02 April 2015
The rise of cross-phase, multi-academy trusts (MATs) and the spread of system leadership beyond individual heads are trends rapidly reshaping our educational landscape. ASCL needs to respond to these changes if it is to meet the needs of the next generation for whom these leadership models will be the norm, says Peter Kent.
New structures have a habit of catching us out. Soon after the first iPad came into the shops, I was told by a group of colleagues on a technology working group that, while the new invention had its uses, “it would never catch on”. In their eyes, it was an electronic toy, suitable for low-level tasks, but lacking the serious computing capability of their desktop PCs. Very often our view of the future is conditioned by what we have known in the past.
I don’t claim to have always been at the cutting edge of the latest education reforms. My school deliberately held off from becoming an academy and finally took the step recently with a certain degree of regret.
Although we are now starting to scan the horizon, we are not currently part of a federation. My governors regularly tell me that “it’s not broken so don’t fix it” and I think that they are right.
Despite all this, it is starting to become clear to me that the educational structures of the future are likely to be very different from those of the past. The direction of travel is captured powerfully by ASCL’s own blueprint for the future of education that has a self-improving system:
In 2015, formal partnerships of schools in the forms of multi-academy trusts (MATS) and federations begin to proliferate quickly. This was an explicit feature of the drive to subsidiarity and based on the evidence that formal partnerships make the most difference.
If you had told me five years ago that MATs were going to play an important part in the future of education I would probably have thought that you were talking about something that I wipe my feet on. I certainly would not have known how one was organised or what to do to set one up.
Yet the comments in our blueprint are already taking on a prophetic note.
Over the past year, the number of MATS has increased dramatically with that growth likely to accelerate after the general election, regardless of which party wins. Britain currently has 24,000 schools of various types and phases. Some estimate that over the next five years that number might reduce to around 8,000 as the move to MATS and other forms of federation takes hold.
An obvious question to ask is: should we regard this as a bad thing? In his review of the evidence behind the self-improving system, Professor Toby Greany of the Institute of Education (IoE) cites a number of research studies that provide compelling evidence that formal partnerships have a positive impact on school improvement.
Sustained improvement comes through leaders supporting and challenging one another. Such a model builds on the idea of subsidiarity that is central to our blueprint. We want decisions to be made ‘at the place closest to students’, but also think it important that these decisions are influenced by a clear line of local accountability.
As well as delivering improvement, formal partnerships may represent the most realistic financial model for the future.
A large number of the 24,000 institutions I mentioned are made up of small primary schools and it is hard to see any realistic future for them other than in some form of federation. The resulting economies of scale are significant and may provide the only way to face a future of less than generous funding, regardless of which party is in power.
Our blueprint predicts that the government may use future funding models to promote federations and partnerships precisely because they are more sustainable and promote more rapid improvement.
All of these developments are bound to change our concept of what an educational institution is. For example, over the next few years the terms ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ may increasingly lose their meaning. I have been struck by the number of colleagues on ASCL Council who are already in some form of partnership or federation with local primary schools. Increasingly, the leaders who make up ASCL are likely to find themselves working across sectors and the sharp dividing lines that once existed are likely to become increasingly blurred.
Toby Greany also highlights in his evidence review the fact that, at one time, the phrase ‘system leaders’ was something confined to a small group of so-called super-heads. However, Toby points out that over the coming years the majority of us are likely to be engaged in some form of system leadership, as we find ourselves working across both phases and institutions.
The blurring of phases is not an entirely new idea. For many years, ASCL members working in independent schools have very successfully developed models for schools, which combine primary, secondary, and, in some cases, early years provision. Their experience of cross-phase leadership will be something that we can all learn from as new structures emerge.
The new structures of the future pose challenges for ASCL as well as its members. If we are looking at a world in which system leadership is the norm rather than the exception, we need to ensure that as an association we reach out to the next generation who find themselves embracing this new reality.
Since change is happening so rapidly, we need to re-examine our thinking and structures now, as our members are already finding new roles and responsibilities in a dynamic educational world that is re-inventing itself before our eyes. If we spend two or three years having a good think about things, there is a danger that change will have already happened and that our membership structures will not fit the shape of the new world in which our members are already operating.
I do not think that this is a negative or something that we should be concerned about. Instead, it is a wonderful opportunity for ASCL to place itself ahead of the curve by ensuring that we are the first choice professional association for the leaders of both today and tomorrow.