Will the White Paper trigger the flexibility the academy sector needs?

You know the feeling of anti-climax when you’ve been expecting something for a long time and when it finally drops, you wondered why you’d expected more in the first place? That’s what I initially experienced yesterday with the release of the White Paper!

We all knew the DfE wants every school in the country to be in a MAT by 2030. We all knew the powers-that-be have been softening the language around academies ( families of schools etc ). We all knew they’d be talking about the benefits of MAT’s.
Yet, nothing on where the incentive comes for the remaining 12000 schools to start the journey. Nothing on how the DfE will grow it’s own capacity to average around 1500 conversions per year when they’ve managed a fraction of this for many years. Limited circumstances for LA’s to be involved in MAT’s won’t ramp the programme up as much as they wish. No mention of the outstanding work SAT’s and empty and small MAT’s are currently doing.

But, one of my biggest concerns is this. How will those RSC’s who say they don’t want any new Trusts in their region, be able to support the DfE’s plans for all schools to be in MAT’s ( families of schools don’t forget ) by 2030? Will they conduct robust due diligence on all their existing MAT’s to ensure they have the capacity to grow or are even operating correctly with the number of schools in their Trusts now? I doubt it. My experience is that they don’t carry out such due diligence but that’s for another time! So, isn’t it naive – and dangerous – to assume that all existing Trusts are better than anything that can be built. And that existing Trusts must be good and able to grow exponentially simply because new trusts can not be viable?? That’s naive and ridiculous. Yes, there are some existing Trusts that are excellent, are able to grow, will succeed no matter how big they are. My companies work with and for some brilliant MAT’s who tick all the boxes of the DfE’s definition of ‘strong trusts’ and then some. However, there are Trusts out there who aren’t excellent, aren’t able to grow and won’t enjoy such success. So, why do we still have RSC’s saying ‘no new Trusts’ when new Trusts are the very thing the sector needs if we are to expect another 12000 schools to academise in the next 8 years?!  It is naivety at best, arrogance at worst, to assume an RSC knows what’s best for a school for the next 125 years. We can accept he/she knows what’s best for himself/herself for the present but, only by understanding the beating heart of the school, can we build something around that school that will last and continue to be the beating heart of that community for generations to come. Schools are far more permanent than the civil servants and MP’s who are making decisions for them.

There are regions that have more than half their schools in Trusts but one has less than 25%. How will that region increase conversions to support the White Paper’s goal? Solely by increasing the number of schools in every MAT? Ignoring the wishes of schools wanting to create their own MAT because the RSC knows better? Or, by growing those Trusts that can grow and can prove they are strong, as well as allowing new strong Trusts to add further capacity to the region and the system as a whole? I know which option I’d choose, but then again, who am I?!
Considering the White Paper again today, I do think there are in reality just two options facing Maintained schools now. Join an existing MAT or create your own. These are effectively the same options facing all the SAT’s out there when you think about it – my own included – and indeed all empty and small MAT’s out there too. Whichever option you choose, as long as we choose it after considering every eventuality and conducting due diligence on each, I hope the system – and the people in it – are open-minded and supportive and help build the template around the schools, not fit the schools into someone’s template because it’s more convenient for that person. The future is about the schools continuing to be the beating heart of that community, not the DfE, not a temporary Secretary of State and certainly not a transient and temporary RSC.
Education in England is now at a pivotal moment. We now have an even clearer direction of travel where the academies programme is concerned. Let’s not be blinkered around the template to be used. Let’s be open-minded and have no preconceived idea as to what is right for the nearly 22000 different settings. One-size most definitely does not fit all.