La La Land


There was a time when the Local Authority ruled supreme. The LA controlled all schools and, as such, all schools were linked. The LA collected all the money from central government and decided how it would be shared across its schools. The LA kept some money back for itself to create services that its schools would – must – use. These ranged from the sort of corporate services (that head teachers hoped they wouldn’t need to use – or understand – such as HR and Legal) to educational services (that head teachers were told they needed to use to improve further, such as school improvement officers and LA-wide data sets). Every school was entitled to LA support and this ensured that no school was left behind.

Except, of course, some were.

There is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: some schools, sometimes, go wrong.

Welcome to LA land.

When this happened, the LA would spring into action. The school would be given more support until it improved. It would have to improve because there was no option for it not to. Sometimes improvements came quickly, sometimes they did not. Schools are complex beasts and they can’t always be fixed by chucking money and resources at it. But, as the LA controlled everything, they had ultimate accountability and there was nowhere for them to hide.

Sometimes, other schools moaned about the LA. What did the LA ever do for them? Forget all the corporate services – who cares about them? – why couldn’t they get more out of the LA? Why was the LA always concerned with the crap schools and not theirs? Why were some of the LA services rubbish? Why couldn’t schools seek out their own services that could be better? Of course, schools that were succeeding could enjoy complete autonomy by creating their own infrastructures; shaping their own curriculum; devising their own approaches to teaching and learning; bringing in their own CPD opportunities; managing their own budgets and working in collaboration with other schools if they wished. Technically, as long as they were delivering the goods, it didn’t really matter. And maybe these schools could be forgiven for wondering what the LA, apart from admissions, safeguarding and SEND arrangements, was actually doing for them.

Then, somebody had a bright idea. Schools could come out from under the LA’s control. They could be standalone schools. Free to do whatever they wanted and, what’s more, they would have more money with which to do it with.

More money?


Because you wouldn’t have to give the LA any money for all their services as you’d be getting them from somewhere else. Up and down the land, schools began to imagine the possibilities. Finally, they could employ their own caterers, HR officers, Lawyers, and accountants. It was as if every educationalist’s dream had come true. Even better than that, you’d be totally on your own. Free from the shackles of the LA who were either leaving you alone to get on with it, or, getting involved because something had gone wrong.

True, some schools couldn’t really see the benefits and decided to carry on as normal.

But those that could see some benefits busied themselves with becoming an academy. Not a school. An academy. An academy where new freedoms meant they could do whatever they wished. Free to spend every penny of the people’s money to get better results, for otherwise, what would have been the point? Academies sought out alternative corporate services and invented ways to generate additional income revenues. Some of them, presumably, found newer ways to deliver teaching and learning that LA schools were not aware of. We heard less about this bit.

Gradually the LA responded by improving its services. Schools, who had never even been aware of the myriad of backroom services provided by the LA, were suddenly invited to meetings to discuss how to improve the quality of the LA’s core offer. Without having to change the name of the school, or having to become a Principal Executive, Heads were becoming more involved in improving the business side of their school. And all at no extra cost.

Then the costs began. Not satisfied with Local Authorities offering their schools more ‘freedoms’ the government decided to further weaken the LA through economic strangulation. Meanwhile, those academies who were (to everyone’s surprise, not least of all theirs) also facing the pinch were resorting to alternative strategies to try and convince their board members that everything was still A-OK; such as flouting admission rules to engineer their pupil intake and using questionable exclusion policies to drive out vulnerable pupils. This heady mix of dubious uses of academy freedoms and local authority neutering only served to make life harder in LA land.


A dim light had been switched on. A cheap neon sign that read ‘join us’ flickered in the dark. Illuminated promises of ‘freedoms’ and ‘cash’ burned the retinas of every LA maintained Head that stared at it for too long. And stood there, flicking the switch as they handed out their glossy ‘sign now, read later’ articles of association, were the regional school commissioners. MATs, they whispered, were the answer. Multi Academy Trusts are the only way you’ll make your school work. The LA is dead. Step over its twitching corpse and join a MAT. Why, we’ll even let you create your own. Imagine that! Create your own MAT [subject to our approval] and the world could be yours!

What could schools do? No matter where they looked they were either facing cuts, a diminishing service from the LA and increasing demands from the communities they served. And all the time the RSCs were whispering matspeak into their ears. Gradually, one by one, they walked towards the light, unable to notice if they were getting burned.

Multi Academy Trusts are the future.

Resistance is futile.

Soon there will be one MAT to rule us all.

Resistance is futile.

There will be a time when the MAT will rule supreme. The MAT will control all schools and, as such, all schools will be linked. The MAT will collect all the money from central government and decide how it will be shared across its schools. The MAT will keep some money back for itself to create services that its schools would – must – use. These will range from the sort of corporate services (that heads of school hope they’ll never need to use or understand, such as HR and Legal) to educational services (that heads of school will be told by the Exec they need to use in order to improve further, such as school improvement officers and MAT-wide data sets). Every school will be entitled to MAT support and this will ensure that no school is left behind.

