As a Trust, Schoolsworks is in its seventh year and seven is an interesting number (if you are into that sort of thing). Sometimes described as the perfect number, in terms of organisational growth, seven years means that the stages of ‘forming’, ‘storming’ and ‘norming’ should now be complete. Which raises the question, are we ‘performing’?
To answer that question requires both a look within and outside the organisation.
A look within..
From the inside, my first response would be to say that we’ve learned that academisation is no miracle cure or silver bullet for school improvement, governance or finances. The trumpeted achievements of academies in the early days often cited case studies of rapid improvements, transformed cultures and high attainment. Without wanting to sound too mithery, such studies have often been used to beat other MATs with and my protest is always that like should be compared with like.
The MATs cited in these case studies (we have faithfully trotted off to see some of them like Outwood Grange and STEP) are almost exclusively stories of schools rising phoenix-like from serious cases of poor leadership and supervision by local authorities. It is never easy to turn to a school around but with the right leadership, commitment and plans, it is certainly possible to do many good and laudable things with once-failing schools.
In contrast, our seven schools came into the academy trust with a different profile; five of them with Ofsted good judgements. Of these one was fairly securely good; three were probably only just good and one definitely wasn’t! Four of these have been inspected since joining us and judged good (one has been inspected twice) with one not yet inspected. Our sixth joiner came to us with an Ofsted judgement of RI ( which it was) but was inspected last year and is now good. Our final school joined us this year following an Ofsted classification of requiring special measures, and a subsequent Academy Order.
Apart from the last school, the others who joined Schoolsworks elected to do so after their governing bodies undertook a careful review of all options regarding academisation. The process of joining involved negotiations (in some cases detailed ones) about how the schools would retain individuality and autonomy within the MAT.
In this situation of give and take, we feel we have generally succeeded in achieving good feedback and satisfaction rates from our stakeholders whilst slowly improving outcomes for children. Gradually, relationships across the schools have become deeper, more trusting and more professionally valuable. We think this is our USP and treasure it. However, our journey towards alignment of standards and expectations has been far more tricky. Only now are we seeing, both through co-construction and external pressure, some meaningful agreed bench-marks appearing.
Likewise, it has taken us over six years to create a single shared services team to look after the business, admin, finance and HR functions of the schools. As a result we are beginning to see savings and economies of scale, but it has been a painstakingly slow process with our immediate focus on school improvement – particularly in the context of significant changes in SATs assessments. So our experience is; these things take time.
A look without..
The academies policy introduced by Michael Gove in 2010 had clearly been many years in the planning. The pace of the growth of the academy sector caught many by surprise and within 3 years appeared to be unstoppable. Unfortunately, the price of the rapid implementation of the programme was too often a lack of due diligence on the part of the DfE in the conversions they approved. Too many ‘bad apples’ ended up abusing academy freedoms financially. Too many MATs ended up with crazy geographical profiles, one example being a Trust with a handful of academies spread across Staffordshire, London, Sussex and Norfolk. In some areas, like West Sussex, the local authority policy focussed on the off-loading of their worst-performing schools to MATs as quickly as possible. This has left an enduring feeling in the county that the concept of academy conversion is somehow a mark of failure or a punishment. All these trends have lead to a situation where too many ‘bad news’ stories about academies can be told.
The turning point nationally was the great policy u-turn of May 2016 when Nicky Morgan backed down on plans outlined in the white paper produced earlier that spring to see all schools converted to academies by 2022. Ever since that time, schools have felt neither sufficient pressure nor appeal to convert and the rate of conversions (especially in West Sussex) has dropped rapidly.
Add to this the complex and confusing accountability context. Like or loathe them, everybody understands the Ofsted framework. Clearly, under the current leadership, strides have been taken to bring more consistency to the inspection experience. Yet alongside this has existed an RSC framework of accountability for MATs and academies. This is less clear and plainly more variable between regions but for us resulted in what felt very much like an inspection, lead by HMI, in a school that had been visited by Ofsted and judged good just 9 months earlier. Damien Hinds sought to clarify the position earlier this year in a speech to NAHT when he said there would be no more RSC inspections but our experience remains that the RSC is the dominant figure on our accountability radar. Consequently our 5 trust targets for the year have been effectively spelt out for us by the RSC.
At one level, this is a simple question to answer. We get on with the day job. It’s about delivering great outcomes for children in their whole school experience; academically, socially, emotionally and developmentally. It’s about delivering best value for money. It’s about eliminating the barriers to learning and continuously raising the expectations of everyone. Being a MAT gives us a sense of togetherness and purpose in this. We would like to grow because it will enhance our sustainability, but if we don’t grow, we will maintain our enthusiasm, professionalism and commitment to our schools – staff, parents, pupils and the wider communities – regardless.