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

Lisa Griffin

Establishing or joining a MAT: autonomy vs capacity

Our Establishing or Joining Multi-Academy Trusts conference was a day of debate, thoughtful questions and honest answers. Lisa Griffin highlights some of the key learnings. 

Autonomy and capacity were the big buzz words of the event. For most of the attendees who were looking for guidance on whether to start their own MAT, join an existing one, or become part of another group or collaboration, a fear of losing autonomy balanced with a need to increase capacity and ensure future sustainability is the challenge they face.

The strong feeling of fear and scepticism around joining a MAT is understandable: if you’re a good school doing well on your own, why would you want to change anything and join a MAT? On the other hand, are you in a position to establish a new MAT?

The importance of matching values, ambitions, cultures and ethos cannot be underestimated.

Chair for the day Brian Lightman, education consultant and former general secretary of ASCL, provided five strategic questions for delegates to consider when thinking about the future of their school.

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to be?
  3. How are we going to get there?
  4. What might get in our way?
  5. How are we going to overcome barriers?

To help guide this thinking, education consultant and writer Robert Hill and Emma Knights, chief executive of NGA, discussed the benefits and potential challenges being part of a MAT can bring.

Benefits of establishing or joining a MAT

Providing a model for improving teaching and learning

In a MAT there is opportunity to undertake joint staff training and development. This can help to spread expertise and share challenges to enable more learning together.

Working with staff across schools can help to benchmark standards which can lead to better progress and attainment for pupils. Sharing best practice and working with staff across a MAT can also provide more opportunity to focus on planning and reflecting on methods of teaching and learning.  

Staff development and retention

With a recent report suggesting that English schools 'may face shortage of 19,000 heads by 2022' there would seem to be potential for MATs to contribute to the leadership pipeline. MATs have a massive part to play in identifying and nurturing talent across their schools and can seize the opportunity to be strategic in moving leaders around the trust, be it one day a week in another school or longer secondments, as a means of offering career development and progression.

Effective means of realising economies of scale

We know budgets are tight, we know they’re getting tighter and undoubtedly it is tough for schools on their own. For MATs, removing some of the core costs through joint procurement and centralising services can provide budget savings.

Pooling resources

Removing any duplication involving resources and working more closely together can make it easier for schools to find specialist expertise in specific subjects, such as music or languages.

Many larger MATs have developed leadership teams which work across a group or cluster of schools. Having this additional leadership layer can free up some time for the headteacher or principal and enable them to focus on increasing the quality of teaching and learning in their school.

Formal partnership links

A formal structure such as a MAT is successful when there are high levels of trust operating across all teams. With clear lines of accountability and an effective scheme of delegation, staff can effectively hold each other to account.

Challenges and pitfalls

A MAT should have a shared vision, values and a shared understanding of how to improve teaching and learning to drive whole school improvement. You should ask as many questions of a potential MAT partner as you need to establish whether this shared understanding exists.

The importance of matching values, ambitions, cultures and ethos cannot be underestimated.

MATs bring a new level of leadership and for a headteacher who is used to being held ultimately accountable, accepting a different line management structure could be a challenge.

Along with a new leadership structure, governance must change. If you are joining a MAT there will already be a scheme of delegation which your governing body will need to adapt to.

If you are setting up a MAT you have a huge job to do implementing levels of accountability and delegation and developing good governance without introducing duplication of layers and bureaucracy.

Previously, MATs were encouraged to grow very quickly and this just isn’t sustainable. Growing before you have the capacity to do so is dangerous. As an organisation, you must be able to balance the books without negatively impacting on pupils. If you introduce schools in challenging circumstances or financial difficulties and you don’t have the means to support them, they risk becoming a drain on your resources and harming other schools in the MAT.

A thorough due diligence process, risk management and robust, strategic business plan will help you grow your MAT and ensure sustainability. Your due diligence should not only look at finance and capacity but crucially at school improvement plans. Every school has good points, even those in the most difficult of circumstances and strengths should be used for the benefit of the whole MAT.

Optimus members can download the due diligence checklist to help ensure your organisation is not at risk. 

Step by step

At the heart of a successful MAT is the focus on improving outcomes for every pupil in the care of the trust. This is achieved with a clear vision and strategy at the core, and with effective governance, quality assurance systems, strong leadership and a sustainable business model supporting the vision and strategy.

There are many things to consider for those schools who are deciding their future direction but one thing was clear from this event.

Ultimately, any move to a formal structure of collaboration and partnership must be underpinned by a shared culture, values and trust for it to be successful, sustainable and, most importantly, the right move for pupils.

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