Except, of course, some will be.

There is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: some schools, sometimes, go wrong.

Welcome to La La land.

Don’t believe the hype


Lea owned a car. The car worked. It could go forwards and backwards; it could go slowly and quickly. The mechanic helped Lea look after the car. The mechanic made sure the brakes worked and the gears were smooth and the exhaust was healthy. The mechanic did this for all cars. Lea really liked the car and knew how to look after it. She put petrol in it and regularly checked the oil. She took it to the car wash every third Saturday of the month and occasionally she even cleaned the foot-well with a mini vacuum cleaner she had once bought from a service station. Lea liked her car.

Lea had a friend called Matt. Matt had just bought a shiny new car. Matt told Lea that his car was better than hers because it was shiny. Lea questioned him about why it was so good. Matt claimed that his shiny car could not only go forwards but that it could also go backwards. Lea said her car could do that too. Matt said yes, but his car did that and was shiny. Matt said that he could make his shiny car go really fast. Matt said he could drive at 120mph. Lea asked if he ever had. Matt said he hadn’t because you’re not allowed to drive that fast but he was sure his shiny car would find 120mph a breeze.

Lea didn’t think much of it until she read a review of Matt’s car in a car magazine. The review was written by a man who really liked fast and shiny cars. The man in the review said that Matt’s car was one of the shiniest cars he’d ever driven. The man in the review said that it could go forwards, backwards and that it could go 120mph. He even said that the gears were smooth. The best thing about this car, said the man in the review, was that it was shiny. The man in the review said that one day all cars would be shiny and therefore one day all cars would be great.

Matt was really pleased with this review and shared it with Lea. Lea said that she had read it and was pleased for Matt. Matt said Lea should get a shiny car because then her car could go forwards, backwards and 120 mph. Lea said her car could go forwards and backwards and that, for all she knew, her car already could go 120mph. Matt said he didn’t think this was true because her car was not shiny.

After that Lea started to see loads of adverts for shiny cars. The man who had reviewed Matt’s car started writing other reviews saying that all these shiny cars were amazing feats of engineering. They could all go forwards and backwards. Some cars, when you put petrol inside their tummies, could keep on driving for ages. Lea thought that this had been the case for a while, but the man in the review was pretty sure we were entering a new age of the car. Old cars could not compete with the new shiny cars.

Lea started to think that maybe her car wasn’t very shiny. She found herself dreaming about driving a shiny car at the legal speed limit but knowing she could go faster. She began to think how good it would be to have a shiny car that could go forwards and backwards. Lea went to car shop and asked to see the shiniest car for sale. She was shown a very shiny car. She asked what made this car so good. The salesman said that because it was shiny you could put petrol in it and that would make the car could go forwards and backwards. Lea asked about how smooth the gears were. The salesman said that what was amazing about these new shiny cars was that they used oil to make everything work properly. The salesman said that in his experience, what made these shiny cars so unique was the fact that the shiny cars could be looked after by a mechanic. Lea said that sounded really good and the salesman laughed and said that he knew it sounded good.

Lea walked home from the car shop. She rang Matt to talk about shiny cars. Matt said that if it wasn’t for shiny cars, people would literally be walking on motorways pulling their unshiny cars behind them with massive ropes. It was as if car builders didn’t know what they had been doing until they had invented shine. Then, suddenly, the cars were able to go forwards and backwards and possibly 120 mph. Lea agreed. Lea thought she might have to buy herself a shiny car.

On her way home she passed her own mechanic’s garage. Out of curiosity she popped in to ask what her mechanic thought of shiny cars. Her mechanic laughed and said that shiny cars were the same as any other car and that what made a car go forward and backwards was putting petrol in it, checking the oil regularly and generally looking after it. Lea asked about shiny cars going 120mph and the mechanic said that no car was allowed to go that fast so it didn’t really matter. Lea said that she had read a review saying that these new shiny cars were the best because they were so shiny. The mechanic said that this was nonsense and what made a car good was what had always made a car good. Lea asked what that was. The mechanic said that as long as a car had oil in it, a place to put the petrol in and an owner who didn’t try and drive at 120pmh, it would go forwards, backwards and as fast as you would ever need.

Lea couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Lea went home and went on the internet. She searched for stories of shiny cars. So many shiny car owners believed their cars to be good because they were shiny. Could they all be wrong? Even the man who reviewed all the cars said that shiny cars were the best sort of car. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the advice her mechanic had given her about all cars needing the same things in order to go forwards and backwards. Lea was so confused.

