Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Appeal of Autonomy Is All Academic, Now

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

The Appeal of Autonomy Is All Academic, Now

Article excerpt

As multi-academy trusts become prevalent, their CEOs are wielding more top-down control over supposedly autonomous schools than local authorities ever did

The academies programme has taken schools policy in England by storm.

For the past 15 years, the creation of more of these "statefunded independent schools" has been a political imperative for every single education minister, whatever their political hue.

But that support has been the only constant. The idea of what an academy is has changed beyond all recognition as, one by one, the defining characteristics that once made these schools different have been stripped away.

Now, with government moving towards the logical conclusion of the policy - 100 per cent academisation - the last, most important element of the academies programme is disappearing as well.

Autonomy - over school staffing, budgets, curriculum and organising the school day - has always been the central reason for promoting and acquiring academy status, but it's becoming a thing of the past for a growing number of schools. Yet this crucial change has barely been acknowledged, let alone publicly debated or scrutinised.

Late last year, the education secretary Nicky Morgan declared that the academies programme had been "built on...autonomy and accountability".

But the school organisation model evolving under her government means more and more academies are actually controlled by tightly run chains offering heads and governors of individual schools less autonomy than even the most domineering local authority used to.

That, in turn, means that genuine accountability now depends increasingly on how well these chains - or MATs (multi-academy trusts) - are monitored.

And when official measures look at the performance of individual schools, rather than the unelected, privately controlled chains that run them, then the accountability that has been stressed by Morgan must also be called into question.

Anyone doubting the lack of autonomy for individual academies under the new system need only listen to the people who run them. Take Mark Ducker, executive principal of Step Academy Trust, a chain of seven South London primaries.

"We need to have standard operational procedure in terms of teaching and learning," he told TES last year. "Our curriculum needs to be very similar across the group, and our teaching style and our assessment system."

That is control over individual schools beyond anything that local authorities would have dared do at the height of their powers - it is control over actual pedagogy. Forget autonomy over the curriculum, a growing number of academies are no longer able to decide how to teach it.

Sir Michael Wilkins, chief executive of the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, an MAT of 15 academies based in Wakefield, recently told TES: "We run it like one big school. The principals are more like heads of departments."

The model allows him to quickly pull "levers", enabling the instant spread of good practice across its schools. But it is not how ministers have sold academies.

Heath Monk is chief executive of Future Leaders, an organisation asked by the government to develop new training for MAT leaders. Asked how the role of an MAT chief executive compared with a local authority education director, he is clear that the MAT leader had "far more leverage". …

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