Life in a Chain

The National College for School leadership has just published a big report on the working of academy chains. If you’re looking for an analysis of whether chains have a positive impact on the quality of education, this is probably not the place to look.

The analysis of data is wrong for the reasons that were set out by Henry Stewart on Local Schools Network and by the House of Commons Library. Moreover, in the bulk of the report, the researchers are content to accept what they are told by senior staff in chains and academies as gospel truth. Nowhere is there any attempt to investigate whether what they’re told is actually happening.

What the report does provide though is a mass of fascinating information about how chains work. Much is predictable and unoriginal – for example descriptions of professional development activity that is commonplace across schools of all kinds.

But buried in the report and accepted almost without comment is the fact that the large academy chains represent a reversal of the trend towards school autonomy that began in 1988. In chains like Harris, Ark or Kemnal you find that the managers of the chain commonly:

  • Appoint and performance manage headteachers;
  • Set the “educational model” for their academies;
  • Set and monitor detailed targets for pupil performance;
  • Move staff around between schools;
  • Require schools to use the chain’s back office services and procedures
  • Approve the school’s budget and development plan;
  • Set school budgets according to their own formula regardless of the decisions of local Schools Forums;
  • Appoint the majority of school governors – or in some cases dispense with a local governing body altogether.

The organisational chart for the Kemnal Chain shows headteachers as fourth tier posts below a CEO, phase directors and area co-ordinators!

Chains are sometimes described as “re-invented local authorities”. In fact no local authority has ever had powers like these over schools – even before 1988 they didn’t control how education was delivered nor did they performance manage schools as chains do now. As a former Head of School Improvement in a local authority, I’m green with envy. Governments gradually stripped local authorities of powers and capacity but now we seem to have gone into reverse – but to the benefit of wholly unaccountable private providers.  

What is truly intriguing about this report is the almost unquestioned assumption that this is a more effective way of running schools and also that it saves money. The thrust of the argument is that looser federations are less effective and will have to become more like the big chains with strong and directive central management.

It is of course true that stand alone academies and small chains without any central resources leave schools dangerously exposed. The TES report on the resignation of the head of City of London Academy in Islington (the former Islington Green) points out that this three school chain provides next to no support for its schools. An increasing number of schools are going to be left in this no man’s land.

At present the pattern of chains, federations and clusters are developing in a wholly random way. No one is in a position to make sure that all schools have access to support and join in partnership arrangements. It may be that the approach of the big chains is the right one – but we need to recognise what we’re doing and develop a consistent framework not one that is developing through unco-ordinated almost accidental individual decisions.

And of course the one thing never mentioned by NCSL is the right of local communities to say what they want their schools to be like. Their role is reduced to deciding whether to go to Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s. The world of the chain is a closed world which owes nothing to local democracy or accountability.