What makes for a good multi-academy trust (MAT)? The answer is highly personal, of course, but it is a question that all schools who are considering joining one will need to ask themselves. There will be no benefit to being within a MAT unless you have a good idea how you expect one to operate, along with a good understanding about what you want – and should get – out of it.
There are, thankfully, some elements that should be common across all MATs for which you should look.
1 A focus on education above all else
The quality of education enjoyed by pupils in the school and in the other schools in the MAT has to be central to everything the MAT does. It is easy to get caught up in structural issues about the trust and how they might work and be staffed. Of course, all these things have to be worked through. However, always asking and seeking to clarify how there will be an educational benefit from any proposed developments is essential.
2 A strong, logical infrastructure
There is no doubt that it is essential to have a proper infrastructure in the trust to provide key support services in areas such as finance, premises, HR, IT support and development and other core functions. They must be appropriately staffed by capable people with the necessary specialist background and the competence to fulfil these key roles well on behalf of the trust. This really does matter, and it does not contravene the focus on educational standards and improvement. Without these things in place, the trust and the schools operating within it cannot function and properly meet its legal duties. When done well, these areas are also means by which meaningful economies of scale can be reached across a trust. Any such economies free up more resource to focus on what matters: front-line educational activity.
3 A collaborative culture of improvement
Ways of doing this might well vary between trusts. The post of director of education (or some similar version of such a post) is a useful position to watch out for. With our own trust, as with a number of others, this person might be an active lead Ofsted inspector. The role is fundamentally associated with overseeing standards across all schools in the trust and working with principals and headteachers, local governors and trustees to offer guidance of the standards and key mechanisms (through effective development plans and self-evaluation processes) that can and will lead to improvement. Such a person is likely (as it is in our trust’s case) to oversee a trust review process, which could include senior leaders from other schools in the MAT reviewing each other’s schools. This can be a really powerful process that drives mutual improvement, precisely what should be at the core of our MATs.
4 A shared understanding of subject excellence
Staff employed at trust level can be central to driving forward educational standards across all schools in the MAT. Obvious and highly important possibilities might be posts such as director of English and director of maths. High-quality staff (perhaps the best heads of English and maths in the schools within the trust) can take on a remit to work with and help to oversee the work of the English and maths departments in the trust’s schools. They can also work alongside senior teams to confirm how standards in these fundamental subjects can most effectively be raised. Other staff might also be employed to develop educational provision and standards in certain areas that are judged important by a trust. For example, our own trust has a core principle relating to international education. For that reason, we have a director of international education, whose remit is to oversee international developments and languages provision in all of our schools.
5 Opportunities for meaningful shared CPD
Another key opportunity that arises from being part of a MAT comes from effective collaborative work between staff across the different schools. This is an area that really needs to be got right. There might be a presumption that collaboration is simply a good thing for its own sake. This could be a major problem for a MAT. It can lead to too much (forced) joint activity that is not valued and does not lead to clear educational benefit. This has the potential to create frustration and possible resentment from staff to the notion of working in a trust.
On the other hand, really good and effective collaboration, the sort that is clearly focussed on developing and improving education mutually across schools, is a powerful benefit of being part of a MAT. For example, getting subject departments from different MATs working together to develop high-quality resources and teaching programmes for new exam specifications can lead to clear gains for all. For many MATs, such work can helpfully overlap with the work of an identified Teaching School Alliance.
Get it wrong, and working in a MAT might be a source of irritation and distraction for staff. Get it right, and it can be a real galvanising force for everyone to work effectively together to provide a better education for all. Make your choices wisely – and do your homework before making any decisions.
Stephen Munday is executive principal of Comberton Village College and CEO of Comberton Academy Trust
If MAT expansion is going to work, more support is needed
Matthew Wolton, who heads up the public sector arm of solicitors’ firm Clark Holt and specialises in academies, on the challenges of increased academisation:
Two things are certain over the next four years: existing smaller multi-academy trusts will have to expand very significantly, either by growth or by merging with each other and some new multi-academy trusts (MATs) will need to be formed.
The national schools commissioner, Sir David Carter, has suggested that a further 1,500 to 2,000 new MATs will be required. Starting a new MAT is a significant undertaking that requires substantial commitment. As well as dealing with the transition to an academy, it involves putting in place the necessary structures and processes to operate a number of schools.
In both instances, in order to accommodate the numbers of schools that will convert, MATs will have to grow to include a significant number of academies. From experience, such growth is not linear and is certainly not easy – there is a world of difference between a MAT with five schools and one with 10 schools, let alone 20, 30 or 40 schools. As numbers grow, the whole structure of a MAT continues to change, like any organisation that grows at such a rate.
It is not an impossible task, but in order for the process to be successful, there needs to be a huge amount of support to ensure we have enough sufficiently skilled MATs in place. One element of this is that each of these new MATs will need quality leadership – both at chief executive officer level and director level. High-quality, relevant and ongoing training will be needed to ensure that these individuals are equipped for the challenges ahead. Some regional schools commissioners have already started to put plans in place to provide such support, for example, mentoring from those MATs that are seen as being exemplar. However, such plans will need to be accelerated.
Seven tips for setting up your own multi-academy trust
Get the skills mix on the board that will oversee and drive forward the trust’s work. The Academy Ambassadors scheme offers potential members of boards with particular skills. See academyambassadors.org for more.
Get the right leader – each MAT needs a CEO that will build on their skills as a great school leader and learn new skills; trusts need to invest in one of the training programmes now available for CEOs and would-be CEOs.
Ensure that everyone knows who is responsible for what and has the ability to explain this to others, such as other school staff and Ofsted inspectors.
Develop partnerships beyond, as well as within, the MAT to avoid complacency and provide constant challenge to the school to make further improvements.
Use opportunities in schools across the MAT for internal promotion in order to retain the best staff.
Benchmark in every area of school life and don’t be too shy to challenge even the most successful school to do better.
There will be trusts of all sizes but in due course, many are likely to be 10-15 schools, even if this is more than can be developed at the birth of a MAT. For small primary schools, the number of pupils will be important as well, with a view that aiming over time towards 1,200 is sensible.
Dr Tim Coulson is the regional schools commissioner for the East of England and north-east London