Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny
Quality collaboration should focus on improvement, not PR
Given the constant flux of education policy, it can be difficult to keep track of which initiatives are currently ‘in’ and which are ‘out' - a situation complicated by the fact that different arms of the government often pursue different agendas and politicians are rarely willing to admit when they’ve changed tack. We should, of course, welcome politicians who listen to concerns and adapt to new circumstances, it makes for better policy; unfortunately, our adversarial political system often seems to punish such behaviour.
The continued pace of change in education is, however, probably a good indication that school leaders should steer the course they think is right regardless of government policy (do follow the law, though, that’s usually a good thing). Indeed, there is no other viable strategy in the face of turmoil. If you stick steadily to what you believe you will also have the wry amusement of coming back into fashion at regular intervals without doing anything different.
This is particularly true of the shifting sands of academy policy. Many heads have not been clear that there are no longer plans to force all good and outstanding schools to become academies. This has been obscured by the fact that the government still wants all schools to become academies and still incentivises some of its employees on the number of academies they create. There were plans to take powers in unviable or under-performing LAs. These have now been formally shelved, following the written ministerial statement on the 27th October. So you can’t blame heads for being uncertain. There is plenty of pressure to become an academy, but the powers to force all good schools against their will do not and will not exist.
Thus, the best strategy remains the same for academies as for all other non-compulsory policies: do it if you think it is right; avoid it as long as possible if you disagree. If you think it will serve the needs of your pupils and your community, without damaging the prospects of other schools around you, then of course go for it. If you’re jumping before you’re pushed, or because you think everyone else is doing the same, or seeking better funding, or building an empire, then these are not great reasons. Equally, some head teachers and governors are put under immense pressure to convert, almost an offer they can’t refuse. My experience in education thus far is that whenever someone applies such tacit pressure, it usually means they lack explicit power. So check carefully to see whether you genuinely are vulnerable before responding to these suggestions. Talk to NAHT if you need advice. Of course, conversion may be the right thing to do anyway – but do it because of that and if you are going to do it, do it with enthusiasm and commitment.
These same arguments apply to Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) too. Indeed, academies and MATs are virtually synonymous (for now, of course). Join a trust if you believe it is right, and join the sort of trust you believe is right. One thing is not a passing fad however: strong and effective collaboration between schools is essential for the future. All leaders should be seeking a group of like-minded schools to work with, given the challenges we face. The exact shape will vary depending on local need, but the imperative is real regardless of government policy. The multi academy trust is one way of achieving this; there are other models too. It is the reality and quality of collaboration that really matters, not the precise legal structure adopted. The same is true at the school level: it is the quality of teaching and leadership that matters, not the legal status of the school.
Quality collaboration is far from easy. It cannot simply be a defensive smokescreen to make outsiders go away, while business continues as usual in autonomous schools. As the NAHT research into collaboration shows, it requires strong mutual accountability, high levels of trust, a careful strategy for growth and the ability to share ideas, resources and staff between institutions. Above all, the collaboration is fuelled by a shared vision of school improvement – of what the schools can do together for the pupils they serve. The absence of this vision is a massive alarm bell. Such focus on pupils rather than PR may not always garner the limelight and the awards, but it is a classic style that will never be out of fashion.