Podcast | Season 1 | Episode 28: Academisation in the Catholic Education System
The Catholic Education Service perspective on the evolution of school system in England, and how it adapted its organisation to the subsequent reforms enacted by government. Listen to Paul Barber explain how the system has changed balancing consolidation and innovation, with clear and constant principles at its core: subsidiarity, solidarity, clarity and accountability.
📎 Lessons in Collaborative Operational Leadership
- Building capacity and know-how within a MAT
- Beyond the MAT framework – how schools can join Federations and the benefits of doing so
- Ensuring vision at the strategic level translates into outcomes within schools
- Conversion - how to avoid the pitfalls and expand successfully
- Lessons from across the country, including inter-MAT collaboration
💡 Paul Barber, CEO, Catholic Education Services
I've been asked to talk to you a bit about collaborative leadership on a strategic basis from our experience as the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales. So I thought I'd start off with a little bit of perspective, where we're coming from and why our experience might be helpful to others. A little bit about some innovation that we've done over the time that we've been involved in these things, keeping it up to date, I hope, a little bit about principles of good governance as we see them focusing on a couple of key issues. Also taking a kind of perspective look at structures within education. Something about the numbers of, of schools and academies that we have, and the variation between them, and then finishing up with some examples of innovation in our sector and looking at some balances between development and growth, particularly in the academy sector. So if I start with our perspective, there's something about having been involved in education in this country, heavily involved for over 1000 years. That gives us a bit of a perspective.
Sometimes people accuse the church have been quite slow and accusing it of thinking in centuries. Well, sometimes that can be a bad thing and sometimes it can be a good thing. Because we've all seen in our lifetimes, haven't we, in education, the educational cycle of things coming and going, and coming back again. And if you stand still, you'll experience something that the youngsters haven't experienced yet, but it's been on the cycle, it's gone away, coming, come back again. So these fashions these trends happen. And having a long term perspective is I think, helpful in in looking at that. The other part of our perspective is an international one. We are a small part, although actually, you've got the list of countries there. The Catholic Church in the Catholic education system in the UK, if you put it together counted together. It comes in at number 15, about the same as Brazil. But we are a small part of huge international network largest national international network of schools and that gives us many opportunities for contrasting our experiences with our colleagues elsewhere and that's always we find mutually enriching. Then the third part of the context is that we have a geographical setup, so the Catholic Education Service doesn't run any schools but they are run by the 22 geographical diocese across England and Wales. They vary hugely in size and population and other perspectives, but they are the heart of the accountability that I will talk to talk about a little later.
So in our statutory documents, we have to have a majority of governance that aren't that exists to preserve and develop the character of our schools. And when that was being the legislation was being consolidated back in the 1990s. elementary draughtsman said, you can't have that you can't have preserve and develop, it's not possible you can either preserve or you can develop, you can't have both. But we stuck to our guns because we believe actually that there's a balance between those two things. Striking the right balance on so many of these things is key to getting it right. So we have a position where our perspective gives us the, I suppose, in some ways, the wisdom to know when to be conservative, but perhaps also the courage to be innovative when that's required as well. All of the time, it's based on lessons learned from our experience. So moving on to principles of good governance. We have we start from the principles of the church set out in the church's social teaching and here we have another tension or balance, if you like, between two main principles, one of which is the print symbol of subsidiarity and the other ones solidarity. Now both of these have become fashionable in a wider arena than the church, but it was a church that came up with them in the first place.
Subsidiarity is the principle, that decision should ideally be made at the level closest to those who are affected by them. And the counter balancing principle that of solidarity is the need for everyone to work together to achieve the common good. Both of these are very applicable to the school situation and our experience in the schools, the school sector. So those are the starting points for us in organising the way that our schools and academies work. I'd like to also focus on two additional principles, which I think we have very clearly in our system where it's working well and that is clarity and accountability. There are other principles but those two, it seems to me are at the heart of getting the structures, right, and getting structures that work for everybody in the education system. So let's talk a little bit about structures.
I think that there's a, there's a tension here between two aspects of structures. Now, again, those of us with long memories will remember the labour government's first education bill, which became the school standards and framework act. It was a mantra that this was all about standards. It wasn't about structures. Well, I'm a lawyer. So you look at the bill, you look at the Act. The first six sections were about standards, the rest 100 or something, all the rest was about structures. But that's not to denigrate structures, because it was getting the structures rights is important to getting the product writing and allowing the standards to come about.
So all educational structures or school structures have a number of intrinsic features. They're neutral. They have different potential different flexibility. They have different limitations, and can often have different unintended consequences. So if you're comparing, for instance, the maintain school under a local authority, or an academy structure, each of those structures in itself isn't intrinsically good or bad. It's what is it you're trying to achieve and how well can that particular structure be used to achieve it, and there are no perfect structures either we've been trying a long time we haven't come up with any but oh overlaid on that we often have education well, particularly a kind of extrinsic features of different kinds of structures. So structures come with political baggage that don't have anything to do with the structures, the legal structures themselves. But they can if it that, that that political baggage turns into a culture, they can have a resulting ethos.
