Where is the debate on government moves to end local management of schools?

Warwick Mansell · 20 July 2021

Fundamental weaknesses in education policy-making are not stopping those policies from becoming realities, says education journalist Warwick Mansell.

It has taken place only gradually. But this is the biggest re-organisation of state-funded schools in England for more than 30 years. It is full of flaws. But, in today’s Westminster, fundamental weaknesses in policy-making seem not to stop it happening.

I am talking about the conversion of schools to academy status under Multi-Academy Trusts, the next stage of which was signalled by Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, back in April.

Williamson said he wanted all schools – that is, those that are currently academies, as well as those that remain under the auspices of their local authorities – to become part of a Multi-Academy Trust.

For this controversial politician’s vision to become reality, changes in schools’ legal control will need to happen on a vast scale. According to the latest government data, only just over a third of England’s 17,000 state-funded schools are currently in MATs of five schools or more. This leaves more than 11,000 institutions to join them. That is more than the 9,600 schools which have taken on academy status in total since the policy was introduced at scale in 2011.

Anyone unfamiliar with how English policymaking works might assume, given the scale of this potential transformation, that longstanding weaknesses inherent in the academies model – and its MAT version in particular – might be being ironed out in advance. But this is not what has happened.

I would argue that there are two, related, problems with academisation which any government truly concerned with making policy in the public interest should be addressing before seeking to make it the default arrangement for all schools.

Concentration of power

The first is that the government’s laissez faire attitude towards academy trusts’ governance arrangements allows extreme concentrations of decision-making power. This is both morally wrong, in a taxpayer-funded service, and practically problematic, in that over-centralisation of decision-making is a common factor in many academy scandals. It is what good governance should guard against.

I wrote about this in my last piece for Prospect, warning of over-centralisation meaning that control of the 50-school Harris Federation will pass from Lord Harris to his family on his death; that the 10-school Future Academies is controlled by Lord John and Lady Caroline Nash, and that overall as of 2019 more than 100,000 pupils were being educated in academies controlled by businessman “sponsors”.

Is this model really appropriate for state-funded institutions, I wonder? Well, there have been suggestions of making the governance of academies more connected to the local people they are supposed to serve, for example by giving every parent the right to become a trust “member”, with the ability to appoint and dismiss its directors.

But this has not happened. In fact, the government, before seeking to expand the policy to cover every state-funded school, has not sought to kick off even a debate about what kind of control structures are appropriate.

The MAT structure

The second weakness – or at least a development that, again, a more responsible government would be promoting informed debate about – relates to another aspect of centralised decision-making within the MAT structure.

This is that policy is made, effectively, at head office level, rather than through decisions taken by individual headteachers and their local community-facing governing bodies.

An investigation I have published this week (£), on another of England’s largest MATs, shows just how controversial these structural arrangements can be.

The Academies Enterprise Trust, which controls 58 schools from its base in central London, has been charging them more than £20 million in total this academic year for a range of support services, internal documents suggest.

This is a huge proportion of individual schools’ income: by my calculation, in five cases it was more than 17 per cent. That means more than one pound in every six in these schools is being routed not to classrooms, but to spending via head office, with the payments not discernible in the trust’s annual accounts.

The argument from AET is that this is to pay for support services, organised by the central trust because this is most efficient and allows for “economies of scale”.

But with local sources arguing that schools could buy in services more cheaply and efficiently themselves, it seems as if this structure gives no power to such a local perspective, with AET’s local governing bodies no longer existing.

The development also seems to give the lie to government claims about financial transparency in academies. If the public cannot find out, from published accounts, how much money is actually going from their schools to head office, then there is little transparency.

In 2019, the cross-party Commons Public Accounts Committee called for school-level spending details to be available in trust accounts. Spending such as at AET would thus at least have been viewable publicly. But the government did not implement this recommendation.

Sources close to AET schools want the freedom for individual academies to opt out of the trust. But, again, this is not possible in the current MAT model.

In this way, the MAT policy effectively does away with local management of schools, through which, in the late 1980s, the Conservatives introduced a structure whereby it was the individual headteacher, and the school’s governing body, which controlled much decision-making, including on spending.

Indeed, as local management of schools was launched in the late 1980s, Conservative ministers were boasting about it leading to the “maximum delegation of resources to schools”.

This is not what we have any more under MATs, with centralised headquarters, not formally accountable to local communities, controlling finance.

Thus, if Williamson has his way, local management of schools, as advocated by his party for many years, will have disappeared, with very little debate.

Is this the best way of making policy, for what is a major publicly-funded service? As with so much when it comes to England’s current political leadership, there seems a lot of politics and little sense of carefully following the public interest in what occurs.

Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist, who founded and writes for the investigative website Education Uncovered.

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