Dr Nicholas Capstick
CEO, The White Horse Federation
Let’s change the record and the rhetoric! Let’s not argue about why a school might join a MAT, let’s create a compelling case as to why they wouldn’t!
I’m tired you know! Tired of people like me being trotted out onto one stage, platform, forum or another to ask the audience to listen about “Why you should join or create a MAT of your own”, (please don’t stop asking me though because I want to change the narrative). And so increasingly, I think we need to turn the argument into a two-way dialogue because it’s only through conversing with one another and more importantly by being open and by listening to one another rather than expounding our entrenched views that we will move the Academies debate forward.
The emphasis in my opinion, has to be on Academy and Trust leaders, the DfE, NSC/RSCs and school-based stakeholders who see and enjoy the benefits of being part of a MAT to create an argument which identifies that academisation and the creation of MATs is the correct way forward because it’s universally compelling not a threatening alternative. The challenge must be about making the invitation to join the right decision for every school. The burden of change, therefore, must be on those who champion MATs to create an unassailable reason for those who don’t enjoy their views to at least listen and engage.
We live in changing times where the educational landscape is moving the tectonic plates of pedagogy forever, and it’s irreversible. The changes we see in the decentralisation of power and influence from the centre in Whitehall to the regions via the RSC’s and the Regional HMI Directors is irrefutable. The degradation, through no fault of their own, of LAs and their influence on education is such that both from a logistical and financial point of view any reconstruction would be impossible even if it was desirable.
The days of LMS, support via Consultants, Advisors, ASTs and Advisory Teachers, the fora and forums in past times to discuss phase, subject or curricular design are no longer and in periods of austerity are a thing of the past for LAs which has created a vacuum of support. Where do our leaders and those new to the profession go to have the formal and informal discussions about Teaching and Learning that we had in the past? Where are ideas about pedagogy explored and deconstructed in gatherings where “newbies” to the profession can learn from and inform the “old hands”? Where are the meeting places that we used to go to just to get excited about our profession?
We also need to be aware of the greater freedoms to innovate and create that academies have. The high impact of central Government policies, the changing role of the NSC and RSCs, combined with changes to Ofsted, the school led systems of reform, the reforms of ITT via SCITT and school-based teacher training – which for the first time this year eclipsed HEI training – and the Academies and Free School programme all offer opportunities and challenges which need to be discussed more openly.
The challenges for me are simple and are all about bringing improvements via change, not because of change, through;
- Supporting school-led improvement because as practitioners we really do know best when allowed to think, create and innovate. When we are given time or we, create space to be the pioneers of new educational thinking which moves us away from the Victorian constructs of a system of yesteryear into a world-class academic offer for every stakeholder in our schools irrespective of geography or demographic reach.
- It’s about how we review the hierarchy in school leadership and governance and recognise the power of every employee in a school to be a leader of learning. Our cleaners, cooks, Admin officers, TAs, NQTs and all elements of our teaching structures must understand that they are invaluable in creating the invitation to learn, and that makes each and every one of them a leader of learning. If we all do our respective jobs well, education improves. It’s that simple!
- It’s about recognising that we will have different ways of doing things in our schools as MATs evolve and that increasingly the role of the middle tier will be ever more important. The best thing about the development of MATs is that there is no blueprint for people to say we shouldn’t have created our MAT in a certain way. The worst thing is that there is no blueprint! Modelling and understanding that although MATs may differ in size, shape, geography and intake that we can and should learn from each other is key. Established MATs if they reflect on their growth must have a file of “lessons learned”. At the WHF what started as a file soon morphed into a cupboard and is now a room full of ”lessons learned”, but there is no lock or even a door on the room and it’s open for anyone to come and benefit from our journey, our mistakes and the things we wished we knew then but didn’t.
- It’s about understanding how we create and develop school to school capacity with and for each other in a reciprocal way which goes beyond boundaries or structures which bind us to one exclusive club. It’s about creating a culture where locally, regionally and nationally we have a conversation based on joint ambition for our young people, a joint and shared responsibility for their success and where we create a pathway of joint endeavour to make it happen.