In the morning she rang Matt and asked if he could drive round. Matt said he’d love to but that his car was in the repair shop. Lea asked what had happened. Matt explained that he had tried to drive his shiny car through a small tunnel. Unfortunately his shiny car was a bit too big. His shiny car had made an awful scraping noise as it squeezed through the tunnel and when he had got through he had stopped his shiny car and got out. To his dismay all the shine and had been removed and his car was now all dull. Matt said that this was a disaster and that now it was completely undriveable. Lea asked how he had got his car to the repair shop. Matt said he’d driven it. Lea sounded surprised and asked if the car had driven alright. Matt said yes, in fact he thought it had gone a bit faster but that was probably just the shock. Lea asked him how much it was going to cost to get the shine back. Matt said about a million pounds. Lea asked him if he thought it was worth getting it re-shined. Matt said yes because without the shine his car wouldn’t go forwards or backwards and it certainly wouldn’t possibly go 120mph.

Lea hung up.

Matt was an idiot.

Lea got into her car and drove, perfectly well, to work.


Just gimme some truth


I’m sick and tired of hearing things

From uptight, short sighted

Narrow-minded hypocritics

All I want is the truth

Just gimme some truth

John Lennon

It must be a tough gig being a Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC). I mean, no one in education must ever want to talk to you. If I got a call coming through saying the RSC was on the line, I’d immediately order the shredding of my RaiseOnline and fax Justine Greening my application to convert to a grammar school, just so I could avoid talking to them. Their sole purpose, according to the DfE website is ‘to sack work with school leaders to make more academies take action in underperforming schools’. That basically means: if they need to talk to you, you’re yesterday’s news.

Still, that doesn’t seem to bother them much. In fact, you can’t help admire their single-minded visionary approach to education. It turns out anything can be solved by becoming a Multi Academy Trust (MAT). I genuinely did not know that. I knew that it was a Tory policy to transform any type of school into a MAT by 2020 but I didn’t know that it was actually the best thing that could happen in education. Until, that is, I heard the South West RSC talk to a group of Heads last week.

Rebecca Clark began her talk by saying that she believes MATS are the best vehicles for effective partnerships. I looked around the room, at all the Heads I have worked with over the years, and I realised she was right. For years we have been pretending to work together: turning up at cluster meetings, conducting peer reviews, taking part in moderation activities…and for what? Selfishly working with other schools to help our own. If only we were a MAT. Then we could really work together, rather than pretending to, and we could probably afford better coffee.

The nail had been hit. But, there was more.

For too long, Rebecca said, in this MAT-less landscape we call our home, any successes have been accidental. I scanned the room and I saw the shamed faces of my colleagues, all of whom had previously claimed that they had systematically improved their schools through careful and diligent planning. All they could do now was stare at the floor as they heard the truth: their improvements had in fact been accidents. But MATs are not accidents. MATs are planned. MATs are good.

And don’t start with some lily-livered lament about moral purpose. Everyone knows, declared Rebecca, moral purpose isn’t enough. Only a moral imperative works. And of course, that’s right. Heads only cared about disadvantaged children once they were given a budget for them and held accountable for their progress by Ofsted. I thought back to all those conversations I’ve had with Heads who talked about the only reason they’re helping the poorer children was so they had something to brag about on their website. ‘Don’t know if 1:1 tuition helps the little sods but Ofsted bloody love it!’ I once heard a local authority Head say at conference whilst a chain of MAT Heads walked out in disgust.

Rebecca, and I’m sure this is true of all RSCs, can’t stand it when she hears Executive Heads bang on about their school development plan being financially viable. Excuse me? But what about it being educationally viable? How about you put your ego aside and focus on the child before the cash cow Mr Executive? The only small issue here – and I hate to bring it up – is that I think only MAT Heads call themselves Executives. Maybe the RSC should change that bit because I’m sure it’s the local authority school Heads, like me, who brag about our massive budgets.

For the second half of her talk Rebecca discussed how school improvement works and how schools should think about the academic and emotional education they provide their communities in order to have a positive social impact. Every school leader should be committed to ensuring that no child in their community, or their neighbouring area, should attend a poor school. Schools should work together on common areas of need. Schools should add value to their communities and be able to sustain any improvements they make so that they are a viable option for years to come.

But, of course, I didn’t really understand that bit because this is only what MATs do.

I guess it won’t be long until I do understand it though. Because, luckily, MATs are coming. It’s time to declutter and repair all that nuanced and individual leadership that has accidentally, and yet steadily, improved the state of education over the last decade. Now is the time of false dogmas that help those in power peddle the concept of structured school partnerships. We all, apparently, need to be intentionally (not intelligently) re-designed so that we can all stand on the same MAT, hold hands, cross our fingers and hope it works out for the best.

Until then though, I think I’ll carry on screening my calls.