two-hour grilling by a group of MPs led by Neil Carmichael.
The revealing exchanges brought home why we should all be keeping a close eye on the development of MATs. Here are five reasons why:
1) Teachers are evidently concerned about the rise of MATs
An important bellwether of the success of MATs are classroom teachers. They, after all, are experiencing their effects in the classroom every day. A recent survey of 800 teachers by research house SchoolZone has found teachers have serious concerns. 71% disagreed with the idea that most schools will have to form or join MATs. Only 11% agreed. A greater 79% of teachers are opposed to the further development of MATs.
2) Schools risk losing considerable autonomy
Schoolzone says that teachers are, "often most concerned over the lack of autonomy that they fear being part of a MAT might bring". One example is if budgets were "out of the control of school or department heads", or if the MAT insisted on a particular curriculum or resources. As Schoolzone notes, "teachers value being able to exercise their personal judgement in these matters". And rightly so, as given they have more practical experience than anyone else about what works and what doesn't work in terms of helping children learn.
3) There are serious concerns around transparency
Much noise has been made about the large salaries of the CEOs of some MATs, the salary of the highest paid leader is now reportedly £370,000, "more than two-and-a-half times that of [the] Prime Minister". While it's important that MATs get the best people to run them, it is equally important that these leaders are accountable for their progress. Sir Wilshaw pointed out that in the seven failing MATs he inspected, there was "£110 million that was not being spent on the children". £10 million was apparently being spent on consultancies. "We want to know," he said, "why those failing MATs were not spending this money on children". He is not alone in wanting to know the answer to that.
4) They may prove too big, and too important, to fail
In 2014, it was reported that Royston Schools Academy Trust was bailed out by the government as it faced an £800,000 deficit. This was a smaller-than-average sized MAT containing just three schools, but it raises awkward questions. If we expect MATs to run like businesses, then we must expect some to fail. If so, how do we deal with the consequences? There are now over 40 MATs with over 10 schools. The consequences of one of these failing should be of great concern - obviously from a financial perspective, but most importantly in terms of the education of the children at these schools.
5) Efficiency doesn't always equal efficacy
Sir Carter observed in the inquiry that, "in some cases there are academies that are performing no better, or minimally better than before, yet the commitment those sponsors make is to improve those schools rapidly". Furthermore, some MATs are looking to increasingly make cost savings through centralising services and rationalising the procurement of resources. It is vital, however, that the resources and services necessary to drive up standards of education in the classroom are not cut back on as a result. Only 5% of an average schools' budget goes on classroom resources, and there is scant room to cut costs without children's education being affected.
As Sir Carter claimed at the inquiry, "this is an embryonic and emerging form of structural leadership in the system and it's going to develop very quickly". It is of great importance to teachers, parents and the next generation alike that this rapidly emerging form of leadership is monitored closely.