Let’s start with the word ‘academy’. It’s a word that applies to state schools in England – schools in the rest of the UK are organised differently. An academy is not the same as a ‘community school’ or a ‘voluntary school’ or a ‘foundation school’ as all these types of school are controlled – to a greater or lesser extent – by local authorities. An academy – and related types of school such as a ‘free school’ - are schools funded by the central government but run as independent schools. An academy doesn’t have to follow the national curriculum or keep to usual school holidays. According to 2018 figures from the National Audit Office, 72% of state secondary schools in England are now academies
How a multi-academy trust works
A ‘multi-academy trust’ is a group of schools in partnership with each other, often but not always because they are geographically close to one another. Where a trust has both primary and secondary schools, it can be because those primary schools are the ‘feeder’ schools for the secondary schools in the trust. Some multi-academy trusts can have 30 or 40 schools, some will be a much smaller group of perhaps half a dozen. The trust featured in the OU/BBC co-produced School series has seven schools in it: four secondary schools and three primary schools. There are obvious advantages to working as a group of schools, for example in terms of creating common policies, streamlining, school organisation, sharing expertise – including schools in the trust lending staff to each other.
This idea of schools sharing provision and learning directly from each other is a powerful one and something which has been an ambition of government for at least the last 20 years. For example there were ‘networked’ schools and ‘school federations’ back in the early 2000s, with the idea, in particular that this would enable less successful schools to learn from more successful ones. However the multi-academy trust takes this idea of a looser networking to the level of formally constituted partnership.
These trusts are run on business lines – they are given funding from the government but they then make all of the decisions themselves about how the money is spent and how to balance the books – in this sense they are on their own.
Nevertheless, the multi-academy trust model also has its fair share of critics. It has been an inevitable effect of this government policy that the wide ranging support previously offered by local authorities has been diminished or even eradicated altogether. These trusts are run on business lines – they are given funding from the government but they then make all of the decisions themselves about how the money is spent and how to balance the books – in this sense they are on their own.
Head teachers and a Chief Executive Officer
The OU/BBC series School features a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – a role imported from the business world and, though the CEO is a former head teacher, his role is senior to all the head teachers of the individual schools. Throughout the series he is seen focusing on budgets, deficits, provision of services and cost reduction – and with very little emphasis on the teaching and learning in each of the schools, except for a close interest in exam results.
Critics of the trust model might question how extra layers of expensive management can be the best use of a budget under extreme pressure. As well there are perceptions in the series that the rewards in an academy can be very unequally shared. In an academy the school sets its own staff pay and conditions and for example we see in the series that this includes (or doesn’t include) performance related pay for staff based on their students’ GCSE results.
However the ‘multi-academy trust’ such as this one featured in this series is now an integral part of the school landscape in England. As you will see as the series progresses school finances are at the heart of every conversation – "there isn’t enough money", "there isn’t as much money as last year or the year before" and there is relentless pressure to address deficits by cutting what is offered to the students within the school.