Autonomy vs Consistency: Whose gang are you in?

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Something we’re seeing more and more across the educational landscape is a tension between autonomy and consistency arising from the role of school partnerships. Many schools are caught in a sort of turf war over which group, whether formal Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) or informal partnership, they’re going to be a part of. They’re weighing up the extra support and economies of scale that large Trusts can provide against the potential of losing autonomy.

When MATs first appeared about ten years ago, there was logic to the principle. Good or Outstanding schools were encouraged to “sponsor”  struggling schools, with collaboration built into the process from the start. I was in fact part of one of the early PACs (Primary Academy Collaborations), back in 2009 in the days of Sir David Carter. At the time the Cabot Learning Federation was just two or three secondary schools. Sir David recognised that in order to improve the outcomes at secondary, secondaries had to engage with primaries at a greater depth as opposed to treating them as “feeders”, which is an awful, hideous term. His vision was that primaries and secondaries should be seen as part of the learning continuum and that equal time and energy should be invested all the way through.

So we set about building partnerships and trust, based on this idea, between a group of primary schools in East Bristol, later formalising as an academy collaboration at their behest. A number of Bristol schools were invited to join at that point and of course there were schools that did and schools that didn’t. Some schools that didn’t join back then continue to this day as castles of autonomy. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that they will eventually be forced into academisation one way or another, with the clear and consistent message from every education secretary over the last ten years that all schools should move in that direction.

The perception seems to be that by getting rid of LEAs you shift the chain of authority and funding from “Government > Authority > School” to “Government > Academy” and remove a layer of bureaucratic wastage. But of course what’s happened is that these individual academies have formed trusts which have layers of their own. These almost inevitably form a very similar bureaucratic and hierarchical structure to the LEA, behaving, in many cases, as mini local authorities themselves. So now the funding goes “Government > MAT > academies” and in the same way that the authorities took a slice off for central services and gave 90% or so to schools, the same happens with MATs, who take a slice off for HR, PR, Finance, teaching schools etc. What we’ve ended up with is a country that is full of numerous mini authorities, but while some are geographically focused, others are value focused. You might have a range of schools across several counties that are all part of, for instance, a faith-based or specific curriculum-based trust. We even have nation-wide trusts as well, where schools are cherry picked and signed up from disparate areas of the country.

I continue very much to subscribe to David Carter’s original conception that academies and trusts are a local solution for local schools. I don’t agree with national scattergun trusts, I don’t agree with trusts that take schools even from different areas of the same city and put them together. I don’t think it’s helpful and in fact I think it’s divisive because it creates these little pockets of no man’s land within geographical areas and effectively breaks them up. And because of what’s happened of late we’re now in very uncertain times. It’s reminiscent of the playground politics of  “whose gang are you in?” and it’s becoming a little unpleasant. Some schools are being forced into joining a group locally because they believe in local solutions for local schools, but actually the school next door might belong to an organisation driven by completely different values from their own. Because the school’s primary value is locality, they end up being consumed, drawn into a trust which is potentially pedagogically and philosophically at odds with their original intention or foundation.

We are seeing some light amongst the dark clouds with the DfE’s new School Strategic Improvement Fund (SSIF), as MATs, Local Authorities, Free Schools and Teaching Schools are coming together to support leaders and teachers across geographical areas. This is powerful and we wait to see how this approach works, but we continue to feel the tension elsewhere. There’s no doubt that MATs themselves have values, because they’re driven by people, as are schools. They understand that the job IS people, ie children, but they’re struggling with on the one hand this identity, which is highly humanistic, holistic and driven by consideration for the child, but on the other hand the pressures of managing this enormous business, which has very different needs to those of an individual school.

Eventually, the MAT machines become so big that they force mechanisation all the way down the chain in order to survive, or create two sides of the same brain: Teaching & Learning vs Central Services. As opposed to being a collaborative organisation driven by individual parts, it becomes a self-perpetuating system with functions that are essential to itself but suddenly miles away from the original purpose it was established for, which was simply to improve education and support teachers. That mechanistic approach necessitates a drive for standardisation, because that makes the machine run smoother. So we end up with this idea that schools should be doing “the same”, that in order to provide equality, they should be providing “the same”. Even though this started out referring to more corporate things like HR structures, opportunities for promotion or access to resources, over time it’s trickled all the way down until now we’re hearing, “all of our schools should have a standardised curriculum, or a standardised approach to recruitment and retention.”

This is where the real danger lies, because the way a school values its staff and conducts learning is an enactment of its values - it’s the curriculum, the thing that everyone experiences. Families don’t judge a school on how good the HR is, but on whether the curriculum is exciting and inspiring and driving their children further, deeper and faster. So the machine is driving the need for consistency to keep itself running, but this is hugely at odds with a school’s crucial need for the autonomy to adapt its practices to its own situation. Every school should be able to be different, every school should have a ‘thing’, no matter if they’re in the same Trust. So one school might be STEM focused, one could be arts or creativity, or sports and outdoor learning, or one is enquiry based, another topic based. It is the ability of schools to work in a way that’s best for them that creates not “the same” education for everyone, but inspiring, engaging education for everyone, whatever that might look like in a given setting.

You should be able to choose which school is best for you to work in, live in, learn in, thrive in, be that as a learner or a teacher. But the system is becoming so obsessed about everybody having ‘the same access’ that we’re seeing a real danger of schools becoming machines themselves, factories of learning committed only to making sure that the provision to each child is “the same”. The standardisation and commercialisation of education is driving schools towards a blandness that should be scaring us much more than it is. Schools are losing their essence, their personality.

In my view, curriculum and leadership are the driving force behind it all, as many schools know and many more are starting to realise. You can’t standardise children, therefore you can’t, or certainly shouldn’t, standardise a curriculum. Your curriculum is a reflection of how your school is led, and that won’t be standardised either. That’s why our Curious-city™ approach is ticking so many boxes with so many people. It’s providing the framework that schools know they have to have but also the opportunity for the creativity to step out of it. Schools need autonomy to breathe how they want to breathe to satisfy the needs of their learners.

I’m not saying Trusts shouldn’t work towards a common pedagogy, a common set of beliefs, or a common set of fundamental pillars that everyone subscribes to, but they have to be wary that shared values and resources don’t lead to a dogmatic, prescriptive approach to the provision of their support. What began as networks of local schools gathering together for mutual benefit could easily become a vast machine, chewing up schools and spitting out meaningless, standardised test results. Consistency of quality is an admirable goal, but the removal of autonomy and thus the personality of a school, isn’t the way to achieve it. Schools should be quirky, different places where teachers and learners feel at home, safe, secure and able to thrive.