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A multi-academy trust-led system? – Let’s see the evidence that it works…

Sometimes I feel like that awkward student who keeps asking the, ‘Yes, but…?’ questions; the one who just won’t accept what they have been told and let the lesson move on…

John Galloway
by John Galloway
Female British Army soldier
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Secondary

That’s how I felt when reading ‘The case for a fully trust-led system’ – an addendum intended to provide supporting evidence for the recently published White Paper, titled ‘Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’.

Perhaps it does, but you’re still left with the feeling that something is missing. That its contents are partial, perhaps even partisan.

‘Robust analysis’

For a start, there’s the fact that the majority of primary schools in England – 61% – remain under LA control, along with 20% of secondary schools, despite more pupils overall now being educated in academies.

Why is that? There’s no examination of why secondaries have been more willing to convert than primaries. Nor of the regional variations that see less than 20% of schools in the North West region converting, compared to more than 50% in the South West.

If academisation carries benefits that should see every school embracing it by 2030, how come it’s still so patchy? What are the drivers and impediments? It seems no-one wants to ask.

Instead, we get lots of truisms: “Strong trust leaders are relentlessly focused on improving outcomes.” I should hope so. But we could replace ‘trust leaders’ with ‘headteachers’ or ‘LA education directors’ and that statement would be just as true. The implication seems to be that only those leading academies have this imperative.

Then there’s the assertion that the compulsory conversion of underperforming schools into ‘sponsored’ academies has been transformative, with “More than 7 out of 10 sponsored academies… now rated Good or Outstanding compared to about 1 in 10 of the local authority

maintained schools they replaced.” Which suggests that the policy is working 70% of the time. What’s happening to the 3 in 10 that don’t improve? Why has it been ineffective for those schools?

Elsewhere, reference is made to ‘robust analysis’ suggesting that MATs improve schools more quickly than LAs, yet no reasons are given as to why that is. Is it just a matter of money? That academy status provides access to previously unavailable funds? That their deficits get written off upon conversion? That LA resources are denuded as more schools convert? Or is it something else?

Lack of evidence

It’s the lack of analysis that provokes such questions. There’s acknowledgement of the Education Endowment Foundation’s evidence-led approach, which sees different ways of working rigorously assessed and compared before recommendations are made based on the resulting evidence.

Here, though, comparisons are often made by inference: “Strong MATs can utilise evidence-based teacher and staff development.” Are we to therefore assume that LA-maintained schools simply pluck theirs out of thin air?

The addendum goes on to state that, “MATs are able to determine the capacity, culture and conditions in which professional development is implemented across multiple schools.” But well-led LAs do that too.

Finally, the document states that “Ensuring public funding is spent effectively and efficiently on improving outcomes for children is vitally important,” and that “MATs typically achieve financial stability”. But it doesn’t address any of the issues that the Public Accounts Committee happened to raise in the week before the White Paper was published.

The PAC had expressed concerns around the Education & Skills Funding Agency’s “Decision to use public money to prop up academy trusts in difficulty,” due to failures in addressing “Poor financial management within academy trusts.” It also observed that the DfE “Does not yet have a sufficient handle on excessive pay within the sector, and therefore cannot assess whether public funds are being well spent in this area.” Yet more questions in search of answers.

Asking how we can improve educational outcomes for learners is part of our responsibility as educators. But if we’re going to succeed in doing that, then we need an open and well-informed debate. Not partiality and obfuscation.

John Galloway is a freelance writer, consultant and trainer specialising in educational technology and SEND; for more information, visit johngallowayltd.com

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