The original version of an article subsequently edited for publication in The Leader magazine published by the Association of School and College Leaders
Montsaye Community Learning Partnership
Jason Cumming, the Principal of Montsaye Academy in Northamptonshire and a trustee of the Montsaye Community Learning Partnership Multi-Academy Trust (MCLP), is unpacking what makes the trust distinctive: “No central team. No CEO. We are working together and there is collective decision making rather than a centralised model. Only take 2½% of school budgets and it is all spent on resources to support schools. Money that should be spent in the classroom is spent in the classroom.” Ann Davey, Executive Head of Havelock Infants and Havelock Junior Schools picks up the theme: “We developed from the existing Area Improvement Partnership and are all about providing continuity for students in the local area. They are our students and we want to work together to support them and the local community.”
Academies and School Improvement
The notion of academisation as a ‘silver bullet’ for all education’s ills has been under fire of late. In June Brian Lightman responded to the Education and Adoption Bill: “Schools fail for a number of reasons and simply changing their structure may not address the whole picture” and in July The Sutton Trust published their second report on the effectiveness of the academies programme, Chain Effect, which made a number of recommendations the first of which was “the Department for Education (DfE) should expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond academy sponsors, including developing new school-led trusts and federations.” Internationally Michael Barber and John Hattie have independently questioned the efficacy of a focus on structures rather than learning, and in July Hattie counted academisation as one of his distractions from school improvement: “It is ironic that a popular solution to claims about ‘failing schools’ is to invent new forms of schools. But, given that the variance in student achievement between schools is small relative to variance within schools, it is folly to believe that a solution lies in different forms of schools.”
In The Guardian in January former Education Secretary Estelle Morris argued that the government’s academy programme missed a crucial dimension, the local community: “There were no glory days when schools and their communities were as one, but the language and policies that now dominate the schools debate don’t even seem to recognise that community is something worth achieving.” More recently Ian Comfort, CEO of the largest academy chain, was quoted as saying: “A headteacher that joins a multi academy trust really has given up a lot of direct control over their own school.”
Local solutions to national agendas
Cumming is clear that the driving force for the trust was the changing educational landscape: “All but one of the secondary schools locally had converted to academy status and this had opened the door to a number of national academy chains. The landscape at that time was clear to all. We had a choice: we could allow ourselves to become fragmented, either by forming stand-alone academy trusts or by allowing schools to be picked off one by one by larger chains interested in expansion.” It was a time to take control of the situation and to act on three key principles:
- A local solution: Engaging with the community to benefit all the students in the towns of Rothwell and Desborough;
- ‘Earned autonomy’: Relationships built on the twin principles of trust and collaboration, the MAT intervenes internally in schools only when issues arise;
- Improving teaching and learning through collaboration and shared expertise.
A local solution
Cumming is clear about the moral purpose: “The decision was pretty easy: we decided to form into a tight knit group and support each other. We wanted to be able to work together to improve the quality of education for all children in all of the schools, to ensure a seamless journey for children from 4-19. By working closely we expected to share best practice, utilise resources more effectively and support school improvement across the group.”
Davey agrees: “Our Area Improvement Partnership was all about the community – students and families as they moved through the schools. We really liked the local feel of it and this what we wanted to preserve. We wanted to make a difference for our students. We were driven by a moral viewpoint.” She is definite the MAT has made a real difference to education in the area; recent positive Ofsted inspections would not have been achieved without collaborative school support.
Peter Leaver, the Business Manager at Montsaye, took the lead developing a governance framework that would ensure that schools retained their autonomy. The answer was a Strategic Advisory Board (SAB) “made up of the Heads and Chairs. A non-executive board that provides school level input into the Trust Board, mainly around standards and other localised issues.”
Davey agrees “the Strategic Advisory Board was key. The discussions were around how we were going to make this equal. Once the schools knew they were all represented on the SAB then they were happy: although it wasn’t the final decision making body it had influence. It wasn’t the big secondary school wanting to take us over; we were equal partners.”
But as Davey explains this has meant a big change for individual schools: “Previously we were independent schools who might have been working together, but we weren’t accountable for each other’s results. That was comfortable. We realised that it would have to be more than that and there would be some uncomfortable moments. To be autonomous we also had to have the teeth as a Trust to say, ‘That’s not good enough and we need to do something about it.’ That’s the only way to retain our autonomy. Unless we are prepared to do that, and unless we have the bodies in place to do that, then this won’t work. It might be hard, but it is better we are tough with ourselves than let someone external take us over.”
Cumming agrees: “The trust has the power to intervene where required. This is more easily enacted than the LA was able to do. By close monitoring we have been able to ensure quality. We intervene where there ware issues; and indeed have done so. The advantage we have day to day over traditional models is strong relationships between the schools within the trust so there is plenty of support to ensure schools are improving: heads meet regularly and support each other. The trust monitors closely the progress of students and deploys additional resources into schools that need more support.”
The MAT’s role in addressing underperformance has been tested by a difficult situation where it had to “find its teeth” and stand firm about what needed to happen in the face of opposition from one of the governing bodies. Davey believes that turning around underperformance won’t be easy, but will be “far easier with the support of the trust.”
Collaboration and shared expertise
One of the key decisions was to employ an external School Improvement Partner with a dual role to monitor and ensure accountability and to develop systems for collaboration and training. Tracey Briggs is clear that her role is about ensuring collaboration between the schools occurs: “We don’t have to all do the same thing, but we do have to all come from the same place. We have established principles which are then applied appropriately within each school in its own context.”
If things aren’t working effectively then the trust’s first response is that “all the schools rally around to support. And where things are working well than that good practice is shared.” But this is no wishy washy collaboration as, unlike in previous models, the schools cannot back out and must maintain their joint accountability for the outcomes.
A model for change?
In ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System collaboration and partnership are key: “There is a strong correlation between collaborative cultures and system success. We believe in continuous improvement through principled strategic partnerships.” This is precisely what the MCLP is working towards.
Association of School and College Leaders. (2015, June 3). Academisation is not a magic wand. Retrieved from Association of School and College Leaders: http://www.ascl.org.uk/news-and-views/news_news-detail.academisation-is-not-a-magic-wand.html
Cruddas, L. (2014). Leading the Way: Blueprint for a Self-Improving System. Leicester: Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
Hattie, J. (June 2015). WHAT DOESN’T WORK IN EDUCATION:The Politics of Distraction. London: Pearson.
Hutchings, M., Francis, B., & Kirby, P. (July 2015). CHAIN EFFECTS 2015. London: The Sutton Trust.
Morris, E. (2015, January 27). Schools need to be part of a community, not stand alone. Retrieved from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/27/schools-need-communities-local-authorities
Wiggins, K. (2015, July 17). Academies boss: Maintained-school headteachers have more freedom than those in academy chains. Retrieved from TES: https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-news/academies-boss-maintained-school-headteachers-have-more-freedom-those