Tackling size obsession in the education sector

It would appear the education sector is obsessed with size. With funding challenges in schools and colleges, it’s no wonder why we’re seeing the emergence of super-size colleges and national multi-academy trusts with budgets and staff teams the size of which we haven’t been used to until quite recently.

What happened to your local community school, or FE college, being there for the benefit of the local community? Does size matter, and can large groups with remote leadership work for the greater good?

Putting students and local economies at the forefront of strategic planning: bigger can be better

Where there is a clear vision, an inclusive strategy and tried-and-tested schemes of delegations with member schools and colleges feeling part of the ‘group’ and, more importantly, benefiting from it, then I’m a fan. In a time when real-terms funding across the education sector has dropped – and is expected to be 3.9% of GDP in 2021-22 when compared with it being 5.8% in 2010 – the rising costs across the public sector means it makes sense to cut out duplication and share resources.

There are benefits to shared central ‘HQ-esque’ services, shared leadership and governance costs and shared purchasing power, employee progression opportunities and capital costs and investment – but only where there is a shared vision for the organisation which every member organisation can, and will, buy into (though it might take a bit of time).

As Vice Chair of my local MAT – of which I’m incredibly proud to serve – our ethos, driven by the Board and our CEO, means there should be no point in a school choosing to join us unless they benefit from being part of the Trust. We’ve had to think hard about how we set-up our local governing boards, how we adequately budget for our schools and what level of accountability they have to decide what happens in their setting.

We’ve tried certain things which we now know didn’t work, and there’s still some way to go to ensure we strive for excellence when the income is working against us. Through the setup of a Chairs & Vice Chairs meeting we, as a Trust Board, regularly communicate with local boards and welcome challenge. As a small Trust, with trust-wide leadership roles focusing on behaviour, attendance, literacy and numeracy, we can have a huge positive impact on the lives of the children and families within our local community.

Going further than ‘local’, I was recently impressed with Ellen Thinessen’s vision for how Sunderland College could develop a regionally based FE and skills group for the North East, working in collaboration with large employers, education providers and colleges to create an ambitious group. I’m so pleased to see Education Partnership North East now in place with the recent welcoming of Northumberland College into the group. They didn’t have to put forward their vision for the North East as finances and quality looked fine at Sunderland – but it came back to my point about vision.

With vision, ambition and an inclusive strategy, which puts students and local economies at the forefront of strategic planning and decision making, it makes complete sense to merge. There are many other examples too – too many to list. However, immediately I think about Stockton Riverside College Group, how their ‘tone of voice’ is prevalent across their group and resonates with all; and New City College, how their curriculum leadership structure adds value across their colleges and campuses.

When growth strategies and organisational ambition take precedence over mission, vision and values: size doesn’t matter

Put quite simply, I feel growth for growth sake is dangerous and can be harmful to employees, their children/students and the families and communities. Eventually, following chaos, a lack of identity, poor accountability and shoddy leadership, the impact is on how far children and students can progress. It’s not right.

Growth for the sake of growth and empire building is happening across the education sector with mini fiefdoms being created and demi-Gods in place of CEOs. I’m being flippant and intentionally argumentative of course, but we have seen instances of where aggressive growth strategies and organisational ambition took precedence over mission, vision and values (going back to be previous point about how much it does matter if you’re in ‘takeover’ mode).

Probably more visible in the school’s sector is growth which didn’t work – schools and communities affected and then a move to shrink MATs or move a school into another Trust. All because the school – its parents, staff and community members included – never really bought into the rationale behind the takeover.

Perhaps now, too, we will see the largest FE college group carve itself up – I hear rumours, and the trade unions clearly have a view. The lasting impact of the Post-16 Area Reviews is the fact colleges are now having open dialogue about merger, federated models and shared services. They didn’t really need the area review to tell them to do that, as being forced into a corner due to inadequate funding was always going to be inevitable.

Shrewd spending and genuine leadership

Thank goodness for the genuine leaders out there – who take their public duty and spend their public money wisely. There always needs to be a bit of ego in executive leadership, as without the confidence behind your decision no one will listen. I’m fortunate enough to often see the human behind the CEO position and it’s not very often I’m disappointed.

Bigger can be better, but not always: can a small school or college survive alone?

It depends.

We often see the constant battle with resizing, re-purposing and cost-cutting with little ability to invest. Does having a £100m turnover mean you are agile and able to respond quickly to policy decisions and investment opportunities? Not always and, in some instances, it can make you far more vulnerable.

Big mergers have happened to NHS Trusts, it’s happening with local authorities and perhaps it’ll happen to universities next – we shall wait and see.