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As opposition to forced academisation grows across the political spectrum, why would London Councils encourage MATs?
Ever since March, when the Conservative Government released its misnamed White Paper, ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’, there has been growing opposition from across the political spectrum to their plans to force academisation on England’s schools (1). That opposition is based on an increasing volume of research showing academies are not improving educational outcomes.
In parliamentary debate, even Conservative MPs spoke out against the plans. As Steve Brine, MP for Winchester, explained, “local teachers are confused about why something that is so obviously not broken needs fixing” (2). A number of Local Authorities have passed motions opposing the White Paper including the country’s largest Council, Birmingham. As one of their Councillors explained, “If there was any impact academisation worked I would do it tomorrow to all of our schools. [But] there is no evidence. What the White Paper proposes is spending millions on changing structures without changing a single life.” (3).
In London, Islington Labour Group has launched a petition opposing forced academisation saying that this “is another top-down reorganisation that will not help young people in Islington get the education they need” (4) . That kind of initiative, reaching out to Londoners to stand together for education, can help defeat forced academisation and the proposed cuts to school budgets too. Yet, regrettably, it seems that a number of London Labour Councils are exploring plans to develop Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) and in some cases considering actively encouraging their formation.
This document gives ten clear reasons why Councils should not be pursuing academisation or supporting the setting up of MATs but should be adding their support to the growing opposition to the Government’s plans.
1. There are no educational advantages to Multi Academy Trusts
“It is now widely recognised that ‘academisation’, and the competitive system it is intended to encourage, has had no discernible impact on standards. Whatever the real arguments for academies, they cannot be based on an assertion that academisation will ‘drive up’ standards” (5).
The facts are increasingly beyond dispute. Even Schools Minister Nick Gibb has conceded that “this government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools.” (6). The recently updated NUT “EduFacts”on ‘Academy Status, Pupil Attainment and School Improvement’ lists just some of the evidence confirming that “there is no credible evidence that conversion to academy status improves pupil attainment in national tests and exams, supports pupil progress or leads to school improvement” (7). For example:
· In January 2015, the all-Party House of Commons Education Committee concluded that: “We have sought but not found convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools” and that “it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children”.
· Henry Stewart’s analysis of 2015 results data showed that sponsored primary academies’ results increased at a slower rate than similar non-academies and that sponsored secondary academies are also improving at a consistently slower rate than similar local authority schools.
· Analysis of DfE data released under a Freedom of Information request in July 2015 showed that a school rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted was almost four times more likely to remain ‘inadequate’ at its next inspection if it became a sponsored academy than if it remained a maintained school.
‘EduFacts’ also points to specific evidence questioning the effectiveness of Multi Academy Trusts:
· A report by the consultancy PwC, published on 9 May 2016, completely contradicts the Government’s claims about the effectiveness of MATs. It revealed that only three of the 16 largest secondary academy chains could demonstrate a positive impact on pupils’ progress, while just one of the 26 largest primary sponsors produced results above the national average.
· The Sutton Trust has produced two reports looking at the impact of academy chains on low income students in secondary sponsored academies: Chain Effects (an analysis of 2013 GCSE results published in 2014) and Chain Effects 2015 (an analysis of 2014 results). Both reports found “very significant” variation in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, both between and within chains. In 2013 only 16 out of 31 chains exceeded the improvement for disadvantaged pupils in 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and maths for all mainstream schools. The report also concluded that “far from providing a solution to disadvantage, a few chains may be exacerbating it”. The 2015 report indicated a worsening situation concluding that the “contrast between the best and worst chains has increased in 2014”.
If decisions are going to be made about the future of our schools, surely they should be made on educational grounds? However, in that case, there are no good reasons to encourage academies.
2. MATs threaten the break-up of comprehensive education
“There is no evidence base to support this claim [that ‘academisation’ will drive up standards]. So why the drive to academisation? The answer lies in understanding that academisation is not about quality education for all but about a fundamental transformation of the English school system whereby public schools are transferred into private hands ... The process is initially gradual as individual schools are forced to become academy schools and in due course all schools are drawn into Multi-Academy Trusts. In turn these Trusts become larger and larger.” (8).
