The MAT Partnership Programme brings academy trusts together to support and learn from each other through the power of facilitated, strategic peer to peer review. The programme has been developed and is delivered by the Education Development Trust, drawing on their partnership with trust sector experts – including Forum Strategy – together the knowledge and expertise they have established through working with hundreds of school nationally through their school to school peer review programme. The MAT Partnership Programme offers an evidence-informed approach to collaboration between academy trusts, enabling them to learn, develop and improve together, using a clear framework and expert facilitation. In this article, David Horn, Forum Strategy Associate and a facilitator within the MAT Partnership Programme, explains what is involved in the MAT to MAT peer review process (and in his role as a facilitator), and shares his reflections on the programme and key learning for trust leaders based on his first experience of facilitating a MAT to MAT peer review from beginning to end.
I became a facilitator on the MAT partnership programme after a long career as a leader in education and as I embarked on my work as a Forum Strategy Associate. I was a secondary headteacher at a school in Bradford for 19 years, and then the founding CEO of the Beckfoot Trust, a Bradford based Multi Academy Trust. The trust was initially comprised of two schools, and has since expanded to ten (a mix of primary, secondary and special schools) all located within a 20 minute drive of one another. I’ve always been a great believer in the power of collaborative practice, and our ambition as a trust was centered upon creating a strong and sustainable partnership between Bradford schools which would benefit the local community and the young people within that community.
Becoming a facilitator on the MAT Partnership Programme
When I retired from the CEO role in July 2021, I was keen to continue to make a positive impact in the education sector, including as a Forum Strategy Associate. Coaching has always been an area of interest for me – my style of leadership has always been based on distributing leadership and giving people the opportunity to grow – and I decided to pursue this interest formally by completing an ILM level 7 course in executive coaching at the British College of Coaching. Through the course, I gained a better understanding of something I already intuitively believed in, and I learned how to ask the right questions to bring out ideas from others. Shortly after becoming a Forum Strategy Associate and, through that work, an executive coach, I was approached by Jane Creasy who had been a facilitator on the MAT Partnership Programme for some of the early peer reviews. She was moving on, and had recommended me for the role of facilitator on the programme, which I have undertaken through my work as a Forum Strategy Associate.
I was delighted to accept the role. The concept of peer review, if structured properly, and carried out within a culture of mutual trust is a fantastic way of learning and developing at an organisational level. Through the MAT Partnership Programme, forward-thinking and open minded CEOs have the opportunity to work together, not only to improve their own trusts, but also to play a key role in the development of another trust, through mutual constructive challenge and support. This was an approach that I firmly believed in, and I felt that I had the skills to be able to facilitate this learning journey between the two trusts.
The Journey through a MAT to mat peer review
I recently completed my first MAT to MAT peer review as a facilitator. EDT have set up a really strong programme and it was a joy to be a part of. Before the initial meeting EDT had already sounded out the trust leaders interested in working together to ensure they were both, broadly speaking, on the same page in terms of their ambitions for the peer review.
In the initial meeting, called the ‘creating the right conditions meeting’, I explained my role as facilitator; which is to be there to guide, to make sure that the review stays on track, and to reassure leaders that the review is a non-judgemental, development process. I explained that the focus of the peer review process should always be on ‘improving, not proving’, based on establishing a mutually beneficial relationship, in order to support one another to find sustainable ways to improve their trusts. This means being open to scrutiny and critical challenge, but within a safe environment, and from a non-judgemental perspective.
Within that meeting the two leaders were introduced to the MAT to MAT peer review framework. This excellent framework – which was informed through their work and partnership with Forum Strategy – covers five themes:
- Vision, values and mission
- Leadership, governance and strategy
- Outcomes, improvement and transformation
- People and workforce development
- Efficiency and Operations.
Within each theme, the framework set out ideas on what great practice looked like and possible areas for enquiry.
Using the MAT to MAT Peer Review Framework, I prepared the CEOs to perform a self review of their trusts, involving some of their key colleagues, to determine their strengths, and areas for development. We were able to use a self review proforma, designed by one of the Trusts to ensure the self reviews were carried out consistently by both trusts.
Once self reviews were completed, the second formal meeting of the process took place, ‘agreeing the foci’. The leaders shared their findings from their self review, which helped them to gain clarity around what would be their area of focus. We were quite disciplined about this, ensuring that each Trust focused on just one of the 5 themes. One of the Trusts looked at Vision Values, Values and Mission. The other focused on People and Workforce Development.
We then prepared for the next meeting, the ‘strategic planning session’, which would be a four hour (virtual) meeting with the CEOs and their teams (around seven colleagues from each trust) to plan their strategic reviews of each other’s trusts.
