Why the next generation of MAT leaders wants to do things differently

Founding CEOs of MATs are moving on and a new generation, with a different set of skills, is being appointed, finds Zofia Niemtus. But what will it mean for pupils, parents and teachers?
11th May 2022, 7:00am


Why the next generation of MAT leaders wants to do things differently


Some people will tell you that the establishment and growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs) was a well-planned, well-executed process, where each player knew their part and played it well. But others tell it differently. 

Sir David Carter, former chief executive of the Cabot Learning Federation and national schools commissioner from 2016 to 2018, says that, in retrospect, the growth of MATs can be said to have come in phases. 

“Phase 0 was the early adopters, 1.0 the period from around 2012 to 2020, and now we are in the next phase - MATs 2.0,” he says. 

This sounds well ordered, perhaps, but Sir David admits that for those leading the growth of MATs in the sector - the CEOs - it was anything but. It’s something he admitted to Tes in a previous interview when discussing his own time as a MAT leader: “I don’t think I, nor the board, really knew what my job was,” he said.

Learning on the job

It’s a point that Steve Rollett, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), confirms. He says that the first-generation CEOs were the “architects of the trust system” as they were also doing the building at the same time. 

“They were, in many ways, shaping the system as much as they were shaped by it,” he says. “They had to work with their trust boards to establish new governance systems and processes, and they had to do so as the minority part of the system to start with - much of the school system was not set up to work with school trusts.”

Given this, he admits, many were “learning on the job”.

MATs are certainly no small minority now, having grown hugely in prominence. There are more than 2,500 multi-academy trusts in England, responsible for managing 43 per cent of schools and educating 55 per cent of all children. By 2030, according to the Schools White Paper, all schools will be part of a MAT.  

You would expect the first generation of chief executives to be key to guiding the system into its new form. But, in fact, the shift is happening at a point where many of that group have left the sector, are in the process of leaving the sector or will be moving on in the very near future.

Where do we go next?

The role of MAT chief executive, then, is at a critical junction: we need many, many more CEOs in the system at a point when a significant number of role models for doing the job are departing.

So, how well have the next generation been trained? Will the new intake of MAT CEOs look very different from the first generation? Will we see, as the job changes, a rise in leaders without an education background?

The answers to those questions will have a big impact on what education looks like and how pupils, teachers and parents experience it. 

The fact that so many of the “original” CEOs are stepping down, or considering it, is down to a mix of factors. Sir Steve Lancashire founded the REAch2 Academy Trust in 2012, but stepped down at Easter. 

“It was always going to be a really difficult decision,” he says. “[But] it’s really important that chief executives, or people in other leadership positions, understand there comes a time when it’s in the best interest of the organisation for them to move on.”

For Lancashire, the pandemic in particular led to a reassessment of his priorities and of whether the role was still right for him and for the trust. 

It was a similar story for Tim Withers, who was the founding chief executive of the Palladian Academy Trust from 2016 and left the role in August last year. 

“It’s not just to do with the work context but the family context, how you see your future and what kind of retirement you want. It’s a multi-dimensional challenge,” he says.

For Catherine Anwar, the reasoning was also a complex mix of work and personal factors, but she also had a sense that the next phase of MAT development needed a new set of skills. She has led the Summit Learning Trust since 2017 but thinks people in her position are considering whether the next phase of education in a post-pandemic world is right for the “founder” generation of MAT CEOs. 

“People have different skills relevant to different phases, and it’s important to recognise these and act in the very best interests of the young people in the trust,” she says. 

There is certainly a sense among many that the skillset of the founder generation will need to adapt or be replaced for the next period of MAT expansion, a fact that may be driving many more than those mentioned above to reconsider their position.

“If the government is to deliver its ambition of all schools being part of a trust, it will be more important than ever that trusts think strategically about how they grow and mature sustainably over time,” says Rollett. 


A new era awaits

He argues that the next phase of leadership will need a recognition that the new generation of CEOs cannot simply carry on with “business as usual”.

“The CEO will be pivotal in [the next phase], so it is vital that new CEOs develop the knowledge and skills to navigate the associated challenges, some of which will be different to the challenges faced by their predecessors,” he says. 

It’s a point that some of the new generation recognise, too. Cathie Paine, who has taken over the role of chief executive from Sir Steve at REAch2, says it is clear that the role will have to evolve in light of recent government announcements.

“It is a big moment to become a CEO at any time,” she explains. “But with the White Paper and the SEND Green Paper being published…these have created an opportunity to take stock and to work through how my vision for the next 10 years can support this - and also how much more we can do.”

Dawn Haywood, the new chief executive at Windsor Academy Trust (WAT), also thinks there is a clear moment of opportunity ahead that the next generation of CEOs can seize.

“I think the next generation of CEOs of school trusts should shape the future of education and school trusts - not just implementing government strategy but also driving innovation in areas that we believe are critical for thriving in the future,” she tells Tes.

