Do multi academies exist in pre-school learning?

James Hempsall
Friday, April 30, 2021

So, the Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson has signalled his vision that more and more schools should become not only academies but form multi-academy trusts.

He believes there is an argument for their collective action, sharing of resources, and overarching strategic management. All of this is for schools to work out, of course. But it made we wonder how the early years and childcare sector should respond.

Schools are far better funded and have much more rigid structures than early years. One of the reasons for this smaller financial settlement, I had come to believe, is an apparent mistrust of the mixed economy of the sector - given it contains private, voluntary, independent and maintained models. 

The costs and delivery arrangements are so diverse, services are so flexible and responsive offering a multitude of choice, that we are miles away from the uniformity that schools have. I thought there was a fear of profiteering, but the evidence shows how academies are not immune to market forces. At the very least our present dilemmas are a result of a profound lack of understanding of the sector. And an unequal playing field. As well as a lack of the sector’s strategic response.

That said, we have seen a version of the multi-academy trust emerge in early years, haven’t we? 

We have seen how some small, independent, community and private business models have concluded it impossible to carry on in their present form. The chosen solutions have been many. 

One has been to grow, to form small chains of two, three or more settings so overheads and resources can be shared. Another option has been to acquire to achieve that growth, or sell so others can grow. 

The third, and this represents a stark contrast to the smallest of providers, has been the emergence of the behemoth of super chains that have grown exponentially over the past couple of decades. Now seemingly a permanent feature of the sector, these super-multi-academy-like-trusts are international, pension fund-invested, and multiplying at a huge rate. 

They are hoovering up those settings whose existence has been compromised by the fragile economics in the market and the sector. This is a dramatic shift from community good cause to one of big business. There are risks, if such large enterprises fail, then we have a sufficiency crisis. Government has no choice but to step in. Just look at what happened in Australia.

It needn’t just be that way of course. Groups of providers could come together for the common good but in different models, they could be equally as large and powerful and successful as the super chains. For clarity, here I refer to economic rather than quality outcomes.

Multi-academy trusts in early years needn’t be private sector, they could be social enterprises like the London Early Years Foundation instead. Social entrepreneurs across the charitable sector could replace the need for international investors. Rather than refilling investors’ pockets there could be a better balance of raising quality and reaching disadvantaged children. 

So far, our national charities have had a well-meaning go, but their structural and corporate need to satisfy their own management costs have proven a burden to many. They also complain vociferously and constantly about government funding levels. This all needs a rethink in the sector, by the sector, before we start to be told what to do.

James Hempsall is director at Hempsalls Consultancy

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