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If sponsors won't take on struggling schools, who will?

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Imagine someone sets up a business. They try their best to make it work, with money and effort, but it turns out that people, able to choose what they buy, simply don’t want the product it sells. ‘Good! Choice has weeded out a bad product!’ the logic goes. It’s a great model in the world of business. But what happens if the product isn’t a chocolate bar or smartphone, but a school?

The government currently requires multi-academy trusts (MATs) to explain how their stronger schools will support weaker schools. The MAT, acting as a kind of investor, makes a rational judgement as to whether a ‘weaker’ school is worth taking on. But when does ‘weak’ become ‘too weak’? When does a school simply have too many problems for a MAT to see it as worth the investment? And what happens to that school? The government has created a kind of market in how schools are paired up with sponsors, but the current system doesn't actually have any market incentives to encourage MATs to take on schools that are struggling.

Using the principles of the market gained real momentum in public policy in the 1990s. Centre left parties, reeling from the fall of the Berlin wall and the triumph of 1980s capitalism injected energy into their policy-making by building the concept of choice and market incentives into public policy. This defined New Labour’s thinking on the public sector, and the idea of introducing target-based mechanisms for driving improvement in hospitals and schools took root.

No one working in education throughout the 1990s and 2000s will have missed this. Measuring schools by the number of pupils who attained 5 A* - Cs at GCSE is one prime example. And if you put a big stick behind a target, it tends to have an effect. Telling people that their school will be ranked low on a league table or be turned into an academy if they don’t meet a certain target, in an ideal world, leads to improvement.

But what happens when market incentives fail, or don’t exist in the first place? In their policy on MATs, the government seems to have forgotten that if you marketise a system, you need proper market incentives. Academy sponsors are unlikely to make risky investments without a reward for doing so, or punishment for not.

The Guardian recently reported on 60 schools who have been unable to find sponsors after receiving academy orders. It makes for alarming reading. School leaders cannot plan for the future, as they don’t know who will be running the school in a year’s time. One school in Birmingham, according to the report, faces closure simply because no academy sponsors will take on the school’s financial problems.

In a purely commercial market, this sort of thing doesn’t matter as much. Businesses selling unpopular products go out of business. But schools aren’t products. If a school’s ‘product’ is eliminated from the market because no academy sponsor can take the risk on it, then that’s a town or village without a vital community asset. A system that doesn’t encourage sponsors to want to take on the most challenging schools can’t claim to be truly transformative.

This is not necessarily a criticism of academy sponsors. Intense financial pressures, attainment targets and the sustainability of the trust as a business are all strong incentives not to take on schools that may have severe and longstanding financial problems, or require extensive building work, for example. And if you’re going to introduce market principles into a system, you can’t really blame those working in it for operating according to the market incentives (or lack of) that underpin it.

Unless you make it attractive to take on the toughest prospects, with the promise of time to turn things around, it’s unlikely that people will be willing to take the risk. Some may call for greater cash rewards, although in the current financial context that seems unlikely.

In the midst of this appears the possibility for a renewed role for local authorities, although more by accident than design. Policy always has unintended consequences, and it may be that because the system doesn’t currently cajole sponsors into taking on certain schools, local authorities are asked to step in.

The government is currently considering allowing Kent County Council to form a MAT for some of its small, rural primary schools, because academy sponsors can’t be found. Norfolk County Council is separating its school improvement service and setting it up as a private company, with the hope that it will become a “safety net” for schools that academy sponsors aren’t willing to take on.

The Education Select Committee, getting bolder with each report in its challenges for the government, also believes there is a role for local authorities to sponsor academies. Its latest mini-grenade of a report says that councils “with a track record of strong educational performance” should be allowed to create MATs.

Where might this lead? Well, if academy sponsors effectively get first dibs on which schools to take on and which to leave on the shelf, councils will inevitably be left to work with the most challenging schools. Will it be fair to judge their spun-out MATs on the same basis as other, traditional MATs? And what of the actual schools? It’s the equivalent of being picked last for the football team in PE. Not exactly a great feeling.

If the government does open the door to councils setting up MATs, expect it to be done through agreements with individual councils, rather than any bold. sector-wide announcements that could be more easily presented as a u-turn. After all, accepting that councils might have a role to play in school improvement represents quite different thinking to that of a couple of years ago.

Alternatively, and to save face, the government might be tempted to rejig the incentives for existing academy sponsors, or encourage regional schools commissioners to get a bit tougher with MATs in encouraging them to take on struggling schools. Without giving sponsors a firm nudge or greater rewards, the government may find that the schools most in need of support are left behind.

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