This week, Nicky “I’m not Michael Gove, Honest” Morgan and her chum George “I’m not Satan, Honest” Osborne, announced that every school in England would be forced to become an academy by 2022. This has proved, to put it mildly, a little controversial. Opponents of academization, both forced and unforced, have generated a petition of more than 100,000 signatures already, while unions, teachers, politicians and Mumsnet(!) have united in fairly vitriolic opposition. Even Tristram Hunt and David Blunkett came out against this, which tells a remarkable story in itself. However, the “Glob“, as Francis Gilbert termed the very vocal and influential minority who actively support Gove’s privatisation agenda, has been predictably active too. More chaff has been thrown out by supporters of this policy in the last week than the RAF chucked out of its bombers over Germany in 1944, and all with the same intent: to obscure the real target. I’m here to clear the chaff away, hopefully.
“Calling G for Gove, Calling G for Gove : Jerry’s spotted our plans. Launch “academies making profits” distraction chaff.”
Chaff : strips of metal foil released in the air to obstruct radar detection, OR Govian supporters trying to direct parents’ eyes away from what is actually proposed
The two main distraction lines appearing have been that (1) academies can’t make profits, so this can’t be privatisation; and (2) that academies are only a small procedural change from maintained schools, so what’s the fuss about? Some Govians (granted, mostly politicians, because even Govian educationalists get a bit embarrassed with total barefaced lies) have even repeated words like “autonomy” and “independence”, but we’ll discount that because no-one’s stupid enough to believe academization represents either of those things any more. It has been remarkable watching this machine of obfuscation and distraction swing into action.
And here’s the thing – they’re right. Academies can’t, yet, make profits, and for a maintained school, the switch to standalone academy status will result in rather less change than both proponents and opponents can sometimes imply (although I certainly would not make quite so little of the change as Laura McInerney did in her Guardian article which could easily have been titled “Nothing to worry about. Nothing to see here. Move along.”).
Before any of my normal readership thinks I’m having a stroke, agreeing with Govians, let me be clear : this White Paper absolutely DOES represent the future privatisation of the state school system. It is also a huge change which will more radically alter the relationship of our schools with our communities, parents and teachers than anything seen since the 1944 Education Act. It’s just that the Glob has rather successfully steered the conversation and debate up a blind alley. The debate is largely focusing on the rights/wrongs/faults/benefits of being a stand-alone Academy. But, dear reader, none of the sixteen thousand or so overwhelmingly primary schools about to be stripped from the public sector are intended to become stand-alone Academies. They’re supposed to enter Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs).
There are some devious weasel words in the White Paper about the prospect of schools being forced to become a stand-alone Academy, as opposed to being forced into a MAT. It’s possible to read these words as suggesting that some “successful and sustainable” schools might still go it alone. However, it’s also possible to read the same words as simply a nod to existing stand-alone Academies that they won’t be forced into MATs yet, while everyone else will. Coming from a White Paper which has coined the phrase “supported autonomy” to mean “your school’s very identity will be abolished and you’ll have no autonomy at all”, I tend to lean towards the latter interpretation. Moreover, those who have heard Regional Schools Commissioners speak recently, or have had contact with the DFE, will know that, as far as the government is concerned, all roads lead to MATsville.
So what is a Multi-Academy Trust, and what will life be like for our schools once they are forced into one ? Well, most importantly, Multi-Academy Trusts are not groups of separate schools. When your children’s school is forced from the public sector, it will not only be handed over to private hands, but it will legally cease to exist. One of the greatest weapons the privatisers have is that this is fiendishly complex and tedious, and indeed the language the Government and its supporters use is so misleading that even some governors and heads who are joining MATs already, don’t actually understand what their own MAT is. Many people get very confused between what a MAT is and can do, and what it chooses to do. My purpose here is to try and clear some of the chaff and lay out clearly what the future is for our schools.
An Educational Acid-Bath
Please, come and join our Multi-Academy Trust. Just step right in….
A Multi-Academy Trust is not a club of independent schools working together for greater harmony, happy children skipping through daisies drinking coke, and the chance to teach the world to sing. This is a very common misconception. Some people will swear blind that their schools retain power and independence within their MAT. They’re wrong. They don’t actually even retain their own identity. No, a MAT is more of an acid bath of schools. The individual schools go in, but they don’t retain their identity once in there. The MAT your school will be forced to join IS the ONLY legal entity. Your school effectively ceases to exist.
