Perhaps the single, defining and distinctive characteristic of academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs) is that of autonomy. According to my dictionary this is “the right or condition of self-government.” It’s been a driver for educational change for a number of years – you may remember the City Technology Colleges and Grant Maintained Schools of the 90s.
The movement towards autonomous schools accelerated at the beginning of this century with the creation of academies. It now looks set to go into hyper-drive following the Chancellor’s recent budget statement that “by 2020 every primary and secondary school in England will be, or be in the process of becoming, an academy.”
Put simply, the argument for autonomy is that previous and well-established models for running schools have led to underachievement, underperformance and coasting. As Minister of State for Education, Nick Gibb, described it recently, “The only way to challenge such schools is innovation through autonomy.”
That linking of autonomy and innovation, that freedom to do things differently, is both liberating and potentially dangerous. The risk is that innovation becomes confused with novelty; that the potential for greater educational achievement gets lost in the quest for originality. To avoid such risks, innovation needs to be (i) visionary and (ii) informed.
The importance of vision is recognised in many studies of successful innovation in business; for example, in one study reported in the Harvard Business Review1 the ability of business leaders to “Display excellent strategic vision” rated as the top of ten key characteristics: “The most effective innovation leaders could vividly describe their vision of the future.”
To return to Nick Gibb, he has also characterised the best MATs as having “…a clear vision and a distinct model of teaching. I would encourage all new academy chains not to see themselves only in terms of being effective administrators, or competent managers. They should also be bound by a philosophical and pedagogical vision.”
Although it is likely that they will share similarities, the distinctive nature of that philosophical and pedagogical vision will differ from MAT to MAT. Perhaps in one it is driven by a focus on inquiry-based learning; perhaps in another the focus is on empowering middle leaders. These differences emerge because the implementation of that vision is itself part of the vision – knowing how to get there is as important as knowing where to go.
To get there, successful and truly innovative MATs will adapt the pace and direction of change to the context of the academy and/or MAT. This isn’t just about the management of deficiencies but also about the ability of the Trust to adapt to change and to maintain and share momentum across the MAT as a whole. It’s something Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner, identifies as a characteristic of successful and leading MATs; that they can improve the majority of their “schools to the point at which those that were once weak now have capacity and strength to support new schools joining the MAT or schools beyond the Trust. They can also peer review with confidence other schools in the trust.”
Successful innovation responds to feedback from a variety of sources. This starts with the use of a range of quantitative data for different purposes: self-evaluation, accountability, target-setting, performance management, SEN, admissions, financial management, and so on… Key to this too, is the distribution and intelligent use of data across the organisation – for all members of the MAT. This includes governors and advisory boards using top-level dashboards to gain an aggregated view of MAT or academy performance. It includes subject teachers using it for formative assessment and target setting discussions with students. It should also include individual academy departments using data for cross-MAT comparison of subject performance and the analysis of specific pupil groups.
Running parallel to this use of quantitative data are other well-established feedback mechanisms such as internal inspections, peer reviews, lesson observations, learning walks and so on. These gain more traction and significance when deployed and shared across the MAT; for example when teachers from different academies work together to raise attainment for specific groups of pupils, agreeing what progress looks like, and sharing best practice to achieve this.
With an informed vision, the risk of aimless innovation is significantly mitigated. However, nowhere is that risk greater than in the deployment of educational ICT where too often schools (and governments) have pursued inventive (and expensive) technological solutions almost in an act of faith, believing that the investment alone will yield rewards. That’s an entirely avoidable and unforgivable position today. Indeed, ICT is now the basis of the essential tool set to achieve that informed vision for effective innovation. I would go as far as to say that Trust-wide innovation is simply not possible without the efficient use of ICT. As an example, technology can facilitate highly effective and clear quality assurance systems (both quantitative and qualitative) to improve consistency and performance across the Trust. And, as a final example, technology can enable and strengthen meaningful collaboration across the Trust for leaders, teachers and students through highly cost-effective and easily accessible cloud-hosted online platforms.
Autonomy brings both freedoms and increased responsibilities. The prevailing view is that school autonomy creates the most fertile conditions for innovative practices to drive improvement. Perhaps it is not such a new view. After all, as Darwin himself said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
First published April 2016 at RM Education