Academy trusts: Where’s the Autonomy?

The Labour Party needs to reform the broken academies structure by breaking up large national trusts so that they contain fewer than ten schools which operate as clusters in the same geographical areas and form an interdependency through shared values, argues Luke Cresswell.

The mass academisation of schools in England, supported by all the main parties, was supposed to be about increasing autonomy. However, all the policy has achieved is a transfer of power and accountability from head teachers and local authorities to unelected trusts with their highly paid CEOs. The Labour Party has been bold on education recently, with the announcement to abolish the charity status of private schools, but it needs to extend this bid for educational equality by reforming academy trusts.

When the Academies Act came out in 2010, nobody seemed to expect that national Multi-Academy Trusts would form and then hoover up schools in an aggressive, expansionist way. Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) or academy chains are academy trusts that operate more than one academy school.

Large national MATs have taken over management of schools up and down the country with no connection to, or care for, the communities which they serve. They then impose their ready-made ‘one-size fits all’ policies onto these schools. I once worked for a Trust which had the same policies for the schools it had in London as the schools they operated in Suffolk! The academisation of schools in England has actually led to less autonomy and has in fact created another layer of bureaucracy.

The academy agenda is full of contradictions when it comes to autonomy. It will empower parents by allowing them to choose which school they can send their child to, but often the local authority will only pay for the bus fare to the nearest school. The school can teach its own “broad and balanced” curriculum as long as the pupils pass a very rigid exam. The trust can set their own teacher pay scales but the budgets are so low that this flexibility means a choice between the typical going teacher rate or giving the students an unqualified teacher or instructor on the cheap.

Whether teacher or instructor, there certainly isn’t room for autonomy in the classroom as many educational staff are made to follow strict formulaic lessons that are sent straight from the central Trust office. And, let’s face it, OFSTED still inspects and rates schools according to its clearly defined agenda. 

Perhaps most contradictorily, local authority schools have been firmly pushed into academisation by force, not choice. How’s that for school autonomy? Where does the actual autonomy kick in? What does autonomy really mean?

If you visit schools run by one of these large MATs or chains, you will see corporate, soulless, carbon copies that churn out students who can achieve good functional English and maths but have not had the exposure to creativity or critical thought. Before academisation, schools were led by the head teacher, with a light touch scrutiny by governors and the elected local authority; that really was autonomy. Now, under academisation, head teachers simply manage schools according to policies and strategies set by distant and often completely unqualified trusts with their board members and CEOs who, in many cases, have never taught a lesson in their life. And the individual schools lose around 5-10% of their budgets to the central trust too, just to help fund this ‘autonomy’.

Forcing schools to become academies has clearly failed to achieve autonomy, so why do politicians of all party’s continue to advocate it?

Firstly, it takes responsibility and possibly blame away from the politicians as they can pass it onto the faceless Trusts. Secondly, there is a paralysis of ideas and a lack of vision for what school education should look like in a modern England.

Not all academy trusts are bad of course. It is worth noting that successful academy trusts have certain key elements in common. Successful trusts are made up of a smaller number of schools which means each school has a bigger voice in how the Trust should operate; it is easy for a school to get lost in a Trust of thirty or more schools.

The successful trusts are grouped in the same geographical area so that they develop healthy interdependent relationships. There is no such thing as sharing good practice when a Trust operates across the whole country. Lastly, successful Trust CEOs or leadership come from an educational background where they have school leadership experience. This should be obvious, but in many cases, Trusts are led by those who have absolutely no experience of teaching.

Although a complete overhaul of the educational system will be needed in time, I can understand the lack of desire to do so right now after the last turbulent decade of educational restructuring. Academisation has not delivered and a future Labour government will need to think big to fully address this. In the meantime, the Labour Party needs to reform the broken academies structure by breaking up large national Trusts so that a Trust must contain fewer than ten schools which operate as clusters in the same geographical areas.

All that leaves is for the pro-academy ideologues to prove the link between school autonomy and academic success actually exists at all.

Luke Cresswell is a secondary school teacher and primary school governor who is currently working on a PhD on the subject of academisation of schools.

Image: https://freesvg.org/female-teacher-image

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