The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Steve Taylor

MATs: a 'try before you buy' approach

Executive head Steve Taylor explains why his multi-academy trust are taking struggling schools on loan for a year as part of a ‘try before you buy’ scheme.

Robin Hood Multi-Academy Trust formed in September 2016 with a clear vision: to test the boundaries of education, take risks and follow what we know is right for our children.

In creating a multi-academy trust (MAT), our aim was not to amass schools as fast as possible to grow quickly. Rather, it was to attract like-minded educationalists to join us in creating an innovative group of schools with a moral compass. 

In taking this approach our strategy has been one of a ‘slow burner’ model – we are not interested in emailing schools and phoning up headteachers asking them to join us. How can you form a collective strength and mindset if you group schools together based on numbers rather than moral compass and approaches to pedagogy? 

Testing out a M​AT

With this question in mind we decided to follow not only the traditional routes, where the DfE ask you to sponsor a school, but also some unconventional routes. This led us to the ‘try before you buy’ approach, where schools considering joining the MAT have the option to sign up for a year to test out the partnership. 

How do you know whether the MAT you are joining is the right one or even whether it is right to join a MAT at all?

Joining a MAT can be a huge process which many leaders will possibly see as handing over levels of autonomy. How do you know whether the MAT you are joining is the right one or even whether it is right to join a MAT at all? Having a service-level agreement (SLA) between the school and MAT has benefits for both parties.

Benefits for the sch​ool

  • The school can test out how the MAT works and interact with them. They can consider whether the MAT is ‘walking the walk’ rather than doing a great sales pitch.

  • A full evaluative period takes place where the impact of the MAT is monitored by external sources. We hire a former HMI to evaluate the effectiveness of the MAT within a school. This ensures that the school and its leaders/governors have an objective viewpoint on whether the MAT is working and delivering on what was promised.

  • Within the SLA there is a notice period of a term where both sides can walk away if they feel it isn’t a good fit. This means that there is far more transparency and honesty in the process.

  • If both sides feel that the partnership is working well then this is the stage where the process to officially join the MAT begins. In taking a year to weigh each other up it is then clear that there will be a prosperous relationship going forward.

Benefits for the MAT

  • The MAT can work closely with the school and make a real difference to teaching and learning. This gives the MAT a very clear understanding of the type of school that will be joining them. For us, that means we can test out if the school has the right mindset for our moral compass and vision.

  • The SLA enables the MAT to properly look into the finances of the school to ensure they are sustainable, rather than simply taking a snapshot picture as would normally happen during a due diligence process.

  • Our MAT is based around the fact that we are happy to demonstrate that we can ‘walk the talk’ and so we are happy for schools to work with us for a year. We would never want a school to rush into joining the MAT and feel they had made an ill-informed decision.

  • The terms notice period also allows the MAT to step away if the match is not working or the school needs support that the MAT cannot provide. This can be a real positive because there are too many MATs promising the Earth but not delivering – it is far better to be evaluative and realistic about the work being done.


It would be wrong to say that the SLA model is perfect because it does have its downsides. If a school is in special measures then the DfE are likely to want a quicker, longer-term solution and so the SLA model typically will not fit this scenario (unless there is an extreme case where the DfE is unable to secure a sponsor initially and the LA sign an SLA with a MAT in the interim). 

Another issue with the model is that both sides can invest in the process in terms of time, effort and finances only for one side to back out. Joining a MAT is a long-term strategic move, so it’s better for people to walk away if they have any doubts about the partnership.

Joining a MAT is a long-term strategic move though, so it’s better for people to walk away if they have any doubts 

After all, not many people would marry someone within days of going on a first date – joining a MAT need not be any different.


The SLA ‘try before you buy’ approach ensures that there is the greatest transparency possible in a landscape of thick educational fog. That in itself is reason for SLAs to have a place in the world of MATs and why they provide a viable short-term solution.

Should you wish to know more about Robin Hood Multi-Academy Trust, please visit our website

If you would like to come and visit us, please contact me by email

Looking for further guidance through the MATs conversion process? Find out more about our Academiser service today.

What do you need to know?

You're poised to join a MAT, but the last-minute doubts are creeping in. Is it clear enough that your school will benefit? Do you have the full picture? 

MAT advisor Paul K. Ainsworth has put together a list of questions you should ask before taking the leap.

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