This means shaping the government agenda “on the purpose of education and what it means for school trusts to be high performing - for example, our role in sustainability and civic work”, she adds.

So, does this mean that the second generation of MAT chief executives will be looking to redefine the role, effectively starting afresh?

The consensus is that it will be more nuanced than that. Most argue that it is more about clarifying and solidifying what a CEO is for and how they should tackle their role, with a stronger emphasis on defining a collective agreement at the start rather than waging a war of different approaches to see which floats to the top - which arguably has been the process up to now. 

Defining the undefined

CST has taken a lead role in trying to assist in that definition of the role. Last year, it published new guidance documents that sought to define the role of the MAT chief executive to help future CEOs have a greater understanding of what their core responsibilities would be. 

“Codifying what the job is now is important in succession planning and spotting talent, so you know how to develop the next generation of CEOs,” CST chief executive Leora Cruddas said at the time. 

This has certainly proven useful, with Paine at REAch2 admitting that it was a key component of her interview preparations.

“I read it avidly when preparing for my interview, as I am aware how much the role has changed over the past decade and how much clearer we are as a sector about what it is - and isn’t.”

But how far should the current founder generation be involved in that definition, and in finding someone who fits it? Succession planning is a big part of any organisation, but getting it right can be tricky. 

Sir Steve says he sees the appointment of Paine as one of his key achievements. For him, it demonstrates that he created the right environment to foster the necessary calibre of leaders to take over.

“One of my most significant roles as chief exec has been managing the talent in the organisation, creating a constant pipeline of really great people,” he explains.

Haywood also says a “robust CEO succession plan” was key for WAT to ensure the handover went smoothly: ”I worked closely with the founding CEO to ensure the transition was a smooth process that prepared me for the CEO role.

“The support of the former CEO in helping me step into the role was incredibly important and deeply appreciated.”


It certainly makes sense for outgoing chief executives to want to appoint a successor they believe can carry on their good work, but Withers says outgoing CEOs also have to be careful not to turn “kingmaker” and be aware of the need to open the field to outside candidates, too 

He believes the recruitment process for a new chief executive is a good first test for a trust to see its potential future without its current leader, and so he questions how far an incumbent CEO should be part of the process.

“In a way, it’s a measure of the trust, whether it can do the most important thing and secure a good leader for the future,” he adds.

The research is mixed on the pros and cons of a current chief executive grooming their successor or being part of the recruitment process, according to Tim Morris, emeritus professor of management studies at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. 

“Generally, the assumption is that the existing CEO has minimal involvement in the decision because they will not be actively involved in the future and the board needs to be independent of their influence and work in the best interests of shareholders/stakeholders,” he says.

However, he says the reality is that chief executives will have some form of involvement and that they should share their thoughts on where the organisation needs to go next.

“It would be pretty unusual for the CEO to be involved in interviewing, I think, but they may make informal recommendations to, say, the chair or non-execs about who might be in the pool of candidates,” he argues. 

Talent and succession

There is certainly no reason why that pool of candidates should not include internal recommendations, says Sir David. He notes that if you have a homegrown, ready-made replacement, why wouldn’t you promote them?

“The best-case scenario is when you have four candidates for the final interview in a trust and at least one is the internal candidate,” he says. “This shows that the succession plan was credible but leaves the field open to appoint the very best candidate.”

Morris says that appointing an internal candidate can often make for a smoother transition and enable an organisation to tackle priorities quickly.

“As an insider, they have the benefit of a good understanding of how the organisation really works, its internal political dynamic, where what might be rather opaque problems are and so on, so they should know how to get things done quickly.”

Overall, Hirsh, at the Institute for Employment Studies, says that creating the right environment for future leaders is key and organisations such as MATs, and their leaders, should be proactive in trying to do this. It will benefit the whole sector because these leaders can then move to other trusts and pass on their experiences. 


In someone else’s shadow?

Is there, though, not a risk that an internal hire is hamstrung by their predecessor’s legacy and feels unable to undo work they had put in place, or take the organisation in a different direction?

Morris, from Saïd Business School, says there is little evidence of this being a problem in the corporate world: “I would argue that few internally promoted CEOs would feel legacy is too much of a burden.”

However, he says that if that does occur, it is usually when an organisation is replacing a particularly charismatic leader, as they can “struggle to match the perceptions of the previous incumbent”. 

Paine, at REAch2, is in the position of taking over from a high-profile CEO, but says that while she is aware she is stepping into the shoes of someone she worked with for 10 years, and who left the trust in a “really strong place”, she has no qualms about making big decisions that may change its direction.

“It won’t be a case of incremental improvement from here, as we have big challenges and we are asking big things of ourselves. The trust board hasn’t appointed someone for the next 10 years to just do the same things that we have done for the past 10.”