Now before I get huffy Govians coming here throwing more chaff around, let me clarify. The buildings are still there. The staff who aren’t sacked by the MAT will still be there. The school name may even remain (although some MATs owners do prefer it if all the schools are modestly named after themselves – see the Harris MAT). It may retain a bank account, a PTA and that wooden board in the foyer with the names of all the previous Head Boys and Girls which the last Head thought made the school look more like Hogwarts. But your school isn’t your school any more. Your school is now legally a local branch of the MAT. Imagine you have a local independent coffee shop, and it’s taken over by Starbucks. That’s getting close to what we have when your school disappears into a MAT.
The MAT has control over :
- Budget – all funding goes to the MAT, and it is not hypothecated to individual schools
- Staffing – staff are employed by the MAT – not your ex-school
- Governance – your Local Governing Body has all the freedom the MAT allows. Or doesn’t.
- School policies – Ever wondered why all the Harris uniforms look so similar…?
There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and some people will say “Our MAT isn’t like that. Our schools keep these powers within the MAT”. I’ll deal with that a bit more at the end. But unfortunately, some people are mistaking what the MAT is currently choosing to allow with what the ex-schools have the power to insist upon. It may be true that the MAT is currently allowing individual ex-schools to maintain an illusion of independence. It may not interfere in budget allocations once it has decided how much to delegate to its local branches; it may not insist on appointing all senior staff itself yet; it may allow discretion on matters such as school uniform; and it may even allow the continued existence of a local governing body for each of its ex-schools. Lovely. But it doesn’t have to do any of these things. Indeed, it actually has several duties and interests which clash with such a hands-off position.
The MAT’s duties actually discourage them from allowing local autonomy
Take funding, for example. The MAT Board is in charge of funding – not the ex-school’s local governing body. MAT Directors have a legal duty to allocate funding in the best interests of all their students as they perceive those interests. Note : “their” students, not the “school’s” students. So if one of the other ex-schools down the road hits a financial bump, then not only can the MAT board simply remove funds from your ex-school to meet the other ex-school’s needs, but they actually have a legal duty to do so.
Or take staffing. Staff are employed by the MAT. Another ex-school has a staffing problem. The MAT board can simply order Ms Superteacher out of your child’s class and into the other ex-school down the road. A lot of schools currently considering entering MATs are promising their staff that they won’t be transferred against their will to a different MAT school. This is misleading – the MAT, when created, has no obligation to honour promises made by an ex-school which legally no longer exists. Schools can promise staff they won’t force them elsewhere in the company, but they can also promise unlimited chocolate and double non-contact time. They won’t be around to be held to those promises. You can try to get a clause written into your new contract with the MAT that they will never transfer you to another school, of course. Good luck with that. But your existing school cannot commit the MAT to that, whatever they say.
He’s wrong. It’s not like that, I tell you!
The front cover of all Policy Exchange Reports
Apologies to anyone genuinely ranting at the screen saying “He’s wrong, He’s wrong! Our MAT isn’t like that!”. What’s going on there is that some very well-intentioned people are confusing the legal position with what you might call the “people” position. The legal position is very clear – when your school is absorbed into a MAT, it ceases to exist as a separate entity, and has no independent control over its own budget, its own staffing or its own governance other than that which the MAT chooses to grant you, and can remove at any time without your consent. The MAT can force the ex-school to do pretty much anything from sacking all its staff, to teaching wacky subjects, to wearing St Trinians uniforms. In other words, an ex-school in a MAT has all the freedoms of a prisoner in a high-security prison : you can smoke, walk around outside your cell, do the laundry and stick pictures of Kylie Minogue on your cell wall, right up until the point when the Governor says you can’t any more. And then you can’t. You’re not really free, and you don’t really have any power. Just the illusion of it.
The fact that the MATs haven’t yet ordered you to tear down those Kylie posters is simply because, in the case of the MATs people are keen to defend, the people in charge don’t choose to do so. Yet.
In other words, your MAT isn’t currently stiffing you because the people in charge of your MAT are choosing not to stiff you. Well done you. And them. However, have you any guarantees that you’re not just a few key personnel changes away from a Harris-style Gulag ?
I’m afraid not.
Who will own and run our ex-schools in the new corporate MAT-world?
