MAT-rix Resurrections: what next for Academies and MAT-isation? Part One: The diagnosis


3rd March 2022

The schools white paper may finally arrive this month or even next week, promising some kind of new push towards academisation. MAT-rix Resurrections is, like the movie franchise, a fourth iteration of a policy that has shapeshifted so extensively from its original New Labour premise that it’s tricky to see much continuity, let alone any underpinning theory of action. The white paper will probably attempt both to re-establish a rationale and to resurrect a growth in academisation that was slowing down before the pandemic and continues to stall.

Currently, too much of the debate on academisation is dominated by hubris or despair. On the despair side, whilst some of the account-calling is useful, aspects of the muckraking often paints a false picture of the financial probity and transparency of other schools. The term ‘privatisation’ is especially unhelpful. It’s fairer to see academisation as a form of outsourcing, always to the voluntary sector, given the fact that MATs have to be charities.

The hubris is also problematic. Advocates have played fast and loose with evidence – claiming for instance that schools in MATs were better supported than LA-maintained schools during the pandemic (sometimes using studies that only looked at MATs, so were not set up for any kind of comparative analysis). The National and Regional Schools Commissioners have a remit – one that feels slightly strange and marketing-like for civil servants – to ‘sell the benefits of MATs to schools’, regardless of the mixed evidence on these benefits. 

Into this heat, Sam Freedman’s recent paper for the Institute for Government is a rare ray of balanced light. Sam was ‘in the room’ during and after the 2010 Schools White Paper and has both strong connections with and critical distance from key policymakers.  So he can speak to both the  2010 ‘Revolutions’ and 2016 ‘Reloaded’ sequels. Refreshingly, Sam’s ‘essay question’ is not about the future of academies, but how we create a school system that maximises the capacity for schools to support themselves and each other to improve. The scrutiny I’m giving the report comes from a respect for the overall analysis, and a view that, with some important tweaking, Sam’s recommendations could provide a possible long term, locally-driven solution. 

Four elements of Sam’s diagnosis surprised me.

First, and this is my main concern, Sam doesn’t appear to consider the demand side – the majority of schools whose leaders and governors still do not wish to become academies or join MATs. The evidence on demand (or lack of) is out there, represented in particular by a recent DfE report which shows that maintained schools and stand-alone academies are sustaining a reluctance to consider joining larger structures where they essentially cease to exist as legal entities. This evidence about reluctance should not automatically halt attempts to accelerate academisation, but should at least inform any policy response towards this goal. Sam states that ‘a lack of clarity around purpose and vision from DfE has undoubtedly slowed momentum‘. This may be true, but other factors are at play, in particular schools’ fears over total loss of autonomy and identity. 

I was left wondering whether Sam’s interviewees or roundtable included any school leaders in maintained schools. Any recommendations about academisation must take the views of non-academies into account. Put simply, many of these schools believe that they can improve themselves, be supported to improve by others, and support others to improve perfectly effectively through a range of relationships and interventions, none of which require the abandonment of legal status that joining a MAT requires. These schools may seem (especially to Academisation fundamentalists) misguided, stubborn or even deluded. However, the decision to join a MAT is, for governors and leaders, a proper ‘red pill, blue pill’ moment. What the DfE describes as a ‘try before you buy’ scheme for schools should, in reality, be called ‘try before you’re acquired’. 

Second, in describing the rationale for the 2010 expansion of the academies programme, Sam foregrounds collaboration over autonomy. This may have been the case in private conversations, but the White Paper did the opposite – it mentions ‘autonomy’ three times more often than collaboration. The core rationale for both the original New Labour city academies, and the 2010 sponsor and convertor academisation policies, was that individual schools can improve faster if given more autonomy. Although there was a reference to an expectation for convertor academies to support at least one ‘weaker’ school, and to support collaboration ‘through Academy chains and multi-school trusts and federations’, these were given scant attention and detail. Sam’s view that the 2010 policy proposals  ‘were largely based on Labour’s London Challenge programme’ would, I’m guessing, be challenged by most of those who were deeply involved. At some point, I’ll ask them; CfEY’s ‘Lessons from London Schools’ report also questioned this connection.   

Third, Sam asserts that after 2010 officials were surprised by the pace of academisation, referencing a conversation with one official. The 2010 white paper talks about ‘dramatic’ and ‘rapid’ expansion, but does not give a timeframe. However, from my memory of conversations with policymakers and school leaders at the time, the rush of the already independently-minded good or outstanding schools to become academies was anticipated. This transition was fuelled largely by financial incentives rather than freedoms. Whilst there have been some success stories, and many single academies have formed the basis of effective MATs, overall the ‘convertor academy’ narrative is a damp squib with no clear overall impact on outcomes or collaborative improvement. Their continued existence feels like an anachronistic bug in the code that is attempting to write the journey towards full MAT-isation.

Finally, Sam claims ‘Local authority seeded organisations like Camden Learning were set up with the explicit purpose of becoming MATs had the 2016 (academisation) reforms been followed through.’ From my knowledge of area-based education partnerships, I am not sure that this was the case for most of these partnerships, and wouldn’t assume that this would be their direction of travel if the 2016 reforms were revived. 

Diagnosis over, in concentrating on my disagreements I haven’t done justice to the full report, so much of which is compelling and valuable. Read it – it’s way better than Matrix Resurrections.

In part two of this blog (two of two, I promise), I’ll move to a prognosis, offering four and a half ideas that build on Sam’s proposals. I’ll suggest that rather than force the pace of academisation, we should accept that the current plurality of school structures is likely to continue, and go with the grain of a school system that is plural and diverse, but not necessarily fragmented. Share on X I’ll also discuss a potential new CfEY investigation which aims to take a broader view around how schools can collaborate to improve, and what kinds of changes to regulation, governance and leadership might support this. If you can’t wait until next week to find out more, email me at [email protected].