Five key development areas for MAT sector in 2017/18

Michael Pain

As we arrive at the end of the academic year, and the first year in which we have run our regional MAT CEO leadership development networks ( Events ), it feels like a timely moment to reflect on where the MAT system is, the challenges and opportunities it faces, and what needs to happen next.

The first thing to say is that the multi-academy trust system, in my view, has the potential to transform our education system for the better. There are MATs out there proving that school improvement can be achieved at scale, that we can achieve a more financially sustainable approach through collaboration and economies of scale, and that the recruitment and retention challenges the sector faces can be turned on its head. Yes, it is a mixed picture. Yes, there have been some grave examples of poor governance and MATs overreaching themselves. However, we know that a successful MAT system is possible – it just needs more strategic development, better collaboration between MATs, and leaders who are willing to keep learning!

So what are some of the key areas where many MATs need to develop in 2017/18 and beyond? Here are a few (well informed) thoughts and a non-exhaustive list!:


  1. School improvement at scale.

This is the most fundamental because it is about children’s outcomes and the quality of education in all schools. A key barrier here seems to be the ability of some MATs to develop a clear theory of school improvement that can be easily understood and applied at scale. How does the use of data, peer review, the capacity and deployment of school improvement leaders and specialist teachers, CPD, the curriculum, systems of assessment, and governance all interlink to provide a clear methodology for school improvement in your MAT and is that methodology clear to everyone involved? Part of the challenge for small to medium sized MATs is that the CEO has struggled to ‘let go’ of school improvement as a core function and that the role comes so naturally to them that they have failed to define it as a process or distribute its core elements to others.

Let’s be clear, it isn’t possible for the CEO of a MAT to do school improvement day in, day out when they have to wear the hat of accounting officer and when they are responsible for leading such a diverse team of professionals. Yet it is understandable that some CEOs struggle with this transition – they’ve carved out their reputations over the years doing school improvement very very well and it is likely that the MAT has emerged from work as an NLE or LLE for instance. Now they need to step back, build the capacity, provide oversight and guidance, and, crucially, create a strong theory of the case for school improvement that everyone in the MAT understands and can apply. Some CEOs have made this transition, for many it is a barrier to focusing sufficiently on other issues that are key to the organisation’s sustainable growth and success. The other key risk, of course, is that if school improvement is not systemised and distributed sufficiently then when key people leave the organisation’s core work is put at grave risk.


  1. Becoming an employer of choice.

Recruiting and retaining the most talented staff to work in schools is the number one school improvement strategy. Recruitment is not something to outsource to agencies, it is a fundamental leadership responsibility and it has to be the core business of academy trusts.

 Yet we are experiencing incredibly challenging times. One third of those who joined the profession in 2010 have now left, and issues such as stagnating pay, perception of workload and a more buoyant wider jobs market and economy are conspiring to make this a crisis. However, multi-academy trusts have huge potential to combat these challenges and, indeed, to put both the profession and their organisations on the map as employers of choice. Too many are underperforming in this regard as things stand. Successful recruitment and retention is about far more than jazzy adverts laden with buzz words or ‘wellbeing’ days – contrary to what we see on twitter! It is fundamentally about organisational strategy and ‘grown up’ organisations invest a lot of time, energy and resource in getting this right.

Today’s graduates are not entirely driven by financial incentives – luckily for us! They place a premium on an organisation’s vision, its role in society and the ability it gives them as employees to be ‘change makers’. They also want flexibility and the opportunity to work across a wide range of contexts during their careers; they want access to high quality mentors who are experts in their field; they want clearly set our career development pathways and opportunities; and they want to network with their peers. They also do want work life balance – and MATs’ potential ability to encourage the sharing of resources, lesson plans, schemes of work, moderation activities and peer to peer support is only just being realised in many contexts.

Indeed, MATs provide a framework for all of these expectations – yet too many are not yet developing a co-ordinated strategy for becoming employers of choice or coming close to marketing and promoting themselves as such. There is much work to be done in terms of how many MATs present themselves to young, talented candidates and develop their reputations as employers of choice. Has your MAT got a five year recruitment and retention strategy? What are you doing to develop your reputation as an employer of choice?