Government policy is not based on evidence, rather on ideology. There are clear similarities between the attempts to introduce market-based ‘reforms’ to the National Health Service and the academisation of schools. Few politicians would risk being seen to be supporting privatisation of the NHS, so shouldn’t London’s politicians and elected councillors feel the same about education?
Allowing such a politically-inspired policy to take any greater hold on education could prove disastrous for the future of education, as the failed ‘Free School’ experiment in Sweden shows (9). Sweden’s development of publicly-funded but privately-run Free Schools was originally praised by Michael Gove as evidence for his own Free School and Academy policies. However, it has caused Sweden’s position in the international ‘PISA’ educational rankings to plummet more sharply than that of any other participating country. This is what happens when you base policy on ideology, and on meeting the interests of education businesses and academy chains, rather than evidence. So why would any London Councils want to repeat those mistakes at the expense of our children?
Sweden’s failed policy also led to widening inequality, confirming that when schools are encouraged to compete with each other in a marketised system, the most disadvantaged young people are likely to lose out most of all. Unfortunately, we already see evidence of similar trends under school academisation. Last year, the Office of the Schools Adjudicator reported their concerns about how schools in charge of their own admissions policies – most of whom are academies – can manipulate procedures to their own advantage. In the words of Richard Garner of the Independent, “academies are selecting by stealth by making their admission rules so complex that parents fail to understand them” (10). A report drafted by the “Centre for High-Performance” describing the lessons from 160 UK academies on how best to ‘turn around a failing school’ states bluntly that academies should “exclude poor quality students, improve admissions” (11).
There are particular concerns about how academies will support children with SEND, particularly if Local Authority support services no longer exist as a result of mass academisation. A joint statement from AEP/ATL/NAHT/NUT/Unison explains how this would “fragment still further access to local authority support services, such as support for disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs, and weaken local co-ordination of education provision. This is likely to have a particular impact on disadvantaged or vulnerable children and those with SEND” (12).
In short, encouraging MATs allows, at best, individual MATs to ‘game’ the admissions system to their own benefit. At worst, it threatens the future of comprehensive education in London.
3. Encouraging MATs risks all schools being forced into academies
“The government will bring forward legislation which will trigger conversion of all schools within a local authority in two specific circumstances: firstly, where it is clear that the local authority can no longer viably support its remaining schools because a critical mass of schools in that area has converted ... secondly, where the local authority consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools” (13).
Under pressure from the widespread opposition to their White Paper proposals, the Government has been forced to announce a change in the way they intend to achieve their goal of full academisation. The Education for All Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech on 18 May reiterated the Government’s determination to move “towards a system where every school is an academy” but now its chosen route will be “through powers to convert schools to academies in under-performing and unviable local authorities” (14) .
In the light of these proposals, Local Authorities need to consider carefully what the effect of encouraging the development of MATs will mean to their ‘viability’. The DfE has not yet spelt out how an ‘unviable authority’ would be defined, although it’s likely to be set in a way that assists its goal of full academisation by 2022. An initial analysis by the Think Tank ‘Centre Forum’ shows that if the threshold for ‘viability’ was set as being 60 per cent of pupils remaining in Local Authority schools, then more than half of the total number of LAs would be declared ‘unviable’ already (15) .
So, under the latest Government proposals, even a small amount of additional academisation could see the whole Local Authority being declared as ‘unviable’, meaning every single one of its schools would be forced into becoming an academy. This would include all of its primary schools, where a large majority are likely to still be maintained schools. By encouraging MATs, Councils are not only helping the Government to reach its goal, they put every one of its schools at risk of conversion.
4. Encouraging MATs doesn’t avoid budget cuts, it makes things worse
“There are likely to be significant costs to the Council in meeting the duty to facilitate the process of converting schools to academies, at present there is no information that additional funding will be granted for this” (Tower Hamlets Cabinet Paper May 2016) (16) .
London schools already face severe cuts to their budgets under the combined impact of rising costs, especially for Teachers Pensions and National Insurance contributions, and the predicted effects of the proposed National Funding Formula. NUT figures suggest they will mean an overall 12% cut to London school budgets by 2020 but the cuts could be over 20% in some Inner London boroughs (17).
