MATs - Prescription Vs. Autonomy

  By James Pope   - Thursday 25 April 2019

Getting the balance right

An interesting decade for education is drawing to a close and it has been a time of turbulence and challenge. A collective desire to improve our education system has often clashed with the ideologies, policies and practice designed to secure that improvement. As with any period of change the challenge is not just in abandoning the "old", it is in securing the "new". The "new" comes with its own set of challenges and, whilst many of these are planned for, many unexpected challenges or opportunities (depending on your viewpoint) can arise.

So it is with Multi Academy Trusts. Whether forged out of vision or necessity, MATs are an increasingly established part of our educational landscape today.  The challenges of this particular "new" are many and in my experience heads and leaders feel a weighing requirement to prove the value and benefit of becoming part of a trust right from the off. This is where getting the balance right between prescription and autonomy plays such a vital role. 

Times have changed

In reflecting on this I am reminded of a lengthy conversation with a former headteacher of mine. He was recalling the early 1990s and how hard he and many other school leaders had worked to secure autonomy from Local Authority control. Most LAs, up until the mid-90s, acted in a very prescriptive way. Many of the areas those headteachers wanted control over are things leaders of my generation take for granted. He cites finance and staff recruitment as examples of areas that were totally under LA control and as such made it very difficult to be the strategic leader of the school. 

Thanks to the work of that generation of headteachers, for most of the last 2 decades, heads have been allowed, and encouraged, to act with almost complete autonomy. For me, when I was an aspiring headteacher, part of the joy of securing a first headship was to have the autonomy to implement a range of educational ideas and experiences around one cohesive vision and a set of strategies. And I was recruited on exactly that basis –a headteacher free to set forth on a journey of school improvement. So, in the context of headteacher’s expectations and the historical relationship with the LAs, autonomy is good and prescription is bad.

Securing a manageable model of school leadership

However, it is overly simplistic to present two sides, framed around the assumption that one way is better than the other. In navigating our way through this transforming educational landscape we would do well to consider that the path to securing a model of school leadership that is manageable from a workload perspective will require us to accept that we have autonomy in some areas of leadership and in others we must give up our autonomy for the greater good of our partnerships. In my case, when I was a headteacher, over time and with increasing pressure on resources it became clear that our particular trust would need to be more prescriptive over the way we operated across the schools. 

There are many examples of trusts which operate at different ends of the autonomy vs. prescription scale. To offer an opinion on which of these we prefer is to do so from the platform of our own leadership experiences and beliefs. The ultimate test of what works or doesn’t work comes through the demonstrable success that these trusts have in improving their schools. There are examples, from both extremes of the spectrum, of MATs achieving their main aim, of improving education and securing better outcomes for their young people. 

No “one-size fits all”

So can we really define when autonomy is better than prescription and vice versa?

To answer this we must of course take into account the context of the school or schools and where they are in their improvement journey. For some, with an urgent need to improve, there may be a benefit to implementing policies and systems from within the trust, albeit with the requirement to ensure that these are carefully introduced to optimise their success. For others, who are more secure in their practice and the outcomes they achieve, the need for prescription may be driven by the requirement to make financial savings.

Without either of these pressures, should earned autonomy for those who can demonstrate success be given?

We must also consider the full range of the schools’ operating systems. How important is it to have a unique and bespoke safeguarding policy versus one which is trust wide for example? How much can be saved in money and time through shared practice and systems? In these cases, trust-wide synergy in the use of, exam boards, a VLE, a MIS or a library management system has obvious benefits for collaboration and efficiency. In this approach there is the great potential to address issues of workload for both teachers and support staff.

As headteachers and MAT leaders today, we may therefore have to accept that we need to give up some of our autonomy to decide how schools are run, and compromise in order to secure a greater level of effective and enduring collaboration. Ultimately, in doing so, we drive to the heart of the benefits of being part of a MAT and we’re also led to reconsider what it really means to be a headteacher today.

About James Pope

James has worked in school leadership for over a decade and was most recently headteacher and executive headteacher within the South West, working in schools facing significant challenges educationally and financially. His school featured in the BBC 2 documentary "School" where James was described as having acted with principles and dignity in exceptionally challenging circumstances.

Since then, James started InspirEDucate to develop a network of like-minded leaders who can work collaboratively to support headteachers, senior leaders and schools challenging the vision and strategic planning whilst offering advice, guidance and coaching support. With a passion for leadership and education and the transformative power that this can have on the lives of our young people, James works to change the culture and ethos of the schools he works in and, more broadly, the education sector.