'Schools joining MATs believe they will do better in partnership than acting alone. And they are right'

30th August 2016 at 12:41
Multi-academy trusts rooted in school improvement, professional development and high-quality teaching, learning and assessment are the right way forward, says the chair of Whole Education

The future for small and medium-sized primary schools lies in multi-academy trusts (MATs), and this week a large number of schools will formally come together in MATs in every part of England. Some will have taken on academy status in order to join or create a MAT; others will already be academies. All are acting on the belief that they will do better in partnership than acting alone. And they are right.

Having been a governor of a 100-pupil primary school in the village where I live for 16 years, I have now become a trustee of the MAT that the school will formally join on Thursday.

For the past few years, the governors of the school have been seeking a partnership with other schools in neighbouring villages, but for various reasons nothing happened. With the local authority having reduced its capacity and so unable to offer support that we had been accustomed to receiving in the past, I was delighted when the opportunity came to become one of seven founding primary schools in the Learn Academies Trust in South Leicestershire, led by Great Bowden Academy in Market Harborough.

I wasn’t always so keen on MATs. The idea started with Tony Blair, who floated it as a further way in which schools could be freed from the (largely imaginary) grip of local authorities. My view then was that, if trusts were a mechanism to further break up the state system, I was against them, but if they were a way in which partnerships between schools could become firmer and more permanent, then I was in favour. Over the past 10 years, the number of MATs has grown and the latter model has become established.

True, it is still possible to be a SAT – a single-academy trust – but the overwhelming majority of academies are in small MATs of six schools or fewer. 

Opportunities for pupils and staff

Nobody should take the formation of a MAT lightly. It is a huge amount of work, which falls mainly on the headteacher and business manager of the partnership or lead school.

For the Learn Academies Trust, lawyers were engaged and an efficient consultant did a lot of the spadework, including being the point of contact with the Department for Education and regional schools commissioner. We kept within the limits of the additional funding that we were given to establish a primary school MAT.

With that work behind us, and all the staff and governing bodies clearly seeing the greater opportunities for pupils and staff in the bigger group, a launch conference was held on a professional development day last week.

Trustees and heads each spoke of their hopes for the new partnership and the 300 or so staff of the seven schools were inspired by Dame Alison Peacock, our invited guest speaker, talking about learning without limits. She illustrated her talk with clips of children and her school, accompanied by anecdotes that encouraged the Learn Academies Trust staff to believe that, if there is no artificial lid on children’s achievement: almost anything is possible.

I talked about the research evidence that tells us that successful partnership working between schools in multi-academy trusts is based on nine essential ingredients:

  1. Shared values.
  2. Shared aims.
  3. A relentless focus on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment – a compelling curriculum, skilful pedagogy and rich assessment.
  4. A strong belief in the value and potential of every child, no matter what their background.
  5. A deep commitment to professional development across the whole trust.
  6. Commitment to the success of other schools in the trust as much as to the success of our own school – one for all and all for one.
  7. Quality assurance. That is, rigorous self-evaluation and peer review of the quality of work in all our schools.
  8. Sharing data and using it analytically to improve our performance.
  9. Using resources where they are most needed in the trust.

Further inspired by the recent Olympic success, the heads of the schools spoke of being stronger together, of raising standards (higher, faster, stronger…), of an ethic of excellence, of the wider opportunities for both staff and children in the trust. A member of the support staff, Jessica Springett, spoke of their vital role and the increased opportunities for professional development that will be available to them in the MAT.

Flourishing and engaged

The morning ended with the trust's chief executive, Stef Edwards, saying to staff that "to get flourishing and engaged children, we need flourishing and engaged adults in their own learning".

So the Learn Academies Trust will be all about learning – high-quality, deep learning for children and evidence-based, outward-looking learning for staff.

The title of my talk was "Achieving More Together", after the title of a book by Robert Hill published by the Association of School and College Leaders in 2008, which has proved to be prophetic in the picture it painted of schools working together more – and better – than they have in the past.

Robert has since done an enormous amount of work on effective partnerships and his series of blogs on best practice in MATs should be required reading for everyone involved in establishing a MAT. The Learn Academies Trust chief executive used it as the basis for our planning.

MATs that are rooted in school improvement, professional development and high-quality teaching, learning and assessment are the right way forward for many schools. For primary schools particularly, or for cross-phase MATs, the opportunities for pupils and staff will be hugely increased. This is a reform worth supporting.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford

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