30 June 2023

Passing the test: expanding academy trusts is vital to our educational future


Whether you want people to be healthier, happier, richer or live longer lives, education is pretty much a silver bullet.

Schools play a key part in this, and they have improved markedly in England in the last few decades. There is no doubt that the pandemic and its aftermath have made things much harder, but it would be much, much worse if we’d not had such successful reforms beforehand.

One of the most important developments has been the growth and spread of multi-academy trusts (MATs): groups of schools run by one academy trust, like the Harris Federation and STAR Academies, able to operate across authorities or even regions.

It’s been a quiet but significant trend. Building upon it is the key to giving more children a better education in the next few years.

Why am I such a fan? MATs allow great governors and leaders to make an impact across a whole group of schools, not just one. Phenomenal people can go from running a single school to a whole chain, improving the lives of thousands of kids.

How can they do this? There are two reasons.

Unlike in an old-style Local Education Authority, accountability and money go together. Can you name a single councillor or council official who lost their job because local schools were rubbish? Nope. But I know of MAT leaders who were sacked or had schools taken off them because they weren’t doing well enough for kids.

Importantly, MATs are able to move money, people, expertise and resources around their schools to where they’re most needed. Perhaps it’s a struggling school that they’ve just taken on and needs investment. Maybe a department has lost a key member of staff to illness or promotion, and the MAT can move staff from elsewhere to fill their place. Or they’ve found an approach to teaching phonics that really works for kids, and they can embed it across all their schools.

Standalone schools or LEAs could not and cannot do this, and are less resilient as a result.

And the evidence is growing that MATs do better for children and teachers in different ways.

They’re more successful at getting ‘stuck’ schools ‘unstuck’. They’re better at staff recruitment and retention and, unlike the rest of the system, get more experienced staff into the schools with more disadvantaged pupils.

They also demonstrate better financial management and on average get more of their money into the actual classroom. This all adds up to better educational outcomes for pupils.

For instance, if all 11-year-olds did as well in their SATs as those who attend a school in a MAT in the top quarter of performance, 8% more children would start secondary school at the expected standard. If everyone attended a primary school as good as those in the top 10% of MATs, the rise would be 14%, and 19 percentage points for disadvantaged kids!

So we have a way of running schools that is more cost effective, more responsive, and does better for teachers and pupils. This is huge news! How do we expand these benefits to every state school?

This is what I explore in a report out today for the Centre for Policy Studies – ‘Passing the Test: The future of the academies programme’.

Focusing on the schools that are most keen to join or form a MAT, there are a few simple things that can smooth the process, and make it easier for schools and trusts to find suitable matches.

Some of these are pretty technical. For example, the Government should run a “Domesday Book” exercise across the maintained sector, so there is a clear record of assets, liabilities, etc at each school, ready to use when it joins a trust. We also need legislation to address land ownership issues that some Church schools face upon academisation

Others are about helping people find the right partners. Trusts should publish key information about how they work – behaviour strategies, curriculums taught, approaches to budget setting etc – so that schools can more easily gauge who they’d want to work with.

And this could form the basis of a ‘Tinder for Trusts’ – an independent ‘MATchmaking’ service to help school-to-MAT and MAT-to-MAT hookups. Left-swipe for a standardised curriculum, right-swipe for more in-school support.

Most importantly though, ministers need to find their voice and put a rocket under all of this. The Government had aimed to get every school joining a strong MAT by 2030, but earlier this year the target was watered down to ‘over time’.

Frustratingly, they did this just as the sector had accepted that getting together in MATs was inevitable, and so were getting on with it.

Given how effective MATs are proving to be at so many things, it would be crazy to not use the time left before the election to get as many schools as possible into one. A dash of cash and burst of energy from ministers is all it would take, then they can leave it to the sector to get right-swiping and find the right MATch for their school.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.