Last week saw a number of policy announcements from the DfE promoting collaboration and clarifying that "The government’s vision is for every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong multi academy trust." (Gavin Williamson, CST conference).
I agree with much of what was said. As we move to the future with the challenges that face us we cannot afford to drift back to a position of some schools being isolated or prospering at the expense of others. I am reminded of Sir David Carter’s comment at our Leadership Summit in February: "No single school has the all the answers and that we can only improve the system if we work better together".
In my view all schools should be working in a truly collaborative manner with other schools. Indeed, most schools should be working within more than one collaboration or partnership. Partnership working and collaboration within, across and beyond schools are essential elements of leading change, and collaboration both solves problems and stimulates teachers’ motivation - it gives them confidence and pride in their work. I agree with Baroness Berridge when she says that high performing schools should not sit in their ‘splendid outstanding isolation’.
However, does this mean structural change for all schools? Does this mean that all schools must join or form Multi-academy trusts?
We are lucky in Surrey that we have so many fantastic MATs. I have seen over the last year the power of trusts to bring together their schools, provide leadership, guidance, support and a sense of community. And whilst I would celebrate and applaud MATs for this – indeed I am a huge supporter of strong MATs and a trustee on the board of director of one – I am more cautious about the recent renewed MAT push from the DfE for a number of reasons.
Firstly, whilst being a loud and vocal advocate for collaboration, I believe that there is more than one successful collaborative model. As well as MATs these include strong informal collaborations, very local partnerships, federations and alliances based round an outstanding local school. In all these models the success is not the structure but the leadership, commitment and energy of the partnerships; the commitment to shared working and moral accountability to support each other and not be content to see another school be in trouble.
Secondly, we must not forget that the key purpose (and I would argue the key strength) of a MAT is that it is a single organism with aligned culture, structure and governance. In joining a MAT you are joining the ‘family’; the MAT Board is ultimately the accountable body for everything and individual schools cannot maintain their autonomy. It is when this aligned culture and governance is right that MATs can fly from strength to strength. Whilst this approach is right for some, it is not for all.
Last week the government promoted Trust Partnerships (‘try before you buy’). These are not incidentally new - many trusts have operated an associate or affiliate system especially when schools need support or want to get closer to a MAT to understand the culture and how it operates in practice. However, they do have limitations: they are for only 12 – 18 months and are only focused on teaching and learning.
In these partnerships the trust does not hold the governance, financial or employer accountability for the partner school. They also could, as trust governance expert Tomas Thurogood-Hyde considers ‘unintentionally foster a perception that a trust is just a form of support that the school can choose to accept or not.’
Thirdly, there is a risk that the government's recent announcement leads to competition between MATs and widens the gap between MATs and other forms of collaboration.
This year I have seen such fabulous collaboration and support between MATs and between MATs and maintained schools. This has been altruistic and for the common good. However, we still have more to do and have the opportunities to do some thinking in the next few weeks with the Leadership Summit follow up workshops. I would hate to see this being undermined.
And lastly, and maybe this is my biggest worry, is the risk of distraction from our moral purpose as we move out of the pandemic. The last 15 months have been exhausting. As we come out of this national crisis, schools are working hard to address the many challenges facing them. Whilst these challenges are the very things that can be supported through true collaboration and partnership, there is also the risk that our leaders and governors end up distracted by their consideration of different changes to structures rather than collaboration for purpose – improving our education provision for our children.
I believe all schools, partnerships and trusts should be having a conversation around collaboration at the moment. However, partnerships should be shaped to suit the context with a commitment to a shared vision and/or purpose.
Some schools will want to consider the MAT option, or a Trust Partnership. For others that will not be the route they wish to take. We will support leaders and governors with whatever decision they take – we are a local education partnership that is status and structure blind. Now is not the time for competition and self-introversion – but equally we cannot afford for our discussions to distract us from our collective challenges.
Maria Dawes is the CEO of Schools Alliance for Excellence
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