  1. Financial sustainability and economies of scale.

Again, this is a huge issue for the sector. Despite the promise by government of some additional funding in the coming years things will still be tight and it is those MATs who are prioritising strategic thought and planning around this issue who will be best placed to protect spending on pupils’ learning in the years to come. However, we are only scratching the surface. Whilst MATs are becoming very good at procurement for major contracts and harmonising back office systems and processes (which saves money and time), we are seeing local MATs very often duplicating support services without having conversations with other MATs about how they can work together and ensure strategic co-ordination. This could, for example, apply to CPD delivery, ICT provision, HR advice, education psychology services, and more. This requires a much deeper level of collaboration between MATs, and I consider it to be the deepest level of collaboration that the system should be aiming for. Those MATs who are really serious about sustainability will be opening up conversations with other local MATs, building trust, exploring areas where they can component one another’s strengths and weaknesses to achieve better co-ordination and a more joined up approach to providing some back office services. For some MATs, this approach is still a long way off.

Another key area where MATs should look to do more work is on talent-audits across their schools and avoiding duplicating back-office or support skills across schools. A recent article by the Kyra Alliance showcased how three schools within a MAT had employed premises staff with complimenting skills sets, reducing their dependence on outside contractors and suppliers:

Many MATs could also do well next year to focus much more on the potential income generation (perhaps employing someone on a commission basis to gain income from the MAT’s facilities or sharing expertise); to undertake more co-ordinated approaches to auditing lower value contractual commitments across schools; and looking at more opportunities for joint-procurement. Geography is also a key issue and any MAT looking to undertake geographical expansion must seriously consider the impact on budgets as distance can hinder joint procurement and sharing of skills across schools, and also increases staffing costs.


  1. Governance.

Another hugely critical area. Most of the negative press on the MAT sector directly stems from issues that have arisen through poor governance. That is reason enough for inclusion on this list, but more than that, we must all recognise the success of the MAT system fundamentally depends on recruiting people to trust boards who are able to apply the level of challenge, support and strategy required for organisations of this scale and responsibility. There are no local authorities around to provide a safety net here. We’ll share more on this in our upcoming paper on the recruitment, training and retention of MAT trustees, however, let’s say that there is a lot more – in our view – that both government and MATs can do to ensure they are inspiring and incentivising high calibre people to take on the role.

Another key issue here is the training and development of MAT boards. MATs must look carefully at the training and development needs of their trustees and it is crucial that trust boards engage in external review if they are to ensure that they identify their strengths and weaknesses and consider how they work towards self-improvement.


5. Vision

MATs, for the most part, are led by very visionary people. However, I think there is so much more potential for developing ‘the vision’ for education (and engaging local stakeholders in that vision) than the system has demonstrated so far. Too many MATs continue to define themselves by the number of schools, the ability to achieve Ofsted success, or performance tables. These are objectives rather than vision. Other MATs have developed more rounded and richer visions but many are struggling to capture the imagination of their communities and stakeholders. This is fundamental if MATs are going to be transformative and if they are going to recruit and retain staff and trustees to join them on their journey.

I strongly believe that MATs and their leaders must work with a range of other stakeholders to take the space that government has held for so long in developing the vision for education in this country. We need MATs to be looking to the future, identifying the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for children and their futures, and developing a vision that sets out how – together with their communities, local businesses, charities, parents and others – they are going to prepare children as best they can for that future. I want to see more MATs opening up conversations with other sectors, with other local MATs, and with their communities about what the curriculum should look like and what the wider offer and pledges to children and young people should be. It would be a desperate shame if we had a system of MATs that looked to the secretary of state and Ofsted for their vision. I don’t believe that will happen but we need MATs to recognise the opportunities they have here.


Finally….. collaboration between MATs

Finally, to achieve all of this and more, it is crucial that MATs are working towards deeper collaboration with other MATs. Organisations and leaders operating in such a new and immature sector cannot afford to work in splendid isolation – they need to be restless learners, seeking the input, challenge and advice of their peers as well as seeking opportunities to avoid reinventing the wheel. This is something that Forum Education will be working hard to develop further in the coming months through our four regional networks and our MAT to MAT peer review model (see more here). Our first iteration of the MAT to MAT collaboration continuum is included below.

Earlier this year we described there being a fork in the road as to whether the MAT system would demonstrate the deep collaboration necessary for its own improvement and success, or whether MATs (including larger, more established ones) would fall into splendid isolation and put their learning and development at risk: A fork in the road?: MATs should choose the path of collaboration if they are to learn and prosper


For more on Forum Education’s support, consultancy, and training for MATs, please visit: Support, training and resources for multi-academy trusts

For more on Forum Education’s MAT Leaders leadership development networks operating in the East Midlands (in partnership with Inspiring Leaders), the North West (in partnership with ECM Education), the West Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humber, please visit: Events


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