Now, again, those with longer memories will remember grant maintain schools. And it's a good example of one where the structures themselves were very for us in the voluntary school sector very similar to the structures of a maintain school within the local authority family. But the political baggage that came with them was very different. And that was something that created an ethos and in the worst cases, you created a culture where there was no or no efficient accountability. So when we're looking at the structures that we need to use, we need to take those things into account. For us in the voluntary sector in particular, and in the Catholic Sector, in particular, we have a set of structures that don't differ depending on the type of school. So for us, each school has a relationship with its trustees, and they're usually the diocese I talked about earlier, sometimes a religious order, where the school each of the schools is accountable to its trustees for everything it does, and there's also the diocesan Bishop who has oversight and supervision of each of the schools. Now the source of funding and the structures for getting that funding there, of course differ. It's different in academies where it comes from central government maintained schools where it comes from, from local authorities or independent schools where the funding comes from fees. But nevertheless, for us, the accountability structures are there. We have over 2000 schools across the country, and that's about 10% in both primary and secondary. In terms of academies, we have 578 and they're growing and between one and 35 schools in each multi academy trust in each, the average is about six, but there's a huge range. What we found is that the biggest factors are actually generally local ones in working out what size what shape, multi academy trust should take.
There are different types of multi academy trusts, depending on the existing school infrastructure that you're bringing together and geography is one of the strongest factors. But of course, there are other local considerations not least, the way you which people have traditionally worked together or not in a particular area. So the the academies and the other schools, we've got our high performing and here are some examples of the types of innovation that we've had over the years. We created the first federated school, Diocese of Westminster work together with their local authority to put two schools together under a single governing body using the flexibility they already had with instruments of government. That was a successful experiment. So successful that the government thought it was a good idea and put it into the next education bill, which became the 2001 legislation on Federation's. Bring us forward to the what we call the new style academies that came in from about 2010. That's the ones where it was expected that it would be open to ask good and outstanding schools to become academies rather than academies as previously, just four schools that were struggling.
At that time, there were really only two models available. There was the each school becomes a single Academy company on its own. And all the other one was the, the centralised what what are sometimes still called academy chains, which were very heavily centralised, very heavily marketed, the branding was there, there was there was very little variation. Neither of those suited at most of our diocese that wanted to go into the academy market. What they wanted to do was they wanted not to break up the family of schools to local families of schools, but to keep them together and bind them closer. The question is solidarity here was the was the most important one. But at the same time, there was that principle of subsidiarity, which didn't look good with the centralised model. So we had to do quite a bit of work to come up with a new model, where if you're talking about a bringing together into a single legal structure, a group of generally very well governed schools with good management and good governance, you don't want to risk destroying that. So we came up with a new model, which was much more heavily devolved to what became local governing bodies that was the first incarnation of local governing bodies. That was aided by very careful work on schemes of delegation. So you had that clarity about, at what level do various decisions need to be taken? So that was something that then was taken up more widely in the sector, and it's the most I think it's the most common type of multi academy trust that you will find today. Then one of the reasons why the UK academy structure has been promoted over the years is the flexibility compared to the statutory system situation with maintained schools in, in local authority settings. But there's always a but here, there is always a danger, because nothing political but the way that bureaucracies work, having given everyone wide flexibility of your structures, you can arrange it in any way you want. There's always then the tendency to say, hang on a minute, we can't cope with this huge variation across the sector. So what we need to do is we need to standardise it. So you hear people saying what does the ideal MAT look like? And one needs to be wary of that because the ideal MAT is the one that works in this time and this space, and it may not be the same as the one that works in that time. And that space and that set of circumstances.
So there's always that problem and as I said before, there's this idea of forces for courses, if you aren't bringing together a strong school, say in two struggling schools, that's a different kind of entity, to one where you're bringing together a dozen extremely well run schools, different that needs different type of governance structure. I've set it what I call the problem of aspect. Because the way in which the academy system was designed from the beginning, was that it was this it was to be designed for the schools as they were when they entered the system. But there was no mechanism. It can be done, but there was no mechanism and I don't think there really isn't any systematic way to say five or 10 years down the line, is this still the right structure? So there's kind of no there's an entrance it was all heavily focused on getting people into the system under a particular structure, but not how that structure might look in years to come. Our experience tells us that today's successful school is not always tomorrow successful school. Today's struggling school is not always tomorrow struggling in school and things change. And there has to be a way of revising and evaluating structures to see if this still right for today's education in that particular set of circumstances going on to growth and development. There is this question about how many how fast now, this picture here is Monsignor Georges Lemaitre who came up with the big bang theory that was very good for physics. But the question we need to address is whether it's always good for academies. There are two ways of getting a large multi academy trust of course, one is you start small and grow. But in the in the initial stages, there was also the let's get them all together at one stage. We had a number of those. And we had different experiences. Some of them actually did work well. I've mentioned you've got a group of schools that that are very well governed, you try and change as little as possible in the transition from being a maintain school to being a an academy. But at the same time bringing in the new structures. If you do that with a group of schools that are extremely well governed, the chances are they will continue to be extremely well governed. And there's not a problem. And that was our experience with some of the early ones, such as the Diocese of Westminster Academy Trust, which started off with 11 schools, but it doesn't always work like that. And we have most of our large multi academy trusts perform extremely well but we had one experience where a diocese decided to go for 35 all at once. And there were underlying structural issues that weren't addressed at the time.
