Becoming an academy should not mean a significant change to the everyday experience of your school, but the move to work with other schools as part of one overall, larger organisation – a multi-academy trust – is a big deal and significantly different from operating as a stand-alone school. So, as a head, how should you be approaching the issue of MATs?
Understand what makes MATs successful
There are clear benefits – educational, financial and organisational – of getting a MAT right and making it work for all members. Equally, though, there could be problems and pitfalls of getting it wrong.
If it is working properly, a MAT arrangement can be a real driver of school improvement for all of the schools involved.
Any school can potentially do better by being part of such an arrangement, compared with trying to go it alone. MATs are not just about weaker schools being improved by other, more successful schools.
Through working together effectively and having a meaningful school improvement resource provided by the trust, every school can do better regardless of their starting point. There should, of course, also be organisational and financial economies of scale that are available as a result of schools working as one larger organisation, rather than smaller, separate entities in their own right.
If the MAT arrangement works badly, then it is likely to be fundamentally seen as first and foremost about finance – rather than the potential for educational opportunity and development within its schools.
Things may also go awry where a school has become part of a MAT reluctantly and the arrangement is seen as largely one-sided, with lack of proper mutual benefit.
Understand the options that are available
Do you join an existing MAT or set up your own? There are pros and cons of each approach.
There is no doubt that the easier approach is to join a pre-existing trust, because there is no need to go through the process of establishing the considerable infrastructure that is required to enable a MAT to work successfully. However, choosing the right trust for the school is a crucial decision.
Any school will want to be part of a trust whose values and principles are in line with their own core values. Whether to stay with a local MAT or opt for a national MAT is a decision that heads need to weigh up carefully, to ensure they choose the option that best supports and fits their students and staff.
The alternative is to set up a MAT. The amount of work required to do this fully and successfully should not be underestimated. It means setting up a whole new organisation that is capable of effectively overseeing a group of schools and that has the capacity to do that well. I went through this process myself and I know how major an undertaking it is. You should be prepared for substantial commitment in the long term – not just in the initial stages of setting it up – to make it work.
I believe that the latter approach worked for us. It offers the prospect to shape local education in a powerful and significant way. Rooted in the values that matter to the school and its community, it is an exciting prospect to play a major role in the development of the local (and perhaps wider) education system.
Any school can be involved in establishing a new MAT – but there is more scrutiny where the schools involved are deemed to be poorer by Ofsted or the data is poor.
Communicate the process of joining effectively
As always, communication with all of the school’s stakeholders needs to be good as it facilitates a meaningful period of consultation. This is especially crucial for staff. Staff will need to be fully and properly committed to this significant development if it is to work. It will require a commitment to joint working with staff from other schools, which means that all involved must believe in it.
Get to grips with what is different after you’ve joined
The truth is, quite a lot will change. It is a way of working that deliberately looks beyond the school gates and seeks to work as part of a wider organisation. It means genuinely feeling interested and concerned for the performance of pupils outside of your own school. It means always looking for ways to work together effectively, so that all involved will benefit. It is a mindset that says, “We can all do better by helping each other than by going it alone.”
When a MAT is working well, my view is that the heads of the individual schools are able to properly exercise leadership of their school, as well as to contribute to the overall quality of education in the MAT.
If there are strongly shared core values across the trust, then it is possible for individual heads to genuinely lead their schools within the framework of those values – and not simply be managers of a prescribed way of doing things. Agreed common approaches where it makes sense do not need to inhibit this. They might instead facilitate more effective sharing of practice.
When a school joins a MAT, it remains accountable. It will be inspected and have its results published in exactly the same way as before, and will attract funding through the school funding formula. The body that is legally accountable for the school changes to the trust board of the MAT that it joins.
Stephen Munday is headteacher at Comberton Village College and CEO of the Comberton Academy Trust. The trust currently has five schools, including two with sixth forms
explains how to join or form a MAT…
A multi-academy trust (MAT) is a group of schools with one governing academy trust – an overall leadership that has responsibility for the outcomes of all the children and young people in these schools by overseeing collaboration between the schools. MATs are not all the same; those who establish a MAT set the rules and expectations of that particular MAT.
Things to consider about joining an existing MAT
Choose a trust that will help your children to achieve better.
Visit schools that are already in the MAT to find out first-hand what working for the trust is like.
Look at the performance data and accounts of the MAT that you are considering.
Check that the support for school improvement offered by the MAT is local to you.
Make sure that you understand the MAT’s “scheme of delegation”, as this explains who within the trust decides what.
Things to consider about setting up a MAT
Decide the purposes of the MAT.
You need to decide whether to apply to be a sponsor (that sets up a MAT ready to take in other schools) or apply with a group of schools to establish a new MAT, which may also be approved as a sponsor now or in the future.
Think about who would be on the trust board. Create roles that you want, not ones that simply fit the existing staff. Interview all potential directors on the trust board to check that they are suited to the skills required.
Think about who would be the trust leader – some call this the executive head, others the trust CEO.
The process for setting up a MAT
Talk to the regional schools commissioner’s office about your plans, particularly the governance and leadership of the trust.
Your proposal will be reviewed by the regional headteacher board; they will want to recommend approval of what you suggest, but they will point out any flaws or details that need to be addressed. From approval, it will take four to five months for the trust to be established and all the schools to become academies.
Dr Tim Coulson is the regional schools commissioner for the East of England and north-east London
For more information, or to apply to join or form a MAT, visit