Academisation and Multi Academy Trusts
The past 20 years have seen unprecedented changes both within the education system and the external landscape they operate within. The move towards academisation and forming of multi-academy trusts has had a significant impact on schools, and senior leadership teams have had to respond and evolve in order to remain effective at sustaining good educational outcomes.
The year-on-year increase in academies and multi-academy trusts
As Andrews and Perera of the Education Policy Institute quite rightly state in their 2017 report, which assesses the impact of academies on educational outcomes, ‘The expansion of the academies programme has been one of the biggest changes to the English education system in a generation.’
This evolution is still taking place in 2022, with the number of academies and multi academy trusts continuing to rise year on year. As seen in the table below sourced from the latest school census, the number of schools that now have academy status has risen 17 percentage points, from 22% to 39%, in just six years.
As the report goes on to explain, as of January 2022:
- 39% of primary schools are now academies or free schools
- 80% of secondary schools are academies or free schools
- 43% of special schools are academies or free schools
Furthermore, nationwide growth of multi academy trusts has particularly gained momentum in the past five years, as shown below (source: Plaister, FFT Education Lab, 2022)
So what does this mean for senior leadership teams, and also the students who attend these academies? Well, that depends on who you ask.
In July 2019, Ofsted released a report called ‘Multi-academy trusts: benefits, challenges and functions.’ Over a 12 month period, they visited 41 MATs (121 schools) and questioned staff about how moving to academy-status has affected the school, students and staff.
The benefits of multi-academy trusts
Whilst the report cited there were significant differences between how MATs operate, overall the main benefits were considered to be around centralisation of certain departments, economies of scale and the subsequent financial rewards.
For example, more back office support for functions like IT and HR means that senior leadership teams can focus on more important aspects of their role. Similarly, schools are able to benefit from the size of the MAT to drive down the cost of things like cleaning and catering contracts.
Middle and senior leaders also enjoyed a more formalised model of teaching and learning with better access to training and development, the report said. Staff enjoyed the collaboration and sharing of best practice through meetings with other schools in the trust. According to the findings, SLTs welcomed the way the central team set challenging and aspirational targets that help them achieve more than they would probably manage alone.
This in turn benefits the students with more money and expertise to be invested directly in improving educational outcomes. Pupils with SEND benefited particularly from this shared expertise.
The disadvantages & challenges of multi-academy trusts
According to the same Ofsted report, issues of the MAT structure is also financial, but often it’s ruled by perceptions and lack of facts and information. For example, the MAT financial reports would state that a percentage of funding would be ploughed back into ‘the MAT’ but it’s unclear exactly what this is for.
This in turn can cause animosity - where tensions have arisen when ‘too much money’ is given to academies who have not always spent wisely in the past. Equally, some staff have been unhappy about the way the central budget is split, with underperforming schools getting more investment which is sometimes deemed unfair.
Other challenges that were mentioned were the increase in red tape, slower decision making and a lack of autonomy, but the report suggested that senior leaders conceded that there would have to be some trade off versus the benefits gained.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NEU (National Education Union) presented a far more damning case against academisation in August this year. The article seeks to dispel the ‘myth’ that academisation has improved educational outcomes, even saying that students from the larger MATs have gone backwards.
The aforementioned 2017 EPI report backs this up to a certain extent, stating ‘academies do not provide an automatic solution to school improvement’ when analysing students’ results in year 2 and year 4, found that ‘there is no real change to the primary school test scores of incoming pupils once the schools become converter academies’.
Optimum size of an MAT
Despite the academisation process being in place for the best part of 20 years, it’s a process that is still evolving and MATs vary greatly in size, leadership, geography and demographic. Furthermore, it’s still unclear what the ‘optimal’ size of an MAT is. In other words, what is the perfect size for an MAT, so it is large enough to benefit from economies of scale, shared resources and cross recruitment, but also small enough to understand individual school’s requirements, offer a personalised approach and hold a central team who aren’t spread too thinly?
The 2016 white paper ‘Educational excellence everywhere’ identified that a size of, on average, 10 to 15 academies requires the MAT to develop centralised systems and functions to deliver benefits. The rationale for this growth put forward by the government has been largely economic – for example, that larger MATs will secure economies of scale, more efficient use of resources, more effective management and clearer oversight of academies.
A year later, the then minister responsible for academies, Lord Agnew, agreed, suggesting that small MATs should merge together in order to achieve financial viability, arguing that: ‘the sweet spot is perhaps somewhere between 12 and 20 schools, or something like 5,000 to 10,000 pupils’.
This may be the case in an ideal world, but only if the MAT has got the right systems, processes, logistics and infrastructure in place. Sharing good practice is not always done efficiently or effectively; there may be the occasional school that is geographically isolated, for example, whilst some senior leaders have cited the issue that newer schools in the trust are not treated as inclusively as some of the more established academies.
In summary, the benefits and challenges presented by academisation and the continuous move towards being part of an MAT will largely depend on:
- What your role in the academy and the MAT is
- The size of the MAT you’re part of
- Your school geographic and socio demographics
- How long you’ve been part of the MAT
- The financial position of your school, and its current Ofsted status.
For further reading on this constantly evolving subject, take a look at some of the resources referenced in this article;
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