Firstly, it’s important that schools considering academisation recognise that academies will be hit just as hard by these cuts as maintained schools. In fact, without the ‘economies of scale’ available to LAs, academies may well be hit worst of all. Joining a MAT does not solve the problem.
There’s another reason why joining a MAT might mean a cut in the resources being spent on teaching and learning. That’s because there is increasing evidence of a growing layer of well-paid bureaucracy within academy chains taking resources away from where they are most needed. As one Headteacher put it in the TES recently, "we see even smallish multi-academy trusts with chief executives earning more – sometimes much more – than the prime minister. We see chains employing small armies of pinstriped executives who talk of standards but rarely set foot in a classroom to teach a lesson they have prepared themselves” (18) .
Secondly, any Local Authority contemplating encouraging MATs needs to recognise that the legal costs of each academy conversion, and the consequent land transfer that goes with it, will also use up resources that they won’t have the budget to meet. The exact shortfall that LAs may face is still being debated but, as Tower Hamlets warns above, the costs are still likely to be considerable (19).
Surely, instead of promoting an academisation agenda that will further cut into resources and only alienate many parents and staff opposed to the Government’s academy plans, Local Authorities should be working together with communities to defeat the threatened cuts to school budgets?
(16) http://modgov.towerhamlets.gov.uk/documents/s86220/5.8 Maintaining Educational Excellent in Tower Hamlets.pdf
5. Why the ‘jump before we are pushed’ argument doesn’t hold water
“The first job we have as Labour Councillors is to get the message out that these changes are not inevitable and governing bodies should not rush to convert”. (Letter from Leader of LGA Group) (20) .
There can be no getting away from the fact that supporting schools to become MATs means helping the Government to succeed in its plans to academise schools . Those damaging plans are not inevitable and can be defeated. The ‘let’s jump before we are pushed’ argument must be opposed.
Those who argue that, by acting first to set up ‘home-grown’ MATs, Local Authorities can somehow protect themselves from a ‘hostile takeover’, need to look at the legislation. The truth is that, after conversion, a Local Authority will cease to have any real influence on the direction a MAT takes and nor will the individual schools within a MAT. When schools join MATs they cease to exist as separate legal entities. Decisions are taken centrally by those who control the MAT - the members (akin to company shareholders) and Trustees (akin to company Directors). There can be no guarantee that any MAT will act according to the wishes of the Local Authority.
Even if a local MAT continues to work cooperatively with the Local Authority, then that relationship can easily be changed by the intervention of the unelected Regional Schools Commissioner. Even if the RSC were to approve a local schools MAT in the first instance, schools can be removed and 'rebrokered' with an external sponsor (21). The White Paper states clearly that ‘at the heart of [our] approach will be supporting the strongest schools and sponsors to expand their reach’ (22). In other words, small ‘home-grown’ MATs could quickly become part of much larger academy chains.
Once in a MAT, there is no going back and a school has no protection against what may happen to it in the future. Its best protection lies in remaining maintained and working within the local family of schools with the Local Authority brokering support where required.
(22) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/educational-excellence-everywhere (see page 19)
6. MATs leave parents and communities without a say in education
“We will expect all governing boards to focus on seeking people with the right skills for governance, and so we will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards”. ( ‘Educational, Excellence, Everywhere’, page 51 )
The White Paper is absolutely clear that there will be no requirement on Multi Academy Trusts to include parent governors, far less staff governors representing its workforce. In fact, Trustees do not even have to decide to establish local governing bodies within their constituent schools at all. The E-ACT academy chain has just announced that they will be abolishing local governing bodies in favour of one single central governing body covering all of the chain’s schools (23). Where they do establish school governing bodies, it is for the Trustees to decide what powers, if any, to delegate.
Elected parent and LA appointed governors sit on the governing body of all community schools and can take up parents’ concerns. Councillors themselves can be lobbied and, in the final analysis, voted out of office. Encouraging MATs means removing that local democratic accountability.
7. Schools need to work in partnership – but MATs don’t provide it
“The evidence that the London Challenge was a successful approach to school improvement is overwhelming. It was also comparatively cheap; over three years the funding for City Challenge was £160 million, considerably cheaper than the £8.5 billion reportedly spent on the academies’ programme over two years” ( Professor Merryn Hutchings) (24) .
