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CMRE Forum dinner, 25th April 2016

‘Balancing autonomy with accountability in the “self-improving” schools system - a view from the School Commissioner's Office
Academies, and in particular academy chains in the form of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), are seen as key to transforming our ‘self-improving’ schools system. But there is still a significant long tail of underachievement, and rural and coastal areas are seen as a major challenge to the system. Reflecting Ministers’ concerns that the pace of reform is too slow, the Education and Adoption Act 2016 and the Government’s recent White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere aim to accelerate academisation, particularly in under-served areas, and extend the basis of intervention in under-performing schools.
Integral to the development of the Academy sector has been investment in the accountability framework - widely understood to be of key importance for keeping school leaders on track and improving student outcomes. But concerns are now being expressed that the balance is out of kilter, and that government regulation and a lack of attention to the incentive structure act rather as a drag on improving standards.
With a view to getting clear on the obstacles impeding progress, CMRE erlier this summer opened a consultation with sector stakeholders to re-examine the architecture, with a view to offering policy proposals to reset the relationship between the DfE and stakeholders. On the evening of 25th April, members of CMRE’s executives’ policy forum and a number of guests from the world of education gathered to discuss the state of the Academy sector. 
The evening began with a welcome from CMRE’s Executive Director and Forum Chair, James Croft, followed by a brief presentation from Sir David Carter, the new National Schools Commissioner. An informal discussion followed, under Chatham House rules, which this document attempts to summarise. 
The opening

In the light of the Government’s [then] recent announcement in the aforementioned White Paper of its intention to see all remaining non-Academy schools converted by 2022, Sir David began by stating that he was not interested in discussion of whether the policy was a good idea or not, but rather how it’s going to be made to work. To do this, requires that we move on from debates about structures to a relentless, collaborative, focus on school improvement. Schools must have the right partnerships in place to ensure that standards acan continually improve. The challenge and support of working with other schools both sharpens the focus on standards, and gives leaders the confidence to contest accountability judgements where necessary. This gets to the heart of what it means to be a truly schools-led system – one that is self-regulated such that the need for inspection from the centre would become redundant.

Fostering a culture of support and challenge, of responsibility for wider system outcomes, also requires that we develop a clearer understanding of the terms on which leaders driving improvement in other schools operate. “If I’m a teaching school leader and I receive a grant to support children’s development and learning in another school, I am not really held to account whether the results in that school get better or not, and we need to change that, that’s fundamental.” Where leaders reach outside of that structure to help stand-alone schools, or where individual school heads lead school improvement in others schools, there’s a need for a sharpening of accountability for outcomes. This is no less true, he said, of the terms of informal school-to-school partnerships: ‘flat MATs’ with participant heads taking it in turns to fill the CEO role, he said, don’t work. The lines of responsibility for improvement are much clearer in regular, formal MATs, where everyone has an interest in ensuring the most challenged academies are supported to improve, because otherwise the reputation of the MAT as a whole will suffer through not getting the results its young people deserve. In this sense, academy reform gives rise to a competitive dynamic that encourages effective collaboration within chains.

What is the role of the MAT CEO in all this? Well, the CEO has to be able to express the Trust’s vision, plan and execute it for one, Sir David said. An important part of that process is giving the individual schools that comprise the MAT ownership of that vision – an area that local authorities, because of the structure, always found difficult. And related to that, at the same time, cultivating high, and contextually aware, expectations. “Real system leaders can tell the difference between a context and an excuse.” If the opening line you hear from somebody you’re talking to references the deprivation indicators for their schools, you know there’s a problem. Third, in terms of MAT CEO leadership, and following the remarks just made about taking responsibility for ensuring young people get the results they deserve, the really successful ones are those that can bring the level of forensic scrutiny to the data that is required by the terms under which the Trust operates. That’s an important factor. While most of the country’s system leaders are “credible in the school improvement space,” CEO experience from outside of the sector may be important to discharging the more administrative demands of the role. “There will always be that moment when the CEO has to be able to stand up before their work-force, or at a professional conference, and talk credibly about teaching and learning … attendance and behaviour, but it’s not the only [important] domain.” The private sector had important insights to share, which the profession need to be open to hearing.

In conclusion, Sir David offered the following areas of strategic priority that he had set for the School Commissioner’s Office going forward:

1.      To identify and closely monitor the performance of the hundred weakest schools nationally, and to hold RSCs to account for their improvement.

2.      Better assessment and dissemination of knowledge within the DfE and RSC offices about which interventions make a difference

3.      Greater consistency and transparency about decision-making, including better communication of the work of the School Commissioners’ Office via the press.

4.      Shifting the focus to the regions – including a two-day weekly residency in situ with each of the regional school commissioners, on rotation.

