Why I like being single

First we were told to become an Academy. We were promised great riches and freedom from the clutches of the evil local authorities. Then we were told that on our own we were weak. The future was multi-academy trusts, with economies of scale and the ability to turn around failing schools.

Since its ministerial inception there has been hype around the emerging MAT system, spearheaded by Sir David Carter and an increasingly powerful network of school commissioners. There has also been increasing media coverage about the financial irregularities, excessive CEO pay and cut-throat re-brokerage process, with the blood of many head teachers sacrificed on the altar of accountability.

But as Government enthusiasm for MATs seems to fade, many of us are left on the shelf as Single Academy Trusts, wondering what happens next. We saw through the divorce from the local authority but never threw ourselves into the whirlwind romance with MATs. We swiped left.

I like being single. I know that those who have found the right partner will tell me that I’m missing out. I’m happy for you. But for every happy family, I’ve seen the domestic abuse, the marital breakdown and the kids caught in between.

But that isn’t why I like (my school) being single. I won’t define my school’s status as a lucky escape; a less-bad option. Being a SAT is a good thing in its own right. Maybe one day we’ll find the right one, but in the meantime we’re enjoying our own company. Here’s why…

  1. We like making our own decisions

I make no attempt to hide my disdain for the direction of educational policy and practice in this country in recent years. Frankly, some schools have lost their moral purpose, driven down the wrong path by a bloated accountability system. Our decision making is made by people ‘close to the customer’. This means that those that make decisions get to hear the views of those they serve and see the effects of the decisions they make. I believe this helps counter-act the pressure to do things ‘for Ofsted’ or to massage results. The further away from the front-line that decisions are made, the more misguided those decisions are likely to be, in my experience.

  1. We’re flexible in meeting the needs of our community

It may be an unfashionable thing to say, but schools exist to serve the needs of their local communities. To do this well they must be lean and responsive. Small organisations do this best because they have their finger on the pulse and serve no corporate master.

  1. We direct resources to the front line

As finances become increasingly restricted in education we all have a responsibility to direct the highest proportion of our budget possible to the front line – to directly impact the students. This means national policy must resist bureaucratic ‘pet projects’ (take note DfE) and schools must ensure their management structures are value-for-money. We need fewer initiatives, more evidence-based policy and a focus on the basics. There is no room for top-slice in our school; unless you can prove to me that a head office saves me more than it costs me, I’ll take the money for text books, thanks.

  1. We’ll collaborate when the need arises

In the local authority days there was a great deal of collaboration, often without much impact. For collaboration to work there must be a shared purpose, clear mutual benefits and a bias towards getting on with it (the latter was often lacking). MATs can redirect resources quickly to solve a problem, but this is often at the expense of one school for the benefit of another. Collaboration isn’t a zero-sum game; all parties must leave with greater riches than they would have secured alone. When we collaborate, it is because it will benefit our students and the students in the schools we collaborate with. If our work with another school isn’t bearing fruit, we’ll look elsewhere.

  1. The inter-connectedness of all things

To borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, everything in a school has ‘interconnectedness’. A small change here can lead to a significant event elsewhere. For this reason, control is important. Were we to sacrifice any aspect of control we would lessen our ability to run a successful school.

Another way to look at this is to think of schools as having ‘settings’. For example, staff leave policy may be set to ‘generous’, contact time may be set to ‘low’, but expectations around exam results might be set to ‘better be good’. You can picture this as a giant graphic equaliser (like the ones you used to get on home stereos). Controlling these settings helps influence the school culture and school improvement. There is a delicate balance. If you want teachers to run lots of trips and clubs, don’t expect them to put on excessive amounts of revision classes. If you want students to experience a variety of teaching styles, set the rules around ‘how to teach’ at minimum.

Now imagine that a significant amount of these settings were controlled by someone outside of the school and, most significantly, were set at the same level for a number of schools. This may appear to make sense, particularly around ensuring consistent working conditions across a number of schools. There may also be a logical reason to synchronise data collection points, INSET days, budget setting procedures, pay arrangements, capability thresholds, and so on. But for every setting that is controlled away from the school, you reduce the ability for those in the school to create the culture and conditions needed to make it work in that particular context.

So, we like to control every setting on our graphic equaliser and get the balance just right. Our school is not like the one down the road, and neither do we want to be.

We’re happy to stay single, at least for now, not because we can’t get a date but because not having to make compromises suits us just fine.

Sound waves graphic equalizer

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