Evidence-Based Reform and the Multi-Academy Trust

Recently, I was in England to visit Success for All (SFA) schools there. I saw two of the best SFA schools I’ve ever seen anywhere, Applegarth Primary School in Croyden, south of London, and Houldsworth Primary School in Sussex, southeast of London. Both are very high-poverty schools with histories of poor achievement, violence, and high staff turnover. Applegarth mostly serves the children of African immigrants, and Houldsworth mostly serves White students from very poor homes. Yet I saw every class in each school and in each one, children were highly engaged, excited, and learning like crazy. Both schools were once in the lowest one percent of achievement in England, yet both are now performing at or above national norms.

In my travels, I often see outstanding Success for All schools. However, in this case I learned about an important set of policies that goes beyond Success for All, but could have implications for evidence-based reform more broadly.

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Both Applegarth and Houldsworth are in multi-academy trusts (MATs), the STEP Trust and the Unity Trust, respectively. Academies are much like charter schools in the U.S., and multi-academy trusts are organizations that run more than one academy. Academies are far more common in the U.K. than the U.S., constituting 22% of primary (i.e., elementary) schools and 68% of secondary schools. There are 1,170 multi-academy trusts, managing more than 5,000 of Britain’s 32,000 schools, or 16%. Multi-academy trusts can operate within a single local authority (school district) (like Success Academies in New York City) or may operate in many local authorities. Quite commonly, poorly-performing schools in a local authority, or stand-alone academies, may be offered to a successful and capable multi-academy trust, and these hand-overs explain much of the growth in multi-academy trusts in recent years.

What I saw in the STEP and Unity Trusts was something extraordinary. In each case, the exceptional schools I saw were serving as lead schools for the dissemination of Success for All. Staff in these schools had an explicit responsibility to train and mentor future principals, facilitators, and teachers, who spend a year at the lead school learning about SFA and their role in it, and then taking on their roles in a new SFA school elsewhere in the multi-academy trust. Over time, there are multiple lead schools, each of which takes responsibility to mentor new SFA schools other than their own. This cascading dissemination strategy, carried out in close partnership with the national SFA-UK non-profit organization, is likely to produce exceptional implementations.

I’m sure there must be problems with multi-academy trusts that I don’t know about, and in the absence of data on MATs throughout Britain, I would not take a position on them in general. But based on my limited experience with the STEP and Unity Trusts, this policy has particular potential as a means of disseminating very effective forms of programs proven effective in rigorous research.

First, multi-academy trusts have the opportunity and motivation to establish themselves as effective. Ordinary U.S. districts want to do well, of course, but they do not grow (or shrink) because of their success (or lack of it). In contrast, a multi-academy trust in the U.K. is more likely to seek out proven programs and implement them with care and competence, both to increase student success and to establish a “brand” based on their effective use of proven programs. Both STEP and Unity Trusts are building a reputation for succeeding with difficult schools using methods known to be effective. Using cascading professional developing and mentoring from established schools to new ones, a multi-academy trust can build effectiveness and reputation.

Although the schools I saw were using Success for All, any multi-academy trust could use any proven program or programs to create positive outcomes and expand its reach and influence. As other multi-academy trusts see what the pioneers are accomplishing, they may decide to emulate them. One major advantage possessed by multi-academy trusts is that much in contrast to U.S. school districts, especially large, urban ones, multi-academy trusts are likely to remain under consistent leadership for many years. Leaders of multi-academy trusts, and their staff and supporters, are likely to have time to transform practices gradually over time, knowing that they have the stable leadership needed for long-term change.

There is no magic in school governance arrangements, and no guarantee that many multi-academy trusts will use the available opportunities to implement and perfect proven strategies. Yet by their nature, multi-academy trusts have the opportunity to make a substantial difference in the education provided to all students, especially those serving disadvantaged students. I look forward to watching plans unfold in the STEP and Unity Trusts, and to learn more about how the academy movement in the U.K. might provide a path toward widespread and thoughtful use of proven programs, benefiting very large numbers of students. And I’d love to see more U.S. charter networks and traditional school districts use cascading replication to scale up proven, whole-school approaches likely to improve outcomes in disadvantaged schools.

Photo credit: Kindermel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.