- It’s about growing learning communities, not just schools. Learning communities which spread across all aspects of school life to improve and which recognise the synergy that happens when Leadership and Governance learn from each other, within and beyond their communities. The benefits that teachers and leaders of learning receive when they are enabled to work collegiately and collaboratively with each other. The collective strength and wisdom developed when our Bursars, Business Managers and FDs, Estates people and Human Resources experts can share and learn from each other.
- It’s about peer partnering and support at every level of school and MAT life.
- It’s about the better modelling of routes and ways of doing things and helping others who wish to create their own MAT or who wish to join a MAT to have information which will enable them to make the right choices for their schools and their wider community. We need to exemplify how others have done it and the multitude of different pathways to academy structures and support.
As leaders in our schools we need to ask the right questions about where we are now and if by being part of a MAT we are able to;
- Achieve more ambitious and better outcomes for all our pupils because of our access to those wider learning communities offered by a MAT.
- Create greater opportunities for staff development and the offer of opportunities for colleagues to “try before they buy” by the exchanging of staff across settings of differing sizes, demography and school improvement priority.
- Access greater learning resources and be engaged in dialogues about curriculum design and constructions which enable us to explore with peers and colleagues solutions to changing societal needs.
- Share best practice, subject leadership and distributed leadership while keeping a sharp eye on succession planning and talent management.
- Recruit and retain the best practitioners because of the career profile we can offer and the opportunity for variety as well as challenge in their professional careers. The development of SCITTs, Teaching Schools, Commissioned and Traded Services from LAs, schools and other Trusts all ensure variety and challenge while never leaving the safety of your own family.
We also need to be able to create a credible and easily understandable account of the Trust’s vision and values and all that it stands for and believes in. It’s the unique offer in terms of all that the Trust represents that should be the clearest message of all. It’s a focus for all stakeholders already in the Trust and a clear indication of the values base which any new school will be expected to buy into and which is a non-negotiable in terms of adherence. It should be the life breath of the organisation and which underpins the culture, ethos and direction of the present and the future combined. Without this glue one has a fragile foundation and an insecure carcass around which to drape all that is good and proper about the organisation.
I am a big fan of a mixed economy MAT of Primary, Special and Secondary schools and what each offers the other when being part of a family of schools. The engagement and invitation to learn shown by so many great Primary practitioners who need to be adept and agile at engaging the same learners throughout the day. The technical skill, enthusiasm, knowledge and passion for their subject which Secondary teachers bring and can share with Primary colleagues. The forensic ability to deconstruct learning and barriers to learning and engagement that our Special School colleagues have which can be so invaluable to understand across all phases and specialisms. These are the teaching and learning gifts gained by being part of a mixed economy MAT. However, there are also generic questions that one might reflect on if not part of a MAT that I think we need to ask around our pupils and students;
Can we provide an ‘all through’ learning journey where we strengthen the transition between phases and specialisms and recognise the seven pinch points of progression?
➢ Progression 1-HOME and the ENTRY to SCHOOL
➢ Progression 2-RECEPTION to Y1
➢ Progression 3-Y2 into Y3
➢ Progression 4-YEAR 6 into YEAR 7
➢ Progression 5-TOWARDS GCSE
➢ Progression 6-ENTRY POST 16 destinations
➢ Progression 7-HE and WORK
Each of these progression points has a co-dependency and legacy from the one which precedes it and a duty to the one which follows it if we are not to see a hiatus in a child’s learning. How much easier is the conversation when it’s between one family of schools if possible?
- Do we offer access to wider peer groups for every pupil and student in every sense? Through the breadth and depth of our organisation can we open up different communities, worlds and understandings beyond that of a child’s immediate location?
- Do we offer access to greater learning resources and teaching styles just because our teachers and leaders have a wider community to develop pedagogy within and because within any formal structure like a MAT it’s easier to enable and engineer for it to happen?