Which does rather bring us to governance, because ultimately, the degree to which the ex-schools absorbed into the corporate MAT can continue to pretend to be separate, depends entirely on who is making the decisions. And who does make the decision in the MAT ? Here we enter a ridiculously opaque world of “Members” and “Trustees”, “Directors”, “Chief Executives” and “Business Managers”. Please stay awake – I’ll try to keep this short.
- The Members are at the top of the tree and, in the words of the NCTL guidance document explaining this, are “akin to the shareholders in a company”. They can appoint Trustees and have “ultimate control” over the MAT.
- The Trustees are responsible for the operation of the MAT. The MAT is a company (albeit charitable), and the Trustees are company directors, responsible for “holding headteachers to account”, “setting the direction” of the MAT, and managing the finances.
- Trustees can be Members. So the guys in charge can be holding, err, themselves, to account. But they don’t have to be. Clear?
- There can be a Local Governing Body for each ex-school, if the MAT so chooses. There doesn’t have to be. You can have an “advisory body” chosen by the MAT. Which, as you can imagine, would be a hotbed of independence. Or, in future, you can have nothing at all, because how silly is it to have a local governing body which doesn’t govern, because the school it’s the governing body of, doesn’t exist? Still with me ?The main reason why Local Governing Bodies have survived thus far might well be because there’s a current legal requirement that at least two parents from each ex-school sit on either the MAT Board of Trustees, or on the Local Governing Body. As I suspect few big MAT Directors want parents anywhere near them, it’s been handy to keep a Local Governing Body (or “Pointless Symbolic Talking Shop”, as it’s henceforth to be known) for the purpose. Handily, you’ll have noted that in the White Paper the Government has chosen to remove this pesky hangover from the days when we used to pretend that parents should have a say in the ownership and direction of their children’s schools.
As an aside, note that your school will become part of a company, with symbolic “shareholders” and a Board of Directors who control the money, none of whom have to be connected to the school’s parents or staff in any way (or even live or work in the same town!). I can’t think why people talk about privatisation, can you ? Sorry. Digressing again. More on that later.
Anyway, let’s look at who the Members and Trustees are. The answer is, that they’re what we used to call a “self-perpetuating oligarchy”. The Members are whoever the Members decide to be when the MAT is formed. There is no requirement for any to be elected by either staff or parents. There is no requirement for any sort of open application process. Basically, you need to know the right people (you can sort of see why Tories like this system so much – it’s their natural habitat).
In terms of getting rid of Members, It’s actually remarkably hard to work out how they can be removed at all. I suspect that somewhere the Secretary of State retains the power to remove them, but one thing is clear – you, dear parent, have no power to do so at all. Once they’re in, they’re in. And when they decide to retire, or just find there’s space at the trough, they can appoint whoever they like. The Members, in other words, control the appointment and recruitment of, er, the Members. I seem to recall Oliver Cromwell getting rid of the Rump Parliament when it tried this, because even as a de-facto military dictator, he felt that was a bit corrupt. But there you go.
The MAT Members meet to consider who to appoint as a new Member
I wish I were. But I’m not. Anyway, if you don’t believe me, William Stewart has enough quotes from the horses’ mouths in here to satisfy even the most sceptical of readers. There is a greater difference between a standalone academy and an academy in a MAT, than there is between a standalone Academy and a maintained LEA school. Which is why I got a bit wound up when reading articles about how the shift to full academization was relatively insignificant. You could, if you squinted and deliberately didn’t notice some stuff, feasibly argue that, if it were about forced movement to stand-alone academies, but that isn’t the plan, so that argument is irrelevantly reassuring chaff.
This can’t get worse, can it?
Sorry, yes. You see, once in, there’s no way out. Your ex-school can never again become its own school. As it ceases to exist as a separate entity, it cannot choose to ever leave its MAT. Because it doesn’t exist, and institutions which don’t exist can’t choose anything. I saw some defender of this policy claiming earlier today that there were ways out of the MAT for schools. He was right. The MAT can trade your particular ex-school franchise to another MAT, a bit like Sainsbury’s selling a site to Waitrose. Your ex-school will of course have no choice whatsoever in this. The parents and teachers would be simple bystanders watching the corporate suits sort it out amongst themselves. The other option – if the MAT you’ve been absorbed into is deemed to be not very good by the DFE – is that your ex-school can be transferred to a different MAT on the order of the Secretary of State. Once again, parents and staff will have no influence at all.