Sir Steve, too, believes that Paine - or, indeed, any other new MAT chief executive - will not be allowed to simply let things carry on as they are because the pandemic has changed how MAT leaders will have to think and act.

The pandemic “showed us, particularly in the MAT sector, that communities turn to the leaders in their schools for all kinds of support, and I think the opportunities now for a new kind of leader to really embrace that are really exciting”, he says.

“So I think we’ll be seeing a new type of chief executive to focus on the challenges that we’ve got going forward.”

Bringing in outsiders

Will that “new type” mean that leaders who haven’t been groomed for the role - and who are from outside the education sector - may appear, too?

This was a consideration for the board at Palladian Academy Trust when it came to replacing Withers, which he felt had some merit.

“The skillset for a headteacher is very different from the skillset for a CEO in lots of ways, and they were open-minded about that,” he says.

“There are some people from business backgrounds who are doing really good work, who have never taught a lesson and are not necessarily qualified teachers.”

In the end, he says the applicants for the role were people with “teaching DNA”, but it shows that this broader thinking about who could be a school CEO is becoming commonplace.

Sir David sees this, too, noting that because the core skills that a MAT chief executive needs are “change management, communication, culture, operational and business excellence, and the execution of a sound and deliverable strategic plan”, classroom experience is not a requirement.

Boards know “so much more about the MAT role that trustees are now seeing the value of leadership experience from other sectors, where this experience lends itself [to the role] at least as well, if not better”, he adds.

Hirsh, though, offers a word of caution on this, saying that simply believing “a general manager can be a general manager of anything” and bringing in someone at “CEO level without an understanding of the sector” is a “terribly high risk”.

She adds: “We have seen examples in sectors such as finance and retail of very successful businesses bringing in CEOs who had been very successful in another sector, and they’ve just fallen over because of poor strategic decisions, or a lack of credibility, or both.”

She believes that any future MAT chief executives who have backgrounds outside education will still have to have spent time in the sector before reaching the top.

“It’s good to bring people into education from other sectors, but doing it in mid-career is far more likely to succeed,” she adds.

However, Rollett, at CST, shares Sir David’s view that “while being a teacher will undoubtedly help CEOs with some aspects of the job, it won’t prepare them for many others”.

Newcomers making their mark

In fact, despite all the debate about the theory, there are already MAT chief executives from outside the sector proving that it can be done. One is Rowena Hackwood, at Astrea, whose career before education saw her work for councils and regeneration organisations. 

She has no concerns that a lack of teaching experience is a hindrance to her role: “That’s a bit like asking a CEO with an education background whether not being a qualified accountant or a lawyer was a hindrance,” she adds.

Echoing Sir David’s view that the chief executive role is more about having top-level strategy skills, she says her job is to “deliver on strategy, money and risk, and to surround myself with a talented team of people to make sure that we do all of these things well across all functions”.

Furthermore, she believes her lack of prior teaching knowledge can help because it means she doesn’t have some of the “same barriers that others do” around what ideas or initiatives will work.

“I may have less education-specific experience, [but I also have] fewer preconceptions about what will work and what won’t. And I will sometimes stick my neck out for things that I believe are right, even if they are unpopular,” she says.

What’s more, with the government pushing for MATs to be made up of at least 10 schools to really drive efficiencies, Hackwood says she believes this will favour those with a non-education background entering the sector at chief executive level.

“I would say that non-teaching CEOs are more appropriate for large MATs than for small ones, [as] skills such as post-merger integration, operating model planning and implementation, an appreciation of systems architecture, or less tangible areas such as the creation of an organisation-wide culture, would lend themselves to non-teaching skills.”


The best of both for the new era

Hackwood is keen to add, though, that she does not think those with pure educational backgrounds are unsuited to the role - rather that a mix of both would serve the sector best.

“Making sure that we continue to have a rich combination of educationalists, together with people like myself - who bring expertise from outside the sector - will, I think, be all the more important as the sector matures further.”

So, is the system set up to deliver the thousands more chief executives the sector will require? Most seem to think a mixture of good talent management, and an acceptance that some recruitment outside of the sector is desirable, will ensure that the next generation of leaders will be in place when needed. 

And with more definition, and help from the likes of CST and other leadership communities, Rollett is confident that those leaders will thrive. 

He says there will be both “continuity and change” as future chief executives build on the work of those who came before, creating their own cultures and ways of working, as well as bringing new ideas to the fore.

“There’s still more for the system to learn, and the next generation of CEOs will be carrying this torch into the future.” 

Paine, at REAch2 - who epitomises this new era - concurs, saying that while the first 10 years of the rise of academies were marked by “brave people doing brave things that had never been done before”, it is now incumbent on her generation to “carry that torch” and continue innovating.

“CEOs like me - the next generation, who are taking on the role after the pandemic - have the chance to take stock, and make wise and sensible decisions about the things that make the most difference to children.”

Zofia Niemtus is a freelance journalist

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