Don’t rely on a welcome MAT at the job interview

External candidates are failing to win school leadership roles in multi-academy chains
7th July 2017, 12:00am
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Don’t rely on a welcome MAT at the job interview

When the candidate missed out on the senior leadership team job, she wasn’t totally shocked. Even less surprising was the identity of the individual who pipped her to the post. It was the fourth occasion she had applied for a role in the senior leadership team at a school within a large multi-academy trust (MAT), and for the fourth time the job went to an internal candidate.

The unlucky job hunter - a school leader in the South West who prefers not to be named - is not alone.

Tes has heard multiple accounts from people who have reported difficulty in breaking into MATs because an increasing number of their appointments are coming from within.

Figures provided by some of the country’s biggest chains show that the lion’s share of their SLT appointments have gone to internal candidates in recent years - with the share of internal promotions rising in several cases.

Is this a cause for worry, or are MATs acting as responsible employers by developing their own staff? And what are the long-term implications of this trend for the school system?

Tes asked 10 of England’s largest MATs what proportion of their school SLT appointments had been internal or external over the past two years. In 2015, 56 per cent of SLT appointments at Oasis Community Learning were internal, rising to 72 per cent in 2016.

At David Ross Education Trust, 46 of 65 school SLT appointments over the past two academic years have been due to a promotion from within the trust.

In total, of the eight MATs that provided figures, seven made a majority of their appointments via internal promotions. The exception was Academies Enterprise Trust, but only for one year - 2015-16 - when external hires exceeded internal appointments.

New research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), published last week, corroborates the trend. According to the NFER analysis, movement of MAT staff between schools within the same chain is high and “concentrated among senior leaders”.

The power of MATs

Becky Francis, director of University College London’s Institute of Education, suggests the figures are not surprising, claiming better leadership development was always one of the ideals behind the academies movement.

“What this probably demonstrates perfectly is one element of the envisaged power of MATs,” she says. “They can develop their own senior leaders into headship roles and beyond through their capacity, their internal development systems, and also by moving middle leaders through their different schools to give them opportunities.”

Oasis chief executive John Murphy argues that leadership development has been key to his trust’s school-improvement strategy. “The most important resource that we have is people,” he says. “A lot of organisations will look to remove leaders and make some really sharp changes [to improve schools]. What we’ve tried to do is provide some very clear leadership and development pathways.”

Murphy argues that bringing employees through into leadership roles has clear benefits: it’s a good way of ensuring proper succession planning and it builds a cadre of leaders who share the trust’s ethos.

“Unless they’re aligned to our vision, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he says.

The focus on internal development has been a boon to people such as Angela Sweeting, who rose through the ranks at Oasis (see box, above right). But some people who don’t work in MATs feel that it has become harder to get their foot in the door.

“Trying to get into one is becoming increasingly difficult,” claims the school leader from the South West.

“External candidates from outside of a MAT will not know the culture and the ethos and the systems and procedures that can make you much stronger in interview. A candidate who has worked within the MAT - they’re going to be very familiar with people’s expectations, the strategic vision, the priorities.”

She is not alone in feeling that the dice are sometimes loaded against outsiders. Another individual - now a headteacher in the South of England who also asked not to be named - remembers his first interview for a headship at a MAT school. One of the other candidates for the job already worked for the trust, reporting directly into two people who were on the decision-making panel. The headship had itself become vacant when the previous incumbent had left to run another school in the chain.

On day two of the interview, the job seeker arrived to see his rival “schmoozing the executive head of the trust”.

“He was saying ‘Thanks very much for your support’, patting him on the back and shaking his hand,” the man recalls. “I knew that I was up against it.”

His intuitions were correct: the internal candidate got the job.

One risk of not bringing enough new blood into an organisation is that “groupthink” can develop. “Things become very cosy in organisations sometimes,” says the school leader from the South West. “When you’re within the organisation…it’s harder to put in that level of challenge to people you have been working with.”

Murphy agrees that there are “huge benefits from getting outside expertise into an organisation” and says that Oasis does not operate as a “closed club in any form”. The trust is committed to equal opportunities, advertises all posts nationally and appoints solely on merit, he adds.

As for the repercussions of this trend for the wider schools system, Francis says higherperforming MATs “really nurturing and bringing on their senior leaders” is likely to reinforce their success. But, given the chronic shortage of leaders in the system, she argues this could have a negative “knock-on effect” for other institutions. The risk is that the best MATs will monopolise talent while less-appealing chains and schools become more fragile.

Perhaps the most intriguing question is whether MATs replacing more of their leaders from within will solidify cultural differences between trusts. Could it eventually even lead to the emergence of “parallel school systems”?

Francis isn’t willing to be drawn on that question, though she says that such a development “could either be a good thing or a bad thing” - it all depends on the culture and quality of the MAT.


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