You will never again be an autonomous school run by a governing body representing your school’s community, either as an academy or a maintained LEA school. It’s a one way street. An ex-school can’t choose to divorce its partners in a MAT, but it can be hacked off and transplanted onto another MAT. Such transplants will, like the real thing, only occur after some sort of catastrophe, and it’s fairly unlikely to be a matter of choice for the organ being transplanted, so it isn’t really very reassuring, is it?
Some ex-school Governors find the way out of the MAT
Is this privatisation ?
I’ve seen a fair few Govians telling folks that this isn’t privatisation because standalone academies don’t make profits. Or because some quango has a helpfully restrictive definition of privatisation which suits their agenda. Can I suggest to those good people that they perhaps shouldn’t teach economics? Or politics? Of course it’s bloody privatisation.
Our schools are going to be stripped from the public sector, and from any form of local accountability to voters, parents or staff, and handed over to private companies managed by Directors who need have no connection at all to your school or your community. Your school, part of the glue which holds your community together, is to become a local franchise of an edubusiness. Noting the charitable status of the edubusiness is a red herring: charities are not public sector bodies; Eton is, after all, a charity.
Similarly misleading is talk of being accountable through having to produce financial accounts – that’s a bit like saying Google isn’t a private company because it has to publish its accounts (occasionally, after a good lunch with a senior Treasury official, obviously).
The only remaining thread of accountability left anywhere in the system is to the Secretary of State in Whitehall, who retains the powers to order franchise swaps and theoretically remove Members. That’s right – a couple of hundred civil servants at the DFE are going to monitor and regulate potentially a couple of thousand otherwise unaccountable edubusinesses on our behalf. What could go wrong ?
Of course this is privatisation. Noting the link-of-last-resort between MATs and the Secretary of State is a bit like saying that the Water and Power companies aren’t privatised because the Government regulates them. It’s disingenuous guff, designed to obfuscate the real purpose behind these reforms, which is to privatise the schools system without ever saying the word “privatisation” for fear of scaring the horses. And as for those people who think that the only way for individuals and companies to make money from such opportunities is to record something called “profit” on a set of MAT accounts, then I refer you to my earlier comment – don’t, for the love of God, ever teach economics.
Still not convinced ?
There will still be people reading this who say “Our MAT has delivered great benefits”. I would merely make the comment thus : “What does your MAT do, in terms of collaboration between schools, which it couldn’t have done as collaboration between still-existing autonomous schools?” By which I don’t mean give me a list of things it’s doing now which it didn’t do before. I mean what’s it doing which it could not have done before, with a little effort on the part of the pre-existing schools? Because when I was fighting my own school’s attempt to dissolve itself into a MAT, I asked that precise question, and there was literally nothing which was suggested which we couldn’t have actually arranged to do without being part of a MAT. So what do you do now which you legally could not do before dissolving your school into a MAT ? I’m interested.
As noted above, there will be others saying : “”This isn’t what our MAT is like”. I am sure you’re right. I am certain that there are MATs out there – particularly the small local ones not called ‘Harris’ – where the people in charge are dedicated to their ex-schools and their communities, and wouldn’t dream of paying their friend’s recently-created edu-consultancy company a huge bung from school budgets. But you need to be very clear – the only thing standing between your ex-school and a faceless corporate entity or private cashpoint for unscrupulous local crooks, is that you happen to be still owned by the well-meaning individuals who started off your MAT.
Now consider this : part of the White Paper describes how MATs will now be increasingly “held to account” alongside individual schools (league tables etc). If the Secretary of State deems them ‘performing’ in any way she doesn’t like, she can theoretically remove your Members and replace them with whoever the hell she likes. Or indeed she can transfer your local ex-school franchise to another company, run by perhaps less well-intentioned, less local people. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about that. Because your school doesn’t exist any more. And even if she doesn’t, the pressure on those original Members is going to increase. Some might feel that they have to abandon early ideals. Some might give up the ghost, to be replaced by… well, someone you won’t have a say in choosing unless you’re a Member yourself.
The application process for future Members of large MATs.
It’s backs to the wall time, folks.
Anyone who believes that schools should have a large degree of autonomy, and should be rooted in – and accountable to – their local communities, with checks and balances to prevent corruption or neglect, should be very scared. Indeed, anyone who believes that schooling is a key public service which is far too important to be privatised, should be fighting this with every ounce of their being.
If you love your children’s school, if you believe in public education, fight this. Or, like a school entering a MAT, state schooling in this country will simply cease to exist without most people realising it’s happened until there’s nothing they can do.