In addition to that, the internal accountability was unclear what line management versus local governing bodies, there was no clarity about how that will work. And essentially, in some of the schools were a culture needed to change for future viability, that culture didn't change. And so that was a lesson learned. Were fortunate to say that now, that particular large multi academy trust is the is in the process of being turned round and recently commandeered by government ministers as a good example of getting from getting into difficulty to moving forward to good governance. But in the main, the favoured approach for many is a slower period a slower pattern of growth. So making sure each stage that the multi academy trust is ready to take on the next batch of schools in order to grow. The other part of our system going back to the existence of diocese as key strategic players who are trying to map out the landscape and have a strategic direction for as much as one can in educational policy that spans decades is to kind of map out not so much you're all going to become academies and this is how you're going to do it. But if and when you want to become academies, this is the family of schools that you are likely to end up with. And that means that collaboration can start even before that process, because there can be other forms of collaboration within the within the diocese and within that group of schools, as indeed some diocese have used the umbrella model so short of a full multi academy trust but an umbrella model to get schools to share certain services make savings in practical terms, but also to come together closer without that legal structure.
Looking at them at managing that transition, the cultural change and cultural shift is very important. I mentioned about the lessons learned from the large multi academy trusts where that didn't change. But we've got to remember the balance between the cause and effect, because structures and their baggage cause culture as much as needing to shift culture to get get them in. So our systems of educational governance and leadership creates an it to a certain extent dictates the models of leadership. I think one of the interesting thing that's happening now is how that is shifting as we get large numbers of schools that are coming together in a more collaborative working arrangement and more collaborative governance. We're seeing different models of leadership opening up. So going back to the baggage of grant maintained, I mentioned earlier, it attracted a certain attracted a certain type of leader. And sometimes the lack of lack of accountability sometimes drew perhaps the wrong culture out of the system. Whereas now, there are jobs within larger multi academy trusts, for instance, that never existed before, or at least, they haven't existed since local authorities were doing a lot of work on subjects. So not just leadership roles, which are very different to anything we've seen before and flexible and a huge range of them bureaucrats can't cope with that there we are. But also there are new roles that we haven't seen before going away from leadership management, advanced skills teachers that don't think really kept that many wonderful teachers in the classroom. But if you have the opportunity and a career path, whereby you go from head of subject of a school, to planning a curriculum, perhaps some three to 19 over perhaps 20 schools, that's an opportunity that somebody who's passionate about his or her subject would find a real exciting challenge and something which hasn't existed in that format ever before.
Then finally going back to structures it we are stuck maybe the wrong word, but we are given the structures were given in academies it's a an off the shelf commercial entity called the company limited by guarantee and that has all sorts of unintended consequences, as well as restrictions and complexities that are have nothing to do with education. Some of the the annual reports and all of those kinds of things you have to do for companies house if you're on one of these companies, it's got nothing to do with education. And I don't believe it improves accountability. So we might want to think creatively about other structures, other charitable structures within which academies could sit that might be easier, simpler, and more flexible, for instance, the charitable incorporated organisation. So that's a little tour around some of our experience. I'm very happy to take questions and comments if there are any.
Audience Member 1
Thank you haven't got much voice through a microphone is a good thing. Within a MAT, how do you, what structure have you used to develop teaching and learning? What's your leadership for teaching and learning? Yeah, what experience have you had to make sure that teaching and learning improved.
So I think there's I think there's a number of strands to that. I come at it more from a strategic level than the than the professional educator level. But I think there's a number of strands that one relates to what type of multi academy trust is it. So if you are talking about a network of largely well run schools where there's a local governing body and quite a lot of school autonomy, then one of the models there is to make the person who is the local head teacher or Head of School or whatever they're called, that they're relieved, if you like, of the burdens of some of the non teaching and learning aspects of running a school, what we used to call in the old days, bogs, boilers and drains, so that they are released to be the, the education, the lead education professional, that's their, their sole focus. So what they're concentrating on is they have the responsibility for improving the standards in teaching and learning in their school. They are supported by the infrastructure of the multi academy trust. There's also a strong accountability between the the individual school and the centre. You other models that that we've seen work might be more centralised, if you like across the multi Academy trust, where you would be then developing a common curriculum perhaps having subject leads across the entire system. So I think that there's there's a lot of of a lot there's a lot of different models of how you do that. But I think that the key to it, number one, it's people getting the right people in the right posts to do that. And number two, as I said, clarity about who is responsible for it and who are they who are they responsible too. And thirdly, comes with that the accountability, strong line management and working that into the to the holistic vision of the whole multi academy trust.
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