Universal Academisation – what needs to happen? Part 1

March 30, 2016

I wrote last week about my argument for universal Academisation. If I was rewriting that now, with a critical eye, I’d be clearer that two of my arguments – addressing the conflict of interest, and creating the best system for continual improvement – are evergreen, or alternatively theoretical / principled / ideological. They were largely why I supported the first Academies under Blair (not at the time, as I was a student, but shortly after, when I entered the world of education wonkery). The other two – maximising capacity in the system, and reducing complexity – are more specific arguments that reflect a practical acknowledgement of where we are now, and how to move in that context towards a universal Academised system.

The opposition to the White Paper proposals seems to split between those who are hostile on the points of principle / theory / ideology, and those who are sceptical of the practice and context in which the current system operates. Although people can always change their minds, I suspect there’s little that can be done to sway many in the first group, especially if they have opposed Academies since the time of Blair. But the second group contains a lot of people who I’d wish to see ‘on my side’, in the probably-unfortunate-but-nevertheless-inevitable tribal way in which this issue will be progressed. So with that in mind, let me set out some thoughts on practical things which I think the government could and should do to reform the way the Academies system works in practice as we move towards universality.

There’s a lot to think about here, so this is going to split into two halves. Below, I consider changes to governance and legal arrangements of schools and specifically the role of parents. In the second blog, I’ll touch on wider system issues that need addressing.

The first and biggest issue that needs addressing is a change on the legal status of parental representation. The government has been unfairly painted a little here –it has said for some times that it prefers school governors who bring specific skills (say, finance or HR experience) rather than have a certain identity (say, parents or religious officials), without much dissent (in the jargon, this is known as skills based governance over stakeholder governance). All the White Paper does, albeit written unclearly, is continue the status quo by saying multi-academy trusts do not need parental representation on local governing bodies (LGBs) (with the corollary, of course, that they can keep them if they want to, and which almost all MATs currently do). This is an intellectually consistent position, in line with a general loosening of many regulatory requirements on Academies, to allow them to do what they think is best for their pupils. It is also worth noting that the government does not, of course, want to do away with parental engagement in schools; indeed the White Paper makes clear (4.48 and 4.49) that it should increase: “parents have not always been at the heart of the system…this must change. The role of parents is crucial. Our approach puts parents first, not through symbolic representation on a governing board, but through engagement with schools, a voice in the key decisions, and clear information that means parents can support their child’s learning”.

However, having done extensive media including phone-ins, over the last week or so, the issue of parents on governing bodies and parental engagement generally has been by far and away the most-quoted example of things making people nervous about all schools becoming academies. They fear their local primary school is about to be taken away and ‘privatised’. Or, at a minimum, will be run by a group they’ve never heard of, aren’t based near them, and over which they have no say or input. On the face of it (although the privatisation angle is an absolute red herring, and a lot of fears generally have been whipped up by those who oppose Academies for more ideological reasons), that’s not an unreasonable thing to be concerned about.

I also think, as a point of principle, that there should always be a vehicle for parents to have a say (although not a veto) on a school’s direction of travel, particularly at a time of major structural change. Education reformers have historically been keen on parental voice, including in governance – whether as setting up new free schools, or changing the governance and indeed leadership of failing schools through direct representation. More parental information about their own children, whilst welcome, is not enough on its own.

Taken together, I think this principle of parental engagement at a formal governor level, and the need to counter the false fears of a school being taken away from its local community, outweighs the argument for MATs being given freedoms to construct their own governance arrangements. So I would change the regulations as currently exist and are written in the White Paper, and I would require MATs to keep parental representation on all individual school governing bodies. The funding agreements for single academies say that two parents are required to hold seats, which seems reasonable as a starting point to me.

Secondly, and relatedly, I think government needs to be much clearer on what role parents will play in helping decide which MAT their school joins. There is some validity in criticisms of the current system of how a school is forced into Academy status (which should be distinguished from criticism of the policy itself, which I do not share). A system in which a school and a governing body is presented with an academy sponsor as a fait accompli, in a system which is not very transparent, is understandably disconcerting on occasion, as well as infantalising for the school.  I do not think the process ought to be the same if a school is becoming an academy, and selecting its overall trust, on a voluntary basis, as when schools are being forced to convert and a new academy trust is being sought to replace an inadequate management team. Schools moving on a voluntary basis have more capacity, and more options. But the more clearly the process of Academisation over the next few years can be demonstrated, via whichever route, the better.

And there is indeed a huge opportunity. One of the key points that has been missed in much of the debate is that for the vast majority of schools that now switch, this will be more akin to voluntary conversion than forced Academisation (albeit with a fixed end date by which it must be done). Schools, as now, will (mostly) be able to provide their own plans to the RSC and set out how they wish to proceed. If it were me, as a maintained school governor, I’d want my parents and school community closely involved – both formally, through the parent governors, but in truth far more widely. Why shouldn’t schools be urged to set out publicly the options before them, and seek views from the community – possibly even an indicative ballot? Why shouldn’t schools hold consultation evenings and even ‘beauty parades’ of potential partners, MATs, or neighbouring schools, to set out the options? This is what happens in good conversions, and there’s no reason why it can’t happen more widely. But this point – that for many schools it will be in their own hands, and that in almost every instance it’s best to be transparent about the options and process- will need to be constantly reiterated.

How to do this? There’s a case for some really clear guidance here from the DfE as to how the process ought to be managed for all schools over the next six years – what can be done, what must be done, and what should not be done. This guidance should also spell out really clearly what rules the RSCs will put in place when approving the new MATs. There’s likely to need to be a de minimis threshold of size (probably in £ terms) for a MAT to ensure future viability. There may also need to be some other requirements – perhaps to stop regional monopolies, or to ensure wider coverage across an area or a group of pupils. Let’s have these set out explicitly, with a message to schools (and the RSCs) that as long as you pass these, it’s up to you how you do it – but with a clear encouragement to do it in partnership with your local community wherever possible.

Making clear that parents are at the heart of schools – including Academies –  is welcome. But this needs to be at a decision making level, and able to influence the overall direction of the school, not just the outcomes for their child. Having a parental say on which MAT a school should join, and parents playing an ongoing role in that chain after 2022, are important system design points, which I believe the government should take on board.

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