When I meet multi-academy trust (Mat) leaders, I find the same question comes up very regularly. How do we move to a clearer education model in our trust for how we support and oversee our schools at the same time as growing our trust? If we are more deliberate about our model, will schools want to join?
Since 2011, there has been rapid growth in the number of Mats, from 391 to more than 1,000. Single-academy trusts and small Mats are now being encouraged to merge or grow. Because of this unprecedented growth, Mats now have a greater impact than ever on the performance of our school system. Getting the balance right between school improvement and growth is critical.
Ambition School Leadership’s mission is to develop exceptional leadership to transform schools in challenging contexts. We wanted to understand how the best Mat leaders were doing this, so we initiated a programme of research to identify and understand strong Mat performance.
Ambition commissioned the Education Policy Institute to investigate the features of the most effective Mats. Is there an optimum size for Mat performance? Did phase specific Mats perform better? Are tighter geographic clusters predictors of performance? Although there are lots of case studies and theories around what makes an effective and high performing Mat, there’s very little research available that compares them at scale.
Mats research results
Today we’re publishing the first results of our new research. Researchers set out to identify which Mats are high performers and to understand the differentiating features of high performing trusts. They looked at a broad range of data, including the size of the school, its phases, school type and pupil characteristics. They also looked at the speed at which the Mats had grown.
We looked for characteristics of Mats to see if we could identify what made them highly effective. However, we didn’t find any strong trends. For those trust leaders looking for a perfect balance between size, phase and student demographic I’m afraid there seems not to be a unique formula.
So, has the research told us nothing? Well, not quite. Because of this finding, we’re testing a new hypothesis about "coherence", which is the alignment between vision, strategy and the capabilities needed to support these. The idea comes from management theory and has been seen to explain high performance in the energy and retail sectors.
In education, coherence means having a clear vision for what the Mat is trying to achieve, a defined strategy that explains how it will achieve it, and the Mat’s operating model designed to support that strategy so that the organisation has the right capabilities to deliver it.
Importance of coherence
What if the coherence between these elements was the most important thing for creating a high-performing Mat? Certainty around this theory could result in executive educators having the confidence and clarity to deliver high performance, by focusing on their unique vision and the strategy and capabilities they need to deliver it.
So where do we go from here? These are the first findings of a three-phase research project and we will continue testing the coherence theory and its relevance for Mats. We’re already using our case studies of high performers to inform our own training for executive leaders, helping our participants to reflect on their strategic objectives and how to achieve them.
In the new year, we’ll release the next part of our work, which includes a survey of hundreds of trust staff, case studies and interviews with more than 40 Mat chief executives. We aim to understand their growth journeys and identify the decisions that other leaders can make to prepare for sustainable growth. This is so they can have the maximum impact on the children that need it most.
The research findings can be read and downloaded here
James Toop is the chief executive of Ambition School Leadership, an education charity that provides leadership development and technical training to hundreds of school leaders working in challenging schools across the country
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