The accountability of academy chains, also known as ‘multi-academy trusts’ (MATs), is once more in the public spotlight. A Channel 4 Dispatches programme ‘How school bosses spend your millions’ aired at the end of July following a joint investigation with The Observer based on expenses claims released under the Freedom of Information Act. It alleged that chiefs of these trusts were wasting taxpayers’ money on unnecessary luxuries such as posh hotels and restaurants and executive cars. This is on top of the high salaries within the management tiers of these trusts, with many of the largest chains paying their bosses in excess of £150,000. And there were issues relating to so-called ‘multi-party transactions’ – where companies linked to directors of trusts are paid for services to those trusts. This produced a sharp comment from the former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge: “These related party transactions should be outlawed and it is so bloody obvious. If you are getting involved in schools for the public good, then you shouldn’t be making money out of it”.
It’s not the first time these issues have come up. For example back in September 2014 an Institute of Education report on conflicts of interest for the Education Select Committee by Toby Greany and Jean Scott concluded that “the governance of many trusts remains problematic, with too much executive influence”.
The trusts identified in the latest investigation mounted vigorous defences of their practices. Their arguments may have force but the implications go wider and deeper than the question of propriety. They relate to the core issues of whether the structure being created, with the academy chains set to replace the role of local authorities, is workable and also whether it is legitimate. The White Paper produced earlier this year by Justine Greening’s predecessor as Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, said that all schools would have to be academies by 2022 and most would be expected to join or form chains. This policy, which surprisingly had first been announced by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, was somewhat softened later in the face of a series of strong reactions but the message that all schools would be academies within a few years appeared to be sustained. With none of the key players, including Morgan’s predecessor Michael Gove who was the architect of the whole edifice, any longer in senior government roles it will be interesting to see whether the latest media exposure, together with a cool look at the current landscape, prompts a review.
As things stand more than two-thirds of the 3,000 primary academies are in chains. There are more than 2,000 secondary academies of which slightly under half are members of chains. Around three-quarters of the chains are rather small, having six schools or fewer. Earlier this year the government’s academies champion, the national schools commissioner Sir David Carter, told a conference that, because the then government wanted most new academies to be in chains, 1,000 new trusts, each responsible for at least 10 schools, would be needed by 2020. There are around 300 chains currently.
Surely the new government must be asking themselves whether anything like the fourfold expansion planned in the White Paper is sensible or workable. Even with their eight regional school commissioners they couldn’t hope to monitor the activities of so many new educational bureaucracies in such a fragmented and disparate set-up, with a huge range of third-party providers. So we might expect lots more juicy revelations of alleged malpractice. The limited resource available for central policy-making and oversight would be largely consumed by this task, leaving little for all the other pressing educational issues needing attention.
Nor is the impact on performance likely to be beneficial. Studies of even the existing MATs have shown that there is enormous variation in performance between them. For example the latest of the Sutton Trust’s annual analyses released last month found a significant number of chains that “may be harming the prospects of their disadvantaged students” and saw “a real danger that the programme becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution”. It’s hard to see how the model can be vastly scaled up to improve standards and equity if the capacity and quality of so many of the existing chains are a serious concern. It seems an organizational impossibility.
But it’s appropriate to question not just the viability of the direction of travel but also its legitimacy. The corporate model which underlies the idea of MATs sees pupils and parents as consumers, obtaining a service from a chain controlled by a distant head office that is entirely unaccountable to them, with no necessary relationship to their local community and whose only real masters are in central government. In fact currently almost the only significant democratic input to education is at central government level. The question at the heart of the latest investigation is whether that is how we all want our school system organized.
Ron Glatter is Emeritus Professor of Educational Administration and Management at The Open University and a Visiting Professor at the UCL Institute of Education.