Where is the English Education System Heading? An Insight into the Future of Multi Academy Trusts
At the Foundation for Education Development summit, which took place at the beginning of March, Secretary of State Gavin Williamson restated the importance for schools to build partnerships and join a bigger family, that is, to become part of a Multi Academy Trust. ‘Multi Academy Trusts’, he maintained, ‘are powerful vehicles for improving schools by sharing expertise, working collaboratively and driving improvements. It is living proof of the old adage, a problem shared is a problem halved’. He added that the Government expected a greater number of schools to join a MAT by 2025 and that they were actively looking at how to facilitate this process. Speaking to Schools Week later in the month, Mr Williamson clarified that the DfE has currently no plans to change the legislation in order to force schools into MATs. The pandemic, the Secretary of State continued, has shown how beneficial it is for schools to be part of a family and to work together. The reticence to compel schools to change status appeared to be shared by Baroness Berridge, the Schools Minister, who also stated in a meeting with CST members that there were no plans to do so.
Mr Williamson’s statements have renewed the debate about the purpose and scope of large MATs. In a recent article on Schools Week, Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governance Association, raised a number of important issues. The article, it is worth mentioning, is based on the report MATs Moving Forward: The Power of Governance released by the National Governance Association in March 2021. In her piece, Knights pointed out that public policy leaders have dedicated little attention to the pros and cons of having trusts of different size. It is evident that the establishment of MATs is the DfE’s favoured solution to school improvement, but, she warned, the Government has not set out a clear vision since Nicky Morgan’s white paper Education Excellence Everywhere in 2016. Knights then underlined that larger MATs are less likely to have committees from each academy on their boards. This might lead to a widening of the distance between trusts and the local communities they are supposed to serve. Do we intend MATs to be fixed entities or incubators of success? Is the expansion of larger trusts jeopardising the smaller ones, often overlooked and conceived as destination for brokered and re-brokered schools? Does the DfE aim to turn every MAT into a large MAT? These are some of the questions that Knights posed at the end of her article.
The pandemic has demonstrated that MATs can effectively achieve their main goal.
While it is not easy to make predictions on the future development of the education sector in England, it is possible to address partially Knights’ questions by taking into consideration how MATs have tackled the COVID-19 emergency. It seems true that, as Mr Williamson maintained, MATs have shown a considerable degree of resilience in the course of the pandemic. In the blog post The Trust in Testing Times, Ofsted has disclosed that the majority of leaders in schools part of MATs defined the support received from their trust as invaluable. Trusts’ central teams have helped schools adapt to safeguarding and COVID-19 guidelines, develop and deliver online and then blended learning, deal with crucial curriculum challenges and monitor the well-being of staff. With particular reference to safeguarding and COVID-19 guidelines, school leaders explained that central support, by and large, went hand in hand with a certain level of local autonomy, which enabled them to tailor policies to the unique social, geographical and educational context of their institutions.
Ofsted’s analysis has been corroborated by the words of Leora Cruddas, Chief Executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, who has praised the support that trusts have provided to schools in terms of financial management and shift to online learning. Research conducted by Schools Week has also revealed that, despite the significant challenges triggered by the COVID-19 crisis, most large MATs have been successful in preserving their financial stability.
The pandemic has thus demonstrated that MATs can effectively achieve their main goal, that is, the sharing of knowledge, best practice and expertise. The way in which trusts’ central teams have collaborated with school leaders to find solutions to new and unexpected problems bodes well for the future of an education system based on the centrality of MATs. Maximising the engagement between central and local governance and assisting school leaders with the creation of partnerships at local level should remain key priorities of trusts committed to serving communities. As MATs Moving Forward suggests, placing the community at the heart of MATs’ vision and values is essential to ensuring a sustainable future for the education sector.