OK, guv'nor, so you're contemplating heading for MAT-land? Eventually, so we're told, we're all going to have to make that journey into the, if not unknown, at lest the not very well researched. That much was evident from this week's Education Committee's session on MATs.
The pace of change since the publication the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper has caught almost everybody on the hop. Politicians, policy wonks, governors and Headteachers found themselves struggling to take in the the idea of universal academisation by 2022. With most schools in Multi Academy Trusts. Even the NGA carried on with its 'Federations First' campaign when it was obvious that MATs, not Feds are the future.
But what does that future hold?
A formidable panel of educational researchers was assembled to tell the Education Committee how much they don't know about MATs. Not, I hasten to add because they couldn't be bothered to find out, but because no one seems to know an awful lot about MAT-land. We'll, National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter and his trusty team of Regional SCs reckon they do, but they're not telling anybody.
Now, academics never knowingly overstate their case. They're so immersed in the details of their field of expertise that they cannot help but be conscious of evidence that calls into question received wisdom, or casts doubt on common assumptions. Things are rarely as straightforward as they seem.
Which is a bit vexing if you're a dilettante amateur looking for some clear cut answers. Which is what I am in education terms.
'Any evidence that joining a MAT improves school performance?' asked committee members. 'Difficult to say. Needs more research.' replied the expert witnesses. 'What makes a successful MAT?' Ditto. 'What might be learned from similar systems overseas, like the US Charter Schools?' Ditto. Oh, but it seems that Labour academies were good, Tory ones not so much.
Now, I'm not affecting a Gove-like disdain for experts. Maybe it's simply too early to draw hard and fast conclusions from what's happening in MAT-land. More independent research undoubtedly needs to be done as we head towards a MAT-dominated, fully academised system. The fruit of that research then needs to be absorbed by policy makers. Not to mention governors and Headteachers who are looking to join or set up MATs.
Would be quite nice to find out what kind of pre-existing MAT set-up should not be touched with a board ruler. (Do teachers still use those long board ruler things?) Or what should the MAT we may be forming look like if it's going to be highly effective as opposed to utterly shambolic and totally dysfunctional? We need to know these things.
Some issues became clear, though, as the committee quizzed the researchers. It's quality of teaching that matters above all else, not structures and governance systems. Well, yes. But surely closer collaboration will help spread best practice when it comes to teaching and learning, CPD, etc?
It looks like collaborative clustering within smaller geographical areas might be a goer, as opposed to large chains that stretch from one end of England to another. Having a shared vision and purpose is key. However, some schools in 'clustered' MATs ain't doing so well.
More research needs to be undertaken into what makes for an effective CEO, whole MAT outcomes, MATs and the % of SEN pupils, rates of exclusions, whether in some cases improved outcomes are at the expense of a narrowed curriculum, etc.
All rather ambiguous.
Next up to give evidence was a number of representatives of Christian education providers; RC, CofE, Oasis Trust, a chap from FASNA, and a secular bloke, who didn't appear to be involved in running any educational body, but was most concerned about Christians doing so.
This panel was a bit more forthcoming when it came to the features of a successful MAT. Among them are things like a clear vision and strategy, good leadership, governance structures appropriate for the size of MAT, and the facilitation of school-to-school support.
It was agreed that some issues needed more thought, like the role of local governance in MATs, Ofsted's ability to inspect MATs in the context of a common framework, and how LAs will function in a fully academised system.
Listening to the evidence given, a number of points began to crystallise, at least in my mind, on what may make for a successful MAT. And by that I mean one that helps form rounded and grounded students with high aspirations for themselves, as well as in terms of exam results.
1. Unity in diversity matters
MATs must offer an overarching vision and strategy that all its schools share. But at the same time, individual schools should be allowed to maintain their own character and ethos; faith or non-denominational, sporty, or arty, or whatever.
2. The right systems matter
Well motivated and highly capable people will founder in an ill thought out system. MATs need Schemes of Delegation that are fit for purpose, setting out what responsibilities lie at board and local governance levels, the powers of the CEO, what decisions may be made by individual Headteachers, and so on.
3. Sharing best practice matters
At their best MATs will allow successful schools to spread good practice when it comes to teaching and learning. But that needs to be done with sensitivity and care, as what works well in one school (a town secondary, say), may not translate to another (a rural primary). At least not without being adapted to suit. Copy and paste jobs won't work. It's vital to understand the difference between sharing best practice and imposing uniform solutions
4. The balance between accountability and autonomy matters
MAT boards and CEOs should know their schools and be prepared to intervene rapidly if standards slip. But hyperactive micromanagement squelches innovation and growth. Earned autonomy is what's needed.
5. People matter
The optimum MAT system will fail if it's operated by a bunch of knaves and fools. Knaves who want to use a seat on the board as a nice little earner. Fools who haven't a clue what they are meant to be doing. Boards should be comprised of skilled-up stakeholders. Local people, parents etc, who have the moral purpose to make sure funds are used to raise learning outcomes, not line their own pockets. People with the right mix of skills and experience to ensure the MAT works effectively for the benefit of all schools and their pupils.
The future of education is ours to shape.
MAT-land has not yet been covered over by hard concrete and filled with immovable brick structures.
That lack of solidity is a bit scary. But it's also an opportunity to adapt and innovate. To a certain extent it'll be up to governors, Headteachers and CEOs to make of it what we will.
Let's make sure that we build the system with care so that MAT-land becomes a place where teachers excel and children flourish.