MATS are tak­ing us back to the bad old days

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - INSIGHT -

WHO­EVER WOULD have thought that we would re­turn to a day when schools were so de­pen­dent on a lo­cal au­thor­ity that any bud­getary de­ci­sion – from staffing to loo rolls – would re­quire sign-off from on high?

And yet this in­cred­i­ble sit­u­a­tion is pre­cisely where some schools tied into multi-acad­emy trusts find them­selves.

E-act, for ex­am­ple, is typ­i­cal of the grow­ing num­ber of such or­gan­i­sa­tions that pool in­di­vid­ual school bud­gets, invit­ing schools to set out their wish-list for spend­ing be­fore de­cid­ing what they can each have.

(Quite what the school gover­nors’ role in the process is re­mains un­clear – al­though it’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that in 2016 E-act looked to abol­ish the gover­nors’ func­tion al­to­gether.)

This pool­ing of bud­gets and then forc­ing schools to act as sup­pli­cants for what they need is an ac­cel­er­at­ing trend: one think­tank re­ported re­cently that, in a sur­vey of MATS, more than a third ei­ther had this process or were ac­tively think­ing about it.

I have even heard of one MAT ask­ing each school to save £5,000 – pre­sum­ably as a “claw­back” to pay for bad cen­tral bud­getary con­trol.

This re­ally is a case of “back to the fu­ture”. It is deeply rem­i­nis­cent of the worst of old-style LEAS, which of­ten prided them­selves on hav­ing one sub-com­mit­tee act­ing as the gov­ern­ing body for all their pri­mary schools.

The CEO or his – they were all males – staff de­cided where teach­ers taught and how much would be spent in each school on books, ma­te­ri­als and lava­tory rolls. When I first wrote an ar­ti­cle in 1979 ad­vo­cat­ing that ev­ery school should have its own gov­ern­ing body, my con­tem­po­raries made me a pariah.

So when the Lo­cal Man­age­ment of Schools re­forms emerged in the late 1980s, I was de­lighted they re­quired by law that schools have both bud­getary free­doms and their own gover­nors. Th­ese ad­vances in school au­ton­omy are now be­ing put at risk by the be­hav­iour of a small but grow­ing num­ber of MATS, which ap­pear un­will­ing ei­ther to be open about in­di­vid­ual school bud­gets or to con­tent them­selves with a per­cent­age top-slice (say 3-4 per cent). Head­teach­ers within th­ese MATS are not in a po­si­tion to protest, par­tic­u­larly if they don’t have the sup­port of a gov­ern­ing body with proper pow­ers.

Be­fore wide­spread academi­sa­tion, at least the elected coun­cil­lors brought the “bright light of or­di­nar­i­ness” to il­lu­mi­nate bad prac­tices by over­mighty of­fi­cers. No such demo­cratic re­straint ex­ists in the world of MATS, where the dan­ger is that some are guilty of pa­ter­nal­ism or nepo­tism. More­over, Depart­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials seem con­tent to over­look such con­sid­er­a­tions in the in­ter­ests of “what works”. Yet surely by now they have had their fin­gers burned by fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment in MATS enough times to be a rather more fussy?

It is time for Jus­tine Green­ing, who shows a wel­come will­ing­ness to look at mat­ters afresh, to ask her of­fi­cials to con­sult and set out statu­tory re­quire­ments for MATS anal­o­gous to those gov­ern­ing lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. If she de­cides against, there is a real dan­ger that in the hel­ter-skel­ter of ex­pan­sion, rem­i­nis­cent of the wild west, MATS will ape the dodgy prac­tices of the worst in the pri­vate sec­tor rather than com­ply with the best con­ven­tions of pub­lic ser­vice or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Our chil­dren and their fam­i­lies de­serve the high­est stan­dards of pro­bity in their school­ing. Sir Tim Brig­house is a former schools com­mis­sioner for Lon­don

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