Countering the noise: Multi-academy trusts vs local authorities?

Written by: Brian Rossiter | Published:
Brian Rossiter, chair of the L.E.A.P. multi-academy trust in Rotherham

Local authorities good. Academies bad. The terrible stories of corruption make for regular headlines and bad publicity for the academies programme, but Brian Rossiter says we cannot let the behaviour of the few ruin the good work of the many...

In Animal Farm, George Orwell wrote a speech by Napoleon that included the chant “four legs good, two legs bad”.

In England today the education chant being coined could be “local authorities good, multi-academies bad”.

I applaud the identification in the media of malfeasance in schools, academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs). It can never be right that public monies are used simply to benefit a few individuals.

And it can never be right that individual schools and academies put their own interests before the interests of individual learners and communities.

The examples you can find across the service that have been well documented and publicised are very sorry tales that should never have happened in the first place.

And yes, there will be more stories of corruption of which we are as yet unaware.

Last year’s BBC Panorama on the Bright Tribe MAT (October 2018) raised many questions about the accountability of MATs to the public and the scrutiny they receive from the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the Department for Education (DfE).

The system under Lord Agnew as under secretary of state is, albeit late, changing. Exploited loopholes are closing and the unscrupulous are being made to account for their actions.

Aditya Chakrabortty recently wrote in the Guardian about Waltham Holy Cross Primary School, which had been judged to be “inadequate” by Ofsted.

The headteacher wrote to the DfE to propose being taken into a preferred MAT, “but was ignored”. Now forced academisation is taking place at Waltham Holy Cross and this has created tensions in the community and the education sector as a whole.

Communities deserve to be listened to when the future of individual schools in their area are being considered.

Schools judged to be “inadequate” by Ofsted come under the purview of the Regional Schools Commissioners (RSC) office who will seek to broker their movement into a MAT.

The understanding is that the MAT will support that school as it seeks to remove the inspectorate’s label. The RSC is consulting on changes to their processes. However, the work of the Headteacher Boards has not always been transparent.

Opaqueness has led to brokering disputes that reflect badly on those MATs wishing to do the right thing by supporting individual schools in difficulty.

And some MATs do not help the system. They contribute to the noise, denigrating the work, image and perception of the majority of MATs in the country.

There’s an example of a letter written by a potential sponsor to a very challenging school in significantly challenging circumstances that says that their MAT will not consider taking the school into their MAT because it will “... taint their brand”.

Who will step in to support by taking into their MAT some of the most challenging schools in the country? Many of us will.

Some MATs do help the system. A classic example of a local MAT being true to its ethical values is the Cumbria Education Trust (CET), which has recently taken into their trust the Whitehaven Academy.

The academy has been rebrokered from Bright Tribe MAT where it languished with significant issues of under-resourcing, low outcomes and persistent turmoil.

Having completed due diligence, CET made the decision that the community deserved better and that they would invest, along with the DfE, in the academy and as such deliver a future to a community that was demanding, quite rightly, so much more.

I wrote in SecEd two years ago of the game-playing that we all too often see in some MATs. Unfortunately the corrupt practices of a few continue.

The permanent exclusion of a large number of children from individual secondary academies persists, with an academy in the East Midlands excluding 22 students in an academic year and another one 17. Another MAT talks about “going in hard” and permanently excluding nine students in the first year of a new school being brokered into their trust.

This means that 22, 17 and nine students all had to be taken into surrounding organisations to complete their formal education. This and below the radar off-rolling of students puts huge pressures on those schools around the excluding academies.

And what of those learners? Chief inspector Amanda Spielman has directed her inspectors to identify where communities and learners are being done a disservice.
Ms Spielman is also a member of the Association of School and College Leaders’ recently established “Ethical Leadership Commission”. This was established to articulate the ethical values that should underpin the UK’s education leaders. I would hope that all leaders across the system take note of this work.

There is significant noise then about the whole academies programme in England. The noise appears to be defining the perception of the whole system. It has become a classic example of post-truth politics – repeated criticisms of all academies and MATs to which factual rebuttals are ignored.

What this noise obscures however is the huge amount of good work undertaken by the many individual academies and MATs across the country.

As chair of a Board of Trustees for a small MAT, while being horrified by some of the stories of a few unprincipled MATs, I am angry that we are all being cast in the same light.

I would argue that the vast majority of academies and MATs follow Lord Nolan’s Principle for Public Life of “Selflessness – to act for the greater good, not for our own power, status or relationships”.

The early days of academies and “chains” were something akin to the wild west, with some of the “big beasts” travelling around the country seeking to sign schools into their chains, which became ever-larger. Ever-larger, yet individual academies were – and still are – often not supported.

The arrival of Sir David Carter as National Schools Commissioner seems to have led to a movement whereby MATs worked in smaller hubs.

The notion of a MAT working within an hour’s travelling time between the extremities of each hub meant that they were better able to support the academies within their trust.

Small MATs are now encouraged along with single academies to join a larger MAT to get the benefits of the larger local organisation. This is now becoming the norm.

Primary and secondary (and joint primary-secondary) MATs provide not only administration and leadership support and financial advantages of bulk purchasing, for example, but also curriculum and teaching and learning expertise that can and should be shared across the whole trust.

The development of trust-wide assessment and moderation supports teachers in an ever-changing assessment world.

Colleagues working together on “Target Tracker” or “PiXL” benefit not only from sharing their knowledge but also from working with others within different academies within trusts.

Well-planned CPD across a trust develops a common understanding among the whole team of “outstanding teaching”, wellbeing, mental health, child protection, and on so, with cost-efficient provision from expertise within and beyond the trust.

Faiza Shaheen’s recent article in the Guardian highlights the plight of Longshaw Primary School under the Silver Birch MAT. The piece ends with a plea for readers to sign a “petition begun by parents at Longshaw to demand the government allow schools to go back to local authority supervision”.

I don’t hold to the view that local authorities are good and MATs are bad. Similarly, I don’t hold to the alternative view – both have a role to play.

However, in the world of austerity in which we have lived for the past eight years or so, local authorities have been so starved of cash and have had so many child protection and safeguarding issues to take on that often they are simply unable to provide the support to schools that they offered 20 or 30 years ago.

Children’s services divisions, and in particular the education section, have been pared back to providing the minimum statutory requirements in many council areas.
Whereas several years ago we could have relied on a whole range of support services including advisory teams and leadership support these have all but disappeared.In many local authorities it is almost inconceivable that they could reconstitute themselves to provide adequate support to individual schools.

Schools working together through primary, secondary or all-through-age MATs are providing the support that administration teams, school leaders and teachers in classrooms need. They’re filling the gap.

Towards the end of Animal Farm, Orwell modified the chant “Four legs good, two legs bad.” to “Four legs good, two legs better”.

In improving the quality of the system for all young people in this country, it is my belief that whatever the governance arrangements or accountability procedures for individual schools no single rallying call works.

The media noise favours a particular model. I favour “Autonomy good, co-operation better”. Multi-academy trusts are just one way of delivering this maxim.

  • Brian Rossiter is a former headteacher who is now chair of the L.E.A.P. multi-academy trust in Rotherham. He is also an education consultant and an editorial board member for SecEd.



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