Beware the false gods of academy trust statistics

There is a wealth of information available – particularly online – about the structure and performance of academy trusts; but how accurate or relevant is much of that data, and how should it be interpreted without understanding the context of each trust?

Inevitably, when it comes to an individual school or trust performance, there is a lot of ‘compare and contrast’ going on in relation to national averages and Floor Standards (the proportion of children in a school attaining the Government-determined target for either SATs or GCSEs). How much weight should be given to those figures is a much wider debate, and I think trust boards generally will have a gut feeling about how they should be performing in terms of educational outcomes for their pupils. Their challenge is to not let statistics mask or overrule this feeling.

It also needs to be understood from the start that comparing trusts – particularly multi-academy trusts – is an inherently difficult task, because you can rarely compare like with like. As I’ve mentioned before, issues such as leadership structures, how outward-looking a multi-academy trust is, and how committed it is to the school-led improvement model are among the many variables that can all have an impact on performance, pay, costings and structures; yet this sort of context and background information is often missing from the available data.  

So while it maybe interesting to go online and pore over what another trust looks like, how their personnel team is structured and so on, it may not be that revealing or relevant in relation to how your own trust is run.

There are also some online information sources that, far from increasing the opportunities for trusts to improve effectiveness, may in fact make life more difficult; several of the various Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and Gov.UK letters and notices websites fall into this category. For example, one ESFA website lists the various trusts around the country which have been contacted by the Agency because of the high executive salaries they pay (in excess of £150,000). While the ESFA is trying to address the issue of unjustifiably high salaries, it’s clear that CEOs for multi-academy trusts aren’t easy people to find, and need to possess a very niche skillset. If those with that skill set have played a significant part in a trust’s successful school improvement journey, it could be argued that higher rewards are indeed justified.

Unfortunately, by producing lists of high-paying trusts, the ESFA also runs the risk of creating a climate where people try to justify high levels of executive pay, just because their peers are getting it. It’s a bit like the local housing market – if the four-bed semi two doors down is being sold for £450,000, then we’ll try and sell our four-bed semi for £465,000. But that’s the wrong answer in the world of education, and performance management suffers because you shouldn’t be paying people based on what their peers are receiving, you should be paying them based on their levels of performance, their ability to lead an organisation, and to raise outcomes for young people.

There are similar websites which publish details of Department for Education (DfE) letters to academy trusts about poor performance, and financial notices to improve from ESFA to trusts, and again, it’s difficult to see how publishing those letters will lead to improved trust performance. As the chair of a multi-academy trust, I don’t think it would be important or helpful for me to look at another school down the road and see that it’s struggling – other than, from a cynical perspective, identifying the opportunity for our schools to take on more pupils, generate more revenue and add more value, as parents turn away from the struggling trust. That could arguably be described as a useful thing, but it’s a very competitive approach, and I’m not sure that’s what the world of education needs.

Of course, from a moral point of view, the website could help to identify which schools need more help. But the reality is that the regional schools’ commissioners are out there trying to re-broker or academise those schools which are struggling, effectively acting as agents of change, as trusts don’t have the capacity or sometimes the appetite to go out there and prospect for potential opportunities.

That’s not to say there aren’t useful sources of information about trust performance online. I use Get Information About Schools (GIAS) website a lot, usually for fact-finding about clients and making sure that they’re compliant on governance arrangements. We look at the DfE Schools Financial Benchmarking website too, although again, this information has to be assessed with the caveat that the context of some of that spending is unknown. The Compare School Performance website is also useful, although for me it’s more about comparing the performance of schools within the trust; obviously we’re trying to work together, and if one school isn’t doing something as effectively as one of its peers in the trust, then we want them to collaborate to improve.

The key message here is that while some of the information online about the performance and structure of academy trusts can be used to try and support school improvement, taking that information out of context – or trying to make direct comparisons between academy trusts without fully knowing their individual approach and ethos – can be counter-productive. It’s up to chairs and trustees to choose and use that information wisely, rather than putting their faith in false gods.

This post was written by Tom Meeks, Senior Manager at Price Bailey and a trustee at a multi-academy trust. If you would like more information on this article, please contact Tom using the form below.

We always recommend that you seek advice from a suitably qualified adviser before taking any action. The information in this article only serves as a guide and no responsibility for loss occasioned by any person acting or refraining from action as a result of this material can be accepted by the authors or the firm.

 

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