Academy schools risk being rejected by local communities if their management is remote and motivated more by rapid growth than improvement, according to a report by the body representing school governors.
The report by the National Governors Association (NGA) warns that the lack of parent representation on the boards of schools run by multi-academy trusts (Mats) has created a “democratic deficit”, made worse by the trusts attempting to improve their financial position by taking over more schools.
“The evolution and promotion of Mats without sufficient thought to governance has produced a [democratic] deficit that requires debate, one that must not be ignored any longer,” the report states.
The government recently announced that more than half of England’s state school pupils were being taught in academies, following the explosion in numbers after policy changes by the coalition government in power from 2010-2015.
But Sam Henson, NGA’s director of policy and one of the report’s authors, said there was still scepticism towards academies, driven by media reports of high-profile cases of mismanagement, such as the Wakefield City academies trust collapse last year and the “zombie schools” given up by the Mats that previously managed them.
Henson said trusts needed to be more transparent to avoid their negative image. Some were already willing to include representatives of parents on governing boards.
“When we’re talking about trusts with 30 or 40 schools, and a trust being run by just three or four people in its top tier of management, then that is concentrating a lot of power and responsibility in a small group of people,” Henson said. “There’s also a danger that trusts will have difficulty in gaining the confidence of a school’s community because some of them are so geographically dispersed.”
The report comes as a number of parent-led groups battle to convert local primary schools into academies. In one high-profile case, a Mat has halted a planned takeover, at Waltham Holy Cross primary school in Essex, following a campaign by parents.
The report noted “numerous examples of Mats taking on schools with serious issues or without considering properly their capacity for school improvement or the financial impact”.
The report said: “NGA is aware of some Mats that are particularly struggling with financial risk, and several Mats have outlined that they were eager to achieve economies of scale and arguably rushed into making serious financial commitments without considering the impact on the existing pupils..
“NGA’s evidence demonstrates that some trusts simply grow in order to shore up their finances … however expansion does not guarantee improvements, or even guarantee a more financially sustainable future.”
Theo Agnew, the schools minister in theLords, said the NGA’s report showed that good governance was crucial to improving school standards. “Strong governance should be at the heart of every multi-academy trust. This ensures leaders are supported and effectively challenged. The rising academic standards that many multi-academy trusts are helping to deliver is testament to the good governance already in place,” Lord Agnew said.
While the NGA’s report was careful to say that many Mats were well run, it noted cases of failures by Mats executives and trustees to register conflicts of interest, as well as repeated failures to rein in rising executive pay.
“In isolated cases NGA is aware of trusts that have allowed their chief executive to present the board with proposals for their own pay for the trustees to then decide,” the report read.
It concluded: “The government should develop and maintain a stronger line on executive pay levels.”