Publication Education and skills 27 March, 2015

Education in chains

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This report explores how school groups can improve pupil outcomes through expert governance and economies of scale.


Over the course of our careers in the education sector we have had the chance to work with and analyse school groups across the world. In addition to our work as global education consultants, between us we have held positions as a school governor, a teacher, a P&L holder for an educational services provider, and as education policy strategists. We have worked with academy chains in England; global, for-profit, private school groups; global, non-profit school groups; and public school districts in the U.S. We also have experience working on national policy, shaping the structure of English schools under both Tony Blair and Michael Gove. We have seen groups flourish and groups flounder. But we have also seen how, when well-managed and supported school groups flourish, they bring sustainability to school systems, and deliver better outcomes for pupils.

This is why the current state of the system is causing concern: the governance and management of state-funded English schools is a mess. Previous, and ongoing, policies promoting academies and free schools are well-intentioned: liberating schools, reducing bureaucracy, and increasing autonomy. However, mechanisms of governance and accountability are now too dependent on “willing amateurs”, on school governing bodies, and on an over-stretched and compliance-oriented Ofsted. Through our work we have seen what is required to create high quality governance, performance, and support in schools. We strongly believe that our experience, and the evidence, shows this is best done in school groups that have clearly defined operating models. These operating models ensure a clear curriculum, pedagogy, management structure, and labour model, aligning these elements around a coherent vision for all schools in a group.

We believe that academy groups are the best way of achieving this. They should be supported to grow as quickly as they are able, providing they can demonstrate that a consistent operating model is being implemented. Schools should be encouraged to join successful academy groups with a range of incentives, including a lighter inspection burden, and more flexible access to capital via the group.

There is an emerging sense in England that enough work has been done on structure and it is time to focus on the teaching practice. We do not accept this. The main purpose of this paper is to show that school structure and governance – specifically larger, more centralised, and more professional school groups – is vital to a successful school system, and that this in itself will lead to improved teacher professionalism and student performance.

Matthew Robb and Anna Grotberg, Parthenon-EY

Executive summary

The move towards more freedom and autonomy for schools in England has created greater diversity in the school system. However, it has not achieved a generalised or sustained level of innovation, or spread best practice. This has left many schools trailing behind the best and many children unable to reach their full potential.

School groups offer a solution to this problem. In particular, they offer a more coherent governance system that addresses the key issues currently damaging the system: unclear governance; inexpert governance; a lack of capabilities and professional development; and a lack of economies of scale and clear operating models.

Unclear governance: With the declining role of local authorities, school governance is shared with a whole range of bodies, not all of whom have clear roles. This results in confusion and, in practice, means that a large number of schools are independent of any expert guidance or support. Performance management is often a reactionary, fault-finding, or inspectorial conversation that only bites once a school is deemed to be “failing”.

School groups create an additional tier of governance automatically: the group governance structures sitting over and above the governance of the constituent schools, each layer with clear articulated roles and decision-making powers. This central governance enables a constant performance dialogue with the individual schools, creating a proactive, supportive and developmental managerial conversation which facilitates continual improvement.

Inexpert governance: The quality of school governing bodies is far too mixed. Governors often lack the core skills required to do the job of supporting school leaders and holding them to account. In addition, voluntary governors—many of whom have full-time jobs—lack the time needed to adequately fulfil this role.

School groups can offer expert governance across their network of schools via the group-level board and the corporate centre. Only a small number of people are needed to fulfil these roles, making it easier to identify and recruit highly skilled individuals. The individual school-level governing bodies are then free to focus on local needs: to represent community and parent interests rather than try to drive up performance.

Lack of capabilities and professional development: Many head teachers do not have the necessary financial and commercial acumen to navigate the more-autonomous schools landscape. Increasing numbers work in silos, without the support and challenge to improve their school’s performance, and best practice teaching models are not shared and standardised across schools.

Schools within groups can benefit from the corporate centre’s staff, who have considerable experience within their field: they might be ICT, human resources, and financial professionals as well as educationalists, and are dedicated to their roles full-time. Excellent head teachers are also able to develop in their profession by undertaking group-level leadership roles, and promising school-level head teachers can learn from these leaders.

Lack of economies of scale and school operating models: Individual, and small, groups of schools do not have the economies of scale necessary to invest in their development and improvement. Few schools have a comprehensive and holistic blueprint for running their school and, when they do, the scale of the group is too small to drive improvement across the school system.

Large school groups are able to make significant cost savings in procurement and shared staffing. The development of an effective operating model, which requires the sort of investment only large groups can make, provides a mechanism for reaching a much larger number of pupils with high quality education.

In our view, a school system in which more schools belong to large groups, with strong corporate centres, will provide better education for many more pupils. They create the right structures to harness the best, and drive high performance across the system. However, this system will not develop on its own. Currently, only half of academies are part of a group, and the majority of these are in a group of ten schools or fewer. Our view is that the following actions should be taken to encourage schools to join groups:

  1. The government should expect most schools to join groups.
  2. The government should strengthen the ability of school groups to develop strategic corporate centres. It should expect school groups to invest between 8 and 10 per cent of the group’s revenue in their corporate centre.
  3. Individual schools that are part of high performing school groups should be exempt from Ofsted inspection. The school group should be inspected instead.
  4. The government should devolve school capital budgets to competent school groups.