Last week, Ofsted published its inspection of the CfBT multi-academy trust, delivering the verdict that that trust had grown too quickly. This is a fair criticism. Rapid growth in any organisation brings with it many challenges.
In the US, no highly successful Charter Management Organisation – the equivalent of our multi-academy trusts (MATs) – has grown by more than one or two schools each year. Robert Hill’s research into the effectiveness of MATs has found that the most successful have grown gradually and remained based around one or two geographical hubs.
CfBT is not alone in having grown at an unsustainable pace. In recent years, the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), United Learning and E-ACT have all been criticised for taking on too many Academies before they had the capacity to support them properly. Indeed, MATs are increasingly listed among the UK’s largest charities – for example, the Oasis Charitable Trust had an income of £264m in 2014, a growth of more than 400% since 2008.
I recognise this issue from my own days as Deputy Schools Commissioner at the DfE almost ten years ago. At the time, we had to meet the Government target of growing from 200 to 400 academies – and, on reflection, I know that I was guilty of pushing challenging projects to sponsors that were not fully equipped to deal with them.
Chris Tweedale, the CEO of CfBT, made a similar point in an interview with Schools Week, pointing to the Government’s then-policy of encouraging academy sponsorship. “In the early days it was ‘quantity, quantity, quantity’ and then Lord Nash came into the Department and it changed overnight to ‘quality, quality, quality’.”
It’s heartening to hear about this change of mindset under Lord Nash. But the Education Bill making its way through Parliament will, if passed, see a steady stream of ‘failing’ and ‘coasting’ schools becoming academies, requiring new and dynamic sponsors.
Similarly, the future looks more and more uncertain for the thousands of “stand-alone” academies that converted following the Academies Act 2010. They are likely to founder if they remain isolated.
All of which points to an urgent need for more and better MATs.
A successful MAT has a crystal clear vision for its future. It knows what it stands for, its values and the principles that underpin its strategies for school improvement. It builds a team, both at its corporate centre and in its Academies, that shares that clarity and has the capacity to lead real and sustainable change.
"A successful MAT has a crystal clear vision for its future. It knows what it stands for, its values and the principles that underpin its strategies for school improvement."
Challenging schools are complex organisations within very complex communities. They require leadership that is sensitive to context, but also inspired by the moral responsibility of providing all children with an excellent education. They are not cookie-cutter franchises that can simply be rebranded with a lick of paint, a new uniform and a corporate logo. There is no academy magic – as Nick Gibb said last week, academies are not necessarily better than other schools. They offer different opportunities; at their best, MATs provide their schools and the teachers and leaders within them with a supportive network that allows extra capacity, shared best practice, and a great education for their students.
But if that network is collapsing under the pressure of rapid growth, it will not be able to serve this function.
The unconstrained growth of MATs risks damaging the whole basis of academies policy. Academies were born out of the systemic failure of some local authorities to act as responsible guardians for all the students in their care. Multi-academy trusts evolved out of the need to support individual academies through the sharing of resources, practice and leadership. How can we prevent their failure, to ensure that they meet the needs of the students they serve?
The answer, as in so many areas of education, lies in systematic capacity building.
"Over the coming years we need to… provide the training that will allow MATs to increase our education system’s capacity rather than drive it into the ground."
I’ve been working on Executive Educators, The Future Leaders Trust’s programme for MAT CEOs. Our programme aims to make sure that those leading MATs are better skilled to face the challenges of growth, but that’s just the start. If, as expected, the Education Bill and other policy drivers lead to thousands of new sponsored Academies, we will need hundreds of new, effective MATs in the coming years, and hundreds of able, experienced CEOs to guide them.
Over the past few months it has been fascinating to hear the CEO participants on Executive Educators openly sharing their approaches to governance, finance and school improvement, and discussing and debating their roles and responsibilities. Over the coming years we need to promote more of these conversations, and to provide the training that will allow MATs to increase our education system’s capacity rather than drive it into the ground.
We must learn the lessons of boom and bust. MATs should grow, but not too far and too fast. Instead of piling more and more schools onto fledgling organisations, we should focus on supporting more successful schools and their leaders to start their own sustainable MATs that, taken together, can create a sustainable model of school improvement where every child gets a great education.
Register for the Executive Educators programme by 30 September.
This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.