The contemporary landscape of state school management is confusing for many parents. The majority of people aged 40 and over went to state schools and thus had their education overseen by a local education authority. Nowadays though, children are more likely to attend schools that are part of academy trusts or, particularly secondary schools, a multi academy trust (MAT). But the jury is still out on whether the MAT system is a positive development.
What are academies and MATs?
The government describes academy schools as “having more control over how they do things”, for example not being tied into the national curriculum and being able to set their own term times. They are run by not-for-profit companies.
In the case of MATs, one company runs several schools, in the same manner that a parent company runs a chain of stores such as Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Sometimes, usually in large urban areas, there are several neighbouring schools that are run by the same MAT.
Criticisms of Multi Academy Trusts
The concept of the MAT has, for a long time, been dogged by controversy. There are corresponding debates about the similar system in America, known as ‘charter schools’ which has been in existence for much longer than the UK system. The Washington Post recently examined issues relating to Pearson, one of the largest sponsors of charter schools in the US, as well as problems relating to charter schools in general. Michigan in particular, seems to have a chequered relationship with its charter schools.
Panorama recently exposed some of the main issues arising from England’s MATs, principally murky financial dealings relating to chief executives and senior staff on very high salaries keeping opaque financial records.
Before the pandemic, questions of this nature were also explored in the publication Schools Week, which found the typical MAT chief executive to be on a six-figure salary, including Wakefield-based Outwood Grange’s leader Martyn Oliver, who it seems has declined recent pay rises and “remains on £165–170,000”. He is profiled here by the TES.
Wakefield Academies Trust scandal
Wakefield schools have been the source of much controversy since their relationship with the MAT concept began. In 2010, Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) took over 14 primary schools and seven secondary schools across Yorkshire.
In 2017, two weeks into the 2017/18 school year, the trust pulled out of the management of all these schools, throwing their operations into chaos.
Full information about what happened has never been published, but stories of the chief executive spending lavishly on equipment for his own office and giving contracts to his own company for school supplies began to trickle into the mass media.
By 2019, it became clear that any money the trust had taken for running the schools would never be recovered, due to its entry into liquidation proceedings. The wind-up process alone cost the public purse £200,000. The company was found to have paid at least £440,000 to other companies owned by the chief executive.
PTA money that had been raised by parent-led initiatives totalling around £220,000 had been stored in the trust’s accounts and was therefore irrecoverable. Attempts by families and the local authority to get further information on this met with silence.
In 2018, Outwood Grange MAT stepped up to take over the ex-WCAT schools; but their tenure, too, has been dogged by controversy.
Flattening the grass technique at Outwood Grange
In early 2019, the secondary schools overseen by Outwood Grange were accused of using a technique known as ‘flattening the grass’ to instil discipline. The Department for Education’s response was to point out that the academy contract gave schools more independence to follow their own agendas, so their ability to intervene was limited, although they added that they didn’t agree with initiatives that “deliberately set out to upset children”.
‘Flattening the grass’ allegedly involved MAT executives visiting each school en masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head teacher emphasises behaviour expectations to each year group in turn.
The next and controversial stage of the process involves the head teacher identifying individual children to reprimand in front of the year group until they cry. If the MAT executives did not think the head teacher had been forceful enough, one of them walked forward to continue the process. The students watching were deemed to be the ‘grass’ which was ‘flattened’ by the experience.
The following month, Schools Week published anonymous accounts from teachers who reported being present at such assemblies, and who had contacted them with concerns, one commenting that the process was “vicious”. Another reported that they had been told that they should “get in pupils’ faces” and that they “were not shouting loud enough”. Outwood Grange denied these claims.
In April 2019, Schools Week claimed that they had proof, via leaked emails, that Delta MAT did undertake ‘Flattening the grass’ exercises in their schools, located across northern England. Delta is run by Outwood Grange’s former deputy chief executive, Paul Tarn. Delta also denied these claims, commenting that ‘flattening the grass’ did not mean what Schools Week proposed that it meant.
Children in isolation for hours without teaching
In early 2019, a former pupil took action against Outwood Grange claiming he had spent 35 days in isolation as a punishment for unspecified behaviour violations.
The Guardian reported that the trust’s behaviour policy and stated that:
“Children could be sent to isolation booths for up to six hours a day with no teaching. Pupils could complete work they had brought themselves, but they did not have to. They were allowed a maximum of three toilet breaks a day for no more than five minutes per visit.”
Outwood Grange countered that its behaviour policy was currently ‘under review.’
This month, the Wakefield Express reported that a quarter of the pupils at Hemsworth Outwood Grange Academy had been temporarily excluded between September 2020 and July 2021, with 24 pupils permanently expelled. The school commented that they were “working hard to improve things”.
In the past week, Outwood Academy Portland in Worksop, a school with 1,512 pupils and rated as ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED, was found to have issued 1,000 fixed-term exclusions in a year. The school’s response was to point out that this was in fact a reduction on the number of fixed-term exclusions that had been issued in the previous year. Nottinghamshire County Council commented:
“The number of fixed-term exclusions in Bassetlaw and Nottinghamshire as a whole are significantly impacted by one school, who issued nearly three times as many fixed term exclusions as any other Nottinghamshire school, and account for over a quarter of all exclusions across Nottinghamshire and over a fifth of the total days lost to learning across Nottinghamshire.”
Moving forward, post-pandemic
In 2017, I asked in the Huffington Post whether parents were really content with the education and welfare of their children being handed over to what are, in practice, private companies funded by the public purse.
To quote George Monbiot:
“Those who own and run the UK’s privatised or semi-privatised services make stupendous fortunes by investing little and charging much.”
I also referred to the controversial issues surrounding US charter schools.
Parents left with little choice of schools
One of the big drawbacks of the MAT system is clearly that if a large company takes over the running of all schools within a particular area, parents can be left with little choice of school for their child, particularly if they do not have access to private transport to ferry them around.
My own choice, as a former schoolteacher and parent governor would be for teachers and parents to have the major influence over local schools, possibly organised by a fully modernised version of schools boards, the bodies set up to oversee state education when it was first established.
Finding a fairer, more transparent system
There will of course never be a perfect system, and some employees will always find a way to take advantage. And in fairness, it has to be said that there are some Academies and MATs that do an honest, caring job. But the inherent lack of accountability is too great a temptation for too many, as clearly demonstrated by the WCAT disaster, and the incidents depicted by Panorama.
It seems to me that something in our state education system has to change very soon if we are to develop the resilient young adults we will need for an uncertain future. They have returned to school under the emotional burden that pandemic and lockdown has imposed upon us all, and they need both education and care from the adults who staff these institutions.