- Do we offer opportunities for our learning communities to explore how to improve teaching and learning opportunities across all schools for all children?
In the academy system though we also need, to be honest in demystifying some of the myths and legends which seem to have been articulated so often that they are now urban truths. This does mean that we also need, to be honest about some of the fears which surround the loss of autonomy of leaders and governance. So, does becoming part of a MAT or creating your own mean a loss of autonomy? Almost certainly yes in some respects. Any organisation which grows bigger needs to see a fine balance of uniformity with conformity of systems, processes and protocols. It makes sense to have common:
- Systems and Operating procedures which create agility, accuracy and single conversations between schools and between the school and the Trust.
- Information collection points and common assessment and reporting systems throughout the year in a similar format and a single transitional conversation which is agreed and needs less interpreting. This is not to create another layer of inspectorial monitoring but to offer an understanding and collegiate response from the Trust and other schools within the trust where intervention and strengthening is required.
- Exam syllabi which ensure the best practice around each syllabus is shared and developed collegiately to offer that security blanket of support.
- Key Educational Policies which explore and exemplify the best practice from within and beyond the Trust.
- Finance, Estates, ICT and HR practices as one employer and which bring about the commercial and logistical advantages of having skilled and seasoned professionals who can lighten the workload of leaders at a school based level thus leaving us – as educators – to get on with what we are really good at;
➢ Curriculum design and development
➢ Leading learning and supporting leaders of learning at every level
➢ Developing community links and engagement
➢ Challenging, supporting and developing outstanding outcomes for our young people in order to change not only their life chances but also the social and economic capital that comes from having a well-educated society.
We also need to demystify some of the myths and legends around what happens when a school joins a MAT and that it’s not all about asset stripping, change for everybody and redundancies all round. Change is inevitable but not necessarily detrimental so we need to articulate better what will happen and to whom and when should a school decide to join a MAT.
We need to change the notion that a school loses something of itself and its identity when becoming part of a MAT and liken it instead to becoming part of a family of schools. A great family, in fact, in which as a family you love the members as much for their differences as you do for the ties of familiarity that bind. You respect and admire idiosyncrasies which make them so wonderfully individual and yet will be forever part of your family group. You enable and encourage an outward reflection which creates a family resemblance but doesn’t try and clone conformity for its own sake.
That’s why a parent chooses to send their child to a particular school, it’s a family thing, and why we as system leaders in the Academy movement should work tirelessly to create such a persuasive and captivating tale of support, honesty and integrity that will make MATs irresistible.
There are challenges though which we should not be blind to when a school joins a MAT. The changes in the delineation of traditional roles and the responsibilities those roles have is a good opening discussion as it can be the pothole that causes the most difficulty in viewing the brave new world. Linked to this is the need to look at and find different leadership pathways across a MAT structure which see subject or phase specialist having equal status and responsibility as maybe linear line managers in a school. We shouldn’t ignore either the fact that as a family we see the need and insist on the fact that all schools look beyond their performance and take joint performance responsibility for every pupil and student in the Trust. It’s from this point that we also need to measure and create metrics which support the evaluation of cross Trust interventions and support while balancing the need also to monitor and support individual academy performance. Finally, what about all of those tensions created by already having an embedded system which seems to understand the pathways of autonomy, freedoms, accountability, collaboration and competition which are now turned on their head somewhat by the MAT Trust system?
The test therefore for all MAT and system leaders, teachers and educators, the NSC and his respective regional colleagues, the Secretary of State and the Chancellor who should fund this movement is now to create and articulate a new system which leaves behind the pointy finger of insistence and the language of takeover or merger and instead offers the open palms of invitation to collaborate and support in the joint enterprise of creating a first class educational system which every stakeholder at every level is proud to be part of. I repeat, let’s not have an argument about why a school should join a Trust, let’s create a dialogue which makes the invitation to be system leader in an MAT based system a compelling one.