On 2 May 2023, Channel 4 News sent out a stark warning that schools in England are in the midst of a significant crisis. The supply of people wishing to teach in state schools is rapidly dwindling; teacher training programmes are struggling to recruit, and schools are struggling to retain newly qualified teachers.
In fact, the problem is even worse than this, because more senior teachers are retiring early. Even before the pandemic, the UK had one of the youngest teacher workforces in the developed world. There seems to have been a reduction in the ‘pull factors’ that bring people into the state school workforce, and an increase in the ‘push factors’ that cause them to leave.
A mixture of evidence points to almost a decade and a half of mismanagement under the current government. Wages not keeping pace with inflation is certainly a factor, recently highlighted by teacher strikes. But the crisis goes much deeper than this, and a pay rise won’t fix it.
I made a start on explaining such issues in the articles ‘We felt like criminals’ and ‘Toxic schools’. In this article, I present evidence that points to something deeply and systemically wrong with the government’s organisation of England’s state school system, and suggest that, until this is addressed, there will be no change to the adversity that many teachers, head teachers, support staff and pupils are experiencing, and the current crisis will only deepen.
The rise of the multi-academy trust (MAT) system in England
The MAT concept is drawn from an organisational structure for administering schools in ways that reflect a commercial company. MATs take executive responsibility for clusters of schools. They receive their funding directly from the Department for Education (DfE) and are managed by a chief executive officer (CEO) assisted by a board of directors or ‘trustees’. The body is called a ‘trust’ because it is allegedly not for profit. However, many individuals associated with MATs have found ways of making personal profits from them.
I first raised various problems associated with MATs in January last year in my article ‘Looking under the MAT’, which explored the catastrophic failure of the Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT), and the oppressive zero tolerance discipline techniques used in a number of MAT chains.
MATs, zero tolerance and ‘transmission’ teaching
In the US, the ‘charter schools’ system, the blueprint from which the DfE constructed England’s MATs, is now over 30 years old. It has given rise to a significant amount of controversy. In particular, the zero tolerance discipline approaches favoured by charter schools have been stringently questioned.
In 2021, a reporter who worked inside the system for over a year commented extensively on its ‘zero tolerance’ discipline techniques, including its negative impact on teacher retention.
In England, there is evidence that MATs, many of which embrace the same zero tolerance techniques, increase pupil suspension rates.
The issue of children who simply disappear from school rolls appears to be particularly prevalent in MATs, as I outlined in my article ‘Ghost children’ in August 2022. This was confirmed in research by the Education Policy Institute in 2019 – before the pandemic, which has subsequently been cited as a potential reason for increasing school absence.
Monique Harrison recently explored innovations to improve charter schools in the US, and found that relaxing zero tolerance and associated ‘transmission’ approaches to delivering the curriculum had some positive results.
Meanwhile, veteran UK educator Phil Beadle pithily outlined a number of issues arising from both zero tolerance behaviour policies and narrow curriculum ‘transmission’ teaching in England, while Dr Ian Cushing explored the situation from a more academic perspective. This area of commentary suggests that England’s MATs may have much to learn from Dr Harrison’s research.
MAT business management ‘dark arts’?
At this point, it seems reasonable to ask why MATs were introduced in England, when so many questions were asked about charter schools over many years in the US. Fiona Millar briefly explains this process in her 2019 Guardian article ‘Gove and Cummings honed their dark arts’.
There is considerable evidence that MATs have created a financial revolution in England’s state education system, much of it highly questionable. BBC Panorama produced an episode about this issue in 2018, and in Yorkshire, the now defunct WCAT came under fire from local media with respect to its financial practices.
The DfE gave £500,000 to WCAT after “government officials were aware of serious concerns – including potential irregular payments and poor financial management and governance at the trust”. WCAT eventually spectacularly failed, accused of ‘asset stripping’ by the national press. The local press accused the CEO and his family of benefitting from this, and Schools Week reported on preposterous decisions with regard to spending on administrative expenses.
The missing money was never recovered, and a further £200,000 of public funds were paid to accountancy firm Deloitte to wind up WCAT’s affairs.
Other MATS have received criticism for their business practices, for example the Swale Academy Trust in Kent provided senior leaders with BMW ‘company cars’ and Langdale, a Blackpool ‘free school’ – an individual school directly funded by the government, in a similar manner to a MAT – held meetings for senior staff in Ibiza. Langdale, which was previously a private ‘prep’ school, was also found to have “intentionally mis-reported the size of its deficit and may have breached its funding agreement in a £20,000 management fee to a connected company” in an investigation undertaken by the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
Both Swale and Langdale are still fully operational.
