There are now over 700 Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) in England and 50% of children are being taught within a MAT structure. MATs are now the large incumbent; the majority player. But opinions remain divided.
It is a critical time for MATs. The approaches and structures of the early days are too often failing to meet the challenges the sector now faces. We need a new phase of MAT leadership.
Firstly, there remains some scepticism about MATs as a route to school improvement. We need to show that MATs can be a powerful, positive force; to show the benefits in a way that is clear and appealing to the communities they serve.
At the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) conference, I heard Ofsted’s senior researcher, Julia Smith, share some findings from their upcoming report. It reveals that MAT staff are generally “very positive about the benefits of belonging to a MAT”. However, upon joining MATs staff often have reservations, and after joining they continue to fear changes “which would leave the MAT going in a particular direction which they would no longer be able to influence”.
Leora Cruddas, CEO at CST, speaks of the importance of trust as a core value. We must build trust that flows between children, communities, teachers, and leaders, focussing on our common goal. Central to this is MAT governance – setting a vision for the culture of that MAT, and holding executive leaders to account in bringing it about.
Taking care with our language
In the previous phase of MATs, language was directly cribbed from other sectors too often. Growth. Strategy. Competition. In some cases, this language was successfully assimilated into the school sector, taking on a meaning that worked with the purpose of education. In other cases, it came with a risk of creating the wrong behaviour.
For example, building a strategy around ‘winning’ works in the commercial sector, where people are comfortable with Gore Vidal’s sentiment that: “it is not enough merely to win; others must lose.” This isn’t acceptable in education – we cannot build a sector that acts or grows in this way. We must be careful that the language we use doesn’t allow the wrong behaviours to slip in.
I believe that, in the simplest terms, there have been three early stages of MATs. The first stage was school improvement, taking good practice in one school and applying it in another. Second was a focus on financial benefit, which resulted in back office improvement. Third was standardisation vs autonomy, with a focus on the benefits of collaboration within trusts to build consistency. I believe the next phase will be about innovation in the way trusts develop and deploy their people.
We must attract and retain educators in our schools, and to do so we need a career development offer which competes with other sectors. I believe trusts provide a fantastic platform to offer this.
But this is about more than recruitment and retention. Improving teaching and school leadership is essential to make sure every pupil gets a great education. That’s why my own organisation, Ambition Institute, supports schools to develop in these areas. We are a graduate school for educators at all levels – from classroom experts to system leaders – with a shared mission to build an education system where every child can thrive, no matter what their background.
Developing MAT leadership and governance
Crucially, development must cover all levels. MAT leadership and governance is still evolving and CEOs and trustees deserve cutting-edge professional development. That’s why we’ve developed two programmes for MAT CEOs, led by the former National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter, and a Governance Leadership Programme, which is fully funded for trustees of MATs.
It’s also why we’ve been conducting our own research into what makes an effective MAT - to support MAT boards to make the right strategic choices. Whilst MATS are a relatively new structure we’ve learned a lot about what the best and improving ones do. The next part of our research with the Education Policy Institute – Developing Teachers and Leaders in Multi-Academy Trusts – will add to this pool of learning when it is published in June.
We’re at the apex of change in the MAT sector. The next two years will determine its long-term success. The role of CEO has never held more responsibility and, in turn, trustees have a duty to hold them to the highest standards.
We need MAT leaders to develop their staff so that they are able to deliver the highest quality education and to reflect on their own development so that they too can keep getting better. We need MAT leaders to work together and build a positive culture across the sector and to demonstrate what is great in all they do.
Above all, we need our leaders to show how they are delivering on the promise of Academies: to provide the best educational outcomes for the children they serve.
This post was written by Tom Glover, Dean of Executive Leadership Programmes at Ambition Institute, for NSN's Academy Ambassadors Programme. The Programme supports the strengthening of MAT boards, leadership, and governance through a free, bespoke service matching boards with business people and professionals.