One argument being put forward for encouraging MATs is that it will encourage schools to work in partnership, particularly now Local Authorities are to lose both the funding and responsibility to support school improvement. However, for the reasons described above, MATs are no guarantee that schools will work together across an Authority for the benefit of all. Instead, MATs will be driven by their own interests in the competitive environment created by Government policy, particularly with the pressure of new ‘MAT performance tables’ (see Chapter 7 of the White Paper).
There are many other models that could be explored for creating genuine partnership, and a number of London Authorities are looking at various approaches. However, any such approach does not require encouraging Multi Academy Trusts. Instead, Local Authorities should focus on cost-effective and proven school improvement initiatives, such as local partnerships and federations or larger scale interventions such as the successful London Challenge programme. Significantly, a 2014 National Audit Office report, Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention (25) found informal interventions such as local support were more effective than academy conversion.
The NUT has produced its own evidence into successful partnership working which was submitted to the Education Committee Inquiry into School Partnerships and Cooperation in 2013. It concluded that “the most successful partnerships involve all the key partners in education and characterised by a bottom-up approach to developing the real collaborative arrangements that are most suited to the local context. The most successful school partnerships are driven at a local level, are flexible, involve all local schools, engage the whole community around a shared vision, provide support and challenge without stigmatising weaker schools, work with families of schools, involve a degree of experimentation, develop organically according to local need and circumstance and are based on the notion of trust in teachers and school leaders”. Any such partnerships must be built inclusively.
8. Encouraging MATs ignores the real priorities like teacher shortages
“The plans are indicative of a Government with the wrong priorities for education. The proposals in the white paper will do nothing to address - and may in fact worsen - teacher shortages, a lack of school places in many parts of the country, chaos over curriculum and assessment changes and funding pressures in schools and colleges” (NUT Model Council Motion for Local Authorities) (26) .
The White Paper completely ignores the real issues facing education; in fact it will make them worse. The same will be true if Local Authorities pursue the development of Multi Academy Trusts instead of concentrating on the real issues, not least teacher shortages in London.
Increased academisation is a direct threat to the national pay and conditions of teachers and other school staff. By encouraging MATs in their area, Local Authorities will only be accelerating that break-up of national conditions. They are also likely to make their schools a less attractive prospect for teachers to seek employment than other authorities who are not pursuing such academisation.
9. Councils should not have to rely on MATs for new school places
“The Government’s academy and free school policy has prevented councils from opening local authority schools where they are most needed. We call on the next Mayor and London Assembly to champion local councils regaining the power and the funding to open new schools” (from the NUT’s ‘London Manifesto’ 2016) (27).
There is no doubt that Local Authorities across London face significant difficulties in meeting the demand for new school places. Without the power to open new community schools themselves, some of the arguments in favour of setting up MATs are undoubtedly linked to the idea that these MATs could then be used as vehicles to allow the opening of new free schools in their authorities.
However, the NUT believes that this would be a very short-sighted policy. For all the reasons outlined above, Local Authorities should resist the Government’s attempts to be bullied into accepting a ‘Free School’ academy as the only way to provide funding for new school places. Not only is this damaging to education as a whole, it also accepts the Government agenda that sub-standard accommodation can be used for education. As the New Schools Network explains, “one of the aims of the policy is to deliver better value for money in education by providing innovative solutions to the challenge of finding new school premises. Already, Free Schools have been opened in former hospitals, office buildings, job centres, church halls and other types of buildings” (28). Instead, the campaign needs to be stepped-up for Local Authorities to have both the power and the funding to open new schools, as demanded by the NUT in our London Manifesto.
10. Encouraging MATs will alienate parents and school staff
Finally, Local Authorities need to consider the strength of opposition to the White Paper, opposition which has already mean that Nicky Morgan has had to rethink her plans. A political choice can be made to lead that opposition, linking with parents, staff, unions and the wider community in opposing forced academisation and demanding that the resources are provided to genuinely meet needs. The alternative of encouraging MATs will only alienate parents and school staff and see the Local Authority being seen as agents of damaging Government policies. The choice is surely clear.