5.      Development of a framework for assessing MAT growth capacity according to size and phase of development:

a) beginning with a self-audit to look at performance over time, leadership and staff resources, financial management, governance capacity, and risk management, with more detailed scrutiny to follow in the event of a threshold (from ‘starter’ to ‘regional’ for example) being crossed;

b) larger national sponsors to work directly with the National Schools Commissioner’s office – recently initiated with the nine largest groups – to join up what is presently distributed and often contradictory thinking around growth proposals.

The discussion – in summary

All agreed that changes to governance present a real recruitment challenge for the system. To get professionals with the right skills on the board on the new terms of reference, we need to understand what’s going to motivate them for these roles. That differs according to tier, and the level and scope of responsibility. Many people don’t understand the difference between members and directors. Many don’t understand that individual academy boards are usually subcommittees of the MAT board. At the local school level, many think they have more ‘say’ than they really do. These bodies might be better termed ‘advisory committees’. Attention to the ‘scheme of delegation’ is of key importance for governance clarity and for setting expectations.

The discussion moved on to consider how competition between schools worked to the discouragement of collaboration.  Of course some MATs have needed no encouragement and are very keen to share, to be seen by central government and its agencies and regulators to be leading the way in setting and articulating good practice for others to adapt to their own contexts. But if we want MATs to work together more widely, we need to think about how we can encourage that. Teaching Schools designed to work across several MATs may have an important role to play

Discussion moved on to consideration of government policy on academisation. It was felt that a number of side issues were creating ‘noise’ around the policy. 1) There was a need for clarity around opportunities for parents to be involved in governance. 2) There was a need to highlight opportunities in the local authority space – both for capable and efficient local authorities, and for the talent that sits within under-performing local authorities. 3) There was a need positively to re-engage early (Phase One) sponsors with a view to re-visioning them regarding the promise of academy conversion for transforming the future of schooling.

The second issue provoked some interesting contributions, including from a CEO of an independent consultancy company owned by a city council. This company has no revenue other than from the schools and academies that buy their services; it has helped set-up MATs, and has considerable experience in school improvement, but because of its ownership has been precluded from setting up a MAT itself. The new legislation has not broadened the scope for these kinds of organisations to participate, which is unfortunate given their drive and enthusiasm to do so. One respondent commented that instead of unleashing aspiration in the former local authority space, the proposals have sown disaffection. As the people affected reappear in other roles around the system, this will only serve to undermine the efficacy of the reforms. Another participant added that this was also probably true of a number of converters committed to replicating defunct informal collaborative ways of doing things within the Academy framework. The aforementioned ‘Flat MATs’ are one example. Too many were too committed to autonomy (of the individual stand-alone variety) for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. The only way to address this is to incentivise scaling via MATs. The White Paper presents plans for a Growth Fund to this end.

A key question emerged: what do we mean by collaboration? Participants grappled with the tension between a way of working that suggests public-spiritedness and working in the interests of all pupils, not just one’s own, and the need to situate collaborative efforts within an organisational framework that is outcomes focused. One participant who had worked at the DfE for many years reflected that so many initiatives over the years had “fallen away” through loss of focus. MATs are the context best suited to ensuring that partnerships between schools achieve the purposes for which they are designed.

Concerning the future of the programme, there was a general concern that the resources and apparatus supporting the work of the RSCs were inadequate to the brief. One voiced a common concern that there aren’t enough Heads on the Head-teacher Boards and they are expected to cover too wide an area.

Concerns were expressed about the brokering model of effecting system change and whether it could be justified either in terms of its basic lack of transparency/accountability or from the point of view of any contribution it might make to securing and deploying quality Sponsors. It was felt that going forward it should be a priority for RSCs to become much more articulate and public about their strategic priorities, but a recognition that the apparatus was designed precisely to ensure the independence of their judgement and to avoid such scrutiny.

Another participant asked about the nature of academy autonomy and how it works in both stand-alone school contexts and in MATs. Many head-teachers, he claimed, fear the challenge to existing practice, and to their decision-making, that comes with autonomy from the local authority. But they fear even more the loss of autonomy that joining a MAT entails – new divisions of labour at the leadership level and the prospect of systemisation of someone else’s good practice. But there’s another side to this: MATs aren’t as free to operationalise innovation as we think they are either. We need to look at this urgently because ultimately curtailing operational autonomy will undermine the efficacy of the reform.

The discussion returned to concerns about capacity. Recruitment challenges, particularly in deprived and geographically difficult areas, were highlighted and the question asked whether academisation was going to make these challenges any less daunting. It was clearly felt that cross-regional and national chains offered the most promising prospect for addressing regional shortages by encouraging new staff to think trust-wide in respect of professional and career development opportunities and incentivising them with clear progression routes that move them between schools. The challenge of identifying and recruiting c. 400 new MAT CEOs was also discussed and the case was put for broadening the pool by opening up to leaders from other sectors such as health, or housing, or charities.

