The questions schools need to ask before joining a MAT

This head was wary about joining a multi-academy trust – but now he has seen the benefits. He offers advice for other school leaders embarking on the same journey to help them make sure they find the right trust
10th August 2022, 8:00am

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The questions schools need to ask before joining a MAT

https://www.tes.com/magazine/leadership/strategy/schools-joining-multi-academy-trust-MAT
Tandem, partnership

The government’s Schools White Paper contained many notable proposals - but perhaps none more so than the desire for all schools to be part of a “strong trust”, or in the process of joining or forming one, by 2030. 

This will have alarmed some heads who currently lead a local authority-maintained school and would be happy to keep things that way.

As the headteacher of Moulsecoomb Primary School in Brighton, which was required to join a multi-academy trust by the Department for Education, I know a little about this process of moving from a local authority to a trust when it is not necessarily a desired move.

Moving a school into a multi-academy trust

Indeed, the move to an academy was not something that sat easily with me at first - not least because there were few other heads around for me to turn to for advice, insight or support. So it was a world I knew little about.

Though just over half of children now attend an academy rather than a maintained school across England, there is a geographical disparity in the spread of academies that means very few schools in Brighton and Hove are academies.

Not only did this mean that I was somewhat in the dark but also so were our parents, who had doubts about the benefits of academisation and were wary about how it would change the ethos of the school. 

This meant having to address a variety of concerns from parents, such as reassuring them that academisation did not mean we would become a selective school or that we would off-roll pupils due to academic performance.

Nevertheless, there were times when the uncertainty and noise threatened to overwhelm me. 

However, as we were compelled to join a trust, we had little choice but to make the best of it.

With hindsight, I am glad that I saw the process through as the benefits of joining a trust have been extensive and allayed a lot of concerns that we all had at the start.

Picking a partner

Perhaps the most important aspect of the journey was to recognise that there are many trusts out there, and choosing the right one to join is critical.

They can be very different from one another and some I spoke to would not have been a good match for our community, but The Pioneer Academy (TPA) was. 

When I started having conversations with TPA, they took the time to listen to me, to recognise the challenges in our situation and took direction about what support I thought the school needed.

The TPA team made efforts to work alongside me, rather than take over, as they acknowledged that I knew my school, and what it needed, best.

I would encourage headteachers who are now considering which trust to join to try and have similar frank and healthy conversation with trust leaders to ascertain if it’s the right trust for their school.

To do this, you need to be bold when asking about what you can expect if you join the trust - and you can never ask too many questions when doing this.

Understanding autonomy 

You should ask about how much heads are involved in decision making within the trust and how much you would get to contribute to shaping trust policy and practice.

The central trust team should immediately be supportive of the teachers and staff already on the ground and be asking what the school needs and how they can be of help - so them being willing to answer questions before you’ve even joined should be a good sign.

Another key area to look into is how the trust will support a school. This, after all, is usually held up as one of the big benefits of the trust system, so push to know how each trust does this.

During the conversion process with TPA, the trust leadership promised me that a benefit of joining them would be that I would be able to fully focus on delivering a top-class education to our pupils, rather than dealing with the bureaucratic distractions that can weigh you down as a school leader. 

This was not something I had originally anticipated as being a big advantage of academisation - but the change has been notable. 

You don’t realise until you get help with it how much of your time can be swallowed up by keeping up with new regulations and health and safety policies, when actually you just want to be in the classroom, acting as an educator not a manager. 

There are many examples of how the MAT has lessened workload by taking over non-educational tasks, such as health and safety compliance, single central register checks, finance support and building management support. 

This enables me to give more of my time to my pupils.

Headteachers should ask prospective trust partners about the level of support on such matters they can expect from the central team. 

The opportunity to network

What’s more, a good trust should give you a bank of support and expertise to draw on, and I would urge headteachers to question trust leaders about the different opportunities that being part of their trust would afford. 

Significantly improved support for teachers and teaching assistants through personalised CPD and one-to-one classroom support are just two of many examples, from my experience.

Finally, when looking for a trust to join, headteachers should ask how much collaboration between school leaders the trust facilitates. Something I now really enjoy is working closely with a group of other headteachers in a way that isn’t really available when you run a maintained school. 

We have daily contact, sharing practical advice or template documents that might be of use to each other. 

When one of us has held interviews for a position and found too many great candidates, we even let each other know in case someone has a slot to fill; not rocket science, but it happens consistently. 

The trust also arranges regular meetings for us at each other’s schools. It’s great to see what the others are up to on the ground and get inspiration from them. 

Recently it was my turn to host, and we held a day at Moulsecoomb where all the heads got to discuss what the trust curriculum should look like.

Finding the positives

Overall, being part of a trust should feel like being part of a family. You should feel involved and able to ask for help when you need it. 

Due to the nature of the structure, local authority-maintained schools can operate more like islands with individual beliefs and values. Being in a trust should feel like a more collaborative endeavour. 

You should be able to say to a trust, “Today I need this, tomorrow I might need that,” and there should be an agility and responsiveness from them in accommodating your requests. 

I’m glad that Moulsecoomb found the right trust for us; when the time comes, I would urge other heads to start looking into trusts to make sure they can, too. 

Adam Sutton is headteacher at Moulsecoomb Primary School, part of The Pioneer Academy

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