In 2019, the Times reported that ‘fat cat academy bosses’ had been told by the government to rein in mega‑salaries, with more than 100 MAT senior managers outstripping the prime minister in pay, with one earning £500K per annum.
We must remind ourselves at this point, that all this money was provided by the public purse.
Meanwhile, in 2018, the Ark Academy chain reported having a £4mn loss, despite its wealthy trustees and executive staff on very high salaries, and in 2019, Bright Tribe doubled the amount top-sliced from its member secondary schools’ budgets to fund an ambitious curriculum overhaul; confiscating money from ‘chalkface’ teaching to reallocate it to administrative matters.
There are also suggestions that various MATs engage in ‘offrolling’– removing children from their school rolls whose achievements are poor, and drag down school data averages, resulting in sudden drops in pupil numbers prior to exams.
The might of the MATs give them a power within the ministry that smaller schools do not have, highlighted here in a 2019 Schools Week article reporting that an academy leader boasted that he “flicked away safeguarding concerns” raised by a whistleblower.
Bigger than Ofsted?
Does the might of large MATs also have a significant sway over Ofsted, the schools inspectorate? There is some chequered evidence to suggest that this might be the case.
“I have witnessed on two separate occasions a school in a powerful MAT with an intimidating head teacher successfully argue their way up an inspection grade. This was largely down to the head’s connections in education and the idea that the MAT’s main school was ‘too big to fail’.”
In 2019, the Huffington Post claimed that “renowned Harris Federation, which runs 47 schools in and around London, is ‘gaming the system’ during Ofsted inspections at more than one of its schools”, also reported in Schools Week.
Correspondingly, one of Parkinson’s respondents commented (on working in an unnamed MAT):
“Ironically the school Ofsted rates as ‘outstanding’ on three consecutive inspections I found to be the most toxic environment I have ever had the misfortune to work in … What Ofsted did not see was the bullying tactics used to divide and conquer. Teachers [were] forced to falsify evidence, risk assessments and data.”
And yet another proposed:
“I worked at an Ark Academy school… Once the [Ofsted] call came in, a trip was planned for the children with the most behavioural needs and SEN children for the day of the inspection… 5 members of staff were hired at the beginning of the year and fired just after the inspection. When Ofsted arrived, they already knew the result they were going to give us… Problem was, the school was awful. Humiliating towards children, bullying staff and so many more issues that were quite obvious if they had properly inspected.”
Despite this catalogue of worrying evidence, the government currently appears to be focused on compelling every school in England to join a MAT. The Local Government Lawyer website has produced a neat summary of information on this topic, for parents and teachers.
The forced academisation strategy has recently been introduced to the general public in the huge amount of publicity generated by the tragic death of Ruth Perry, whose school was badged ‘inadequate’ due to safeguarding administrative procedures.
I took a closer look at this issue in the article ‘Five failing schools’ which examined the Ofsted reports of five non-MAT affiliated schools found ‘inadequate’ for this reason within the last year. These included Ruth’s school, Caversham Primary in Berkshire, Queen Emma Primary School in Cambridge and King Edward VII, a secondary school Sheffield, all of which have challenged Ofsted’s findings; a difficult path to take, due to such procedures being internal to Ofsted. Queen Emma School has recently requested a judicial review
Emma Wilkinson, a parent representing the King Edward VII campaign was told by Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister on Times Radio “Don’t worry too much about academisation, it’s a liberating process”.
Additionally, a teacher or head teacher anonymously reported on Parkinson’s spreadsheet:
“In my opinion [Ofsted] had already decided that we were going to be downgraded from outstanding … they … went through our safeguarding records with a fine-tooth comb … they downgraded us based on this.”
There are clearly many unanswered questions here, and it is very much hoped that investigative reporters continue to pursue these.
Save our state schools
It would take a government inquiry to fully analyse the situation in which England’s state schools now find themselves. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the system is rapidly degrading, and if the current government cannot get to grips with it, our state education is in danger of collapse.
The Guardian has already raised fears about this prospect, in their podcast ‘Why are London’s inner city schools disappearing?’
In 2017, I wrote in the Huffington Post:
“The government should now offer a referendum for the parents of England to decide whether they agree … that accountants, lawyers and business managers earning six figure salaries have the ‘right skills’ to preside over the education and care of their children, or whether they would prefer to leave this vital job in the hands of the parents, teachers, head teachers and local representatives who currently work in partnership on the nation’s school governing bodies.”
Six years later, we are reaping the bitter harvest of this government’s policy, and still parents have not yet had their voices heard. I call upon the government to remedy this, as soon as possible.