As the discussion drew to a close, an interesting proposal emerged from one of the participants. Reflecting on the appetite for existing MATs to find ways of working together, and the numbers of new MATs expected to be created in the next few years, one asked whether there might be a role for a professional association for MAT CEOs. Such an endeavour might provide an alternative space for system leaders to share and develop professional practice, and a context and voice for wider stakeholder engagement and policy influence.

Concluding remarks

In conclusion the Chair thanked Sir David for sharing his thinking and participants for what had been a useful and wide-ranging conversation.

He then offered three reflections in response to some of the key issues that had been raised.

The first was that the structures are important for realising the standards we want the system to be aspiring to. We want MATs that enable purposeful, structured collaboration across schools, not ones that are effectively continuations of the local school status quo. And we want MATs that are committed to the discovery and scaling of what works and prepared to design and adapt their management practices accordingly. Related to this, it’s really important that we say what we mean when we want to talk about collaboration; what we really want to commend is a particular kind of collaboration called (hard) federation. 

The second was to underscore the importance of ensuring greater consistency between Regional School Commissioners and transparency about their strategic plans and priorities, how they get the job done, and their interactions with the Head-teacher panels. Criticism of the brokering system is too often taken personally, as if it’s a question of the integrity of the people involved in it. But it’s actually about the concentration of decision-making that goes with the model and whether that’s in the system’s interests. It was devised originally to enable fast and hard intervention in a relatively small number of seriously failing schools; is it appropriate to extend that model to coasting schools, to schools ‘deemed unviable’, to actually compelling those that have decided against it, regardless of their performance, to convert anyway? The rationale for extending the model has never been presented. In that it is designed to maximise commissioners’ and brokers’ discretion it is hard to see how efforts to become more transparent may not be self-defeating.

The third point he made related to the sense in which academies could be said to enjoy substantively greater autonomy than other schools. The discussion had revealed a widespread scepticism that this was in fact the case and evidenced not a little confusion as to the purpose of autonomy. There is a need for a re-statement of the case for autonomy and for description of examples of innovative ways in which academies are taking advantage of the freedoms afforded them to the benefit of young people’s education. In theory, academisation should have brought with it new capacity to meet the challenges facing the school system in 2016 and beyond. Do we know enough about whether and how it has done so to be able to enhance that effect?

Further reading

Croft, J. (2015). ‘Collaborative overreach: why collaboration probably isn't key to the next phase of school reform’, London: CMRE.

A literature review looking at what we know about the impact of school-to-school collaboration, in which a case is put for distinguishing between informal and hard federated collaborative structures, and why this is important.

Croft, J. (2016) ‘Taking a lead: how to access the leadership premium’, London: CMRE.

CMRE messages for policymakers

  • Collaboration should not be divorced from accountability and autonomy. At its heart collaboration is about the challenge and support of working with peers across other schools to sharpen the focus on standards.
  • Encouraging leaders and practitioners to develop a sense of responsibility for wider system outcomes may be enough to ensure that collaboration ‘happens’ but it is not enough to ensure our improvement ambitions are fulfilled. We need to develop a clearer understanding of the terms on which leaders driving improvement in other schools operate. Informal arrangements often lack clear lines of accountability. In MATs, by contrast, collaborative ways of working are embedded into the governance, leadership, management and staffing structure, which offers at once a more secure and outcomes-accountable way of working. Policymakers and system leaders should be careful that they communicate clearly what kind of collaboration they wish to see.
  • There are clear governance and leadership challenges facing the government’s plans to accelerate academisation. Lifting the bar on local authority owned school improvement businesses starting MATs would encourage further investment in the new system.
  • Moves to encourage and incentivise fresh engagement with the programme are likely to be more effective in growing system capacity from a balanced approach to autonomy / accountability than brokering takeovers.
  • The wide-ranging powers and lack of transparency associated with the brokering model does not inspire trust in the autonomous academy reform framework. The initial justification for the brokering framework was to enable fast and hard intervention in a relatively small number of seriously failing schools; whether it is appropriate to extend that model to coasting schools, to schools ‘deemed unviable’, and beyond, are other questions. The rationale for extending the model has never been fully presented.
  • There is a need for a re-statement of the case for autonomy and for description of examples of innovative ways in which academies are taking advantage of the freedoms afforded them to the benefit of young people’s education. 
  • At the leadership level, the recruiting pool for MAT CEOs should be broadened by opening up to leaders from other sectors such as health, or housing, or charities. While most of the country’s system leaders are credible in the school improvement space, CEO experience from outside of the sector may be important to discharging the more administrative and business demands of the role, which at this level are as important, if not more so, to leadership success.
  • In the unstable market environment that is schools, there is a strong case to be made for an autonomous professional association for MAT CEOs. Such an endeavour might provide an alternative space for system leaders to share and develop professional practice, and a context and voice for wider stakeholder engagement and policy influence.


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