In many ways the Strategic Planning Session, a four hour meeting with the two enquiry teams, was the most important in my role as facilitator. Whilst the CEOs understood the principles and processes involved in peer review, I couldn’t assume that the review teams would know that. So, initially I explained what a peer review was and what it was not. We talked about the protocols for working together. We talked about what were effective enquiry questions and good coaching approaches. I gave the teams time to get to know one another a little and asked the CEOs to explain to the other trust, why they wanted a peer review and what their proposed area of foci was to be. Each trust then put together a series of questions which they would investigate when visiting the other trust. These questions were exchanged, and the host trust set out a programme for the day which would enable the visiting trust to investigate their questions, and vice versa. These programmes were sent to one another in advance to make sure that they were suitable and would give the visiting trust everything they would need to complete their review.
The next stage involved carrying out the reviews, and as facilitator I was not involved in that directly. I did though make sure I contacted the host CEO, the day after their review to make sure the day had gone well and they felt the visiting trust had carried out the review with integrity. Both were delighted with this.
We had agreed that the CEOs would write a report based on their findings in readiness for our final meeting: the ‘debrief and action planning’ session. These were, unsurprisingly, really insightful documents, very constructive and balanced in their findings. In the final session the two CEOs talked about their findings from their reviews of each other’s trusts, and my role was to find out to what extent the host CEO thought the findings were valid, and what they were going to do as a result of the findings. The final thing I did as facilitator was to help the CEOs to plan their next steps based on the findings they had received, and also to encourage them to ensure that their peer partnership was not lost, and that they continued to to support one another and act as critical friends in holding each other accountable on their next steps. Both felt very strongly that they would continue to work alongside each other in helping one another to achieve their goals, and that their mutually supportive partnership would be maintained, despite the formal programme coming to an end.
Reflections on the MAT Partnership Programme process
Over the course of the MAT Partnership Programme the CEOs involved developed a strong relationship with one another, built on trust, honesty and a mutual commitment to improve. Their reviews were thorough, professional and helpful, and they stayed true to the principles of the process throughout. As a result, both trusts benefited greatly from the process and from the feedback that they received from one another, which was rigorous and identified clear areas for development and actionable next steps.
As the facilitator of the programme, I found my own experience as a trust leader helpful, but not essential. My role was primarily to provide clear guidance and support through each stage of the process, and to ensure that things progressed at an appropriate pace. I also frequently reminded the leaders involved of their courage and the great leadership they were demonstrating in opening themselves up to this process, and how inspired I was to be a part of their journey.
Embarking upon the MAT Partnership Programme requires openness, humility, and a willingness to take on board critical challenge in order to learn and develop. It also demonstrates an important choice, instead of defending territory or worrying about ego acquisition, to work together with another trust, and to become self-sustaining partners, with the ultimate goal of improving for the benefit of the young people and the communities we serve.
I believe that by modeling this approach of collaborative support and challenge, and willingness to learn from others, leaders can inspire colleagues within their organisation to do the same, fostering a trust-wide culture of collaborative partnership, and accelerating improvement as a result. I know that when I was a trust CEO I would have greatly benefited from taking part in the MAT Partnership Programme, and I truly believe that the trust system as a whole needs to embrace the opportunity to share and learn from one another in this way.
For these reasons I believe that MAT to MAT peer review should be a central aspect of the development of any mature trust, and I would highly recommend taking part in the process to all trust leaders. And I look forward to supporting more academy trust CEOs through the process in future.
Key takeaways for trust leaders
- Driving improvement: taking part in the MAT partnership programme enables trust leaders to identify key areas for improvement and develop actionable plans to improve their trust. This takes place through a well-structured and expertly facilitated MAT to MAT peer review process based on critical challenge from a non-judgemental, mutually beneficial relationship with another trust.
- Leading by example: modeling collaborative practice and being open to feedback from another trust in order to improve sets a positive example for the whole organisation, helping to foster a trust-wide culture of collaborative partnership.
- Developing key leadership qualities: being open to scrutiny and challenge from another trust helps to demonstrate, develop and strengthen key leadership qualities such as openness, humility, and the willingness to continually learn from others.
- Contributing to wider system improvement: through participating in the MAT peer review process, trust leaders are driving improvement not only within their own trust, but across the wider education sector. This means having a positive impact on a larger number of young people and communities.
- Improving not proving: the focus of the MAT partnership programme is always on ‘improving not proving’, and developing a trusting and mutually supportive relationship between the two trusts involved. The programme’s facilitator ensures this remains the case throughout.
- Continuous support and holding to account: by taking part in the MAT to MAT peer review process, trusts are able to develop a long-term sustainable partnership, and hold each other to account on their progress over time.
Find out more about the Education Development Trust’s MAT Partnership Programme at: Multi-academy trusts learning from each other and developing together – Schools Partnership Program (schoolspartnershipprogramme.com)
Please note the Education Development Trust is part of a paid for partnership with Forum Strategy. When selecting our partners we do so with careful reference to their expertise and their ethos and values.
David Horn is also a Forum Strategy associate working with us as a thought leader, as a facilitator delivering strategic sessions for Boards and executive teams, and as an executive coach to CEOs and Education Executives. You can read more about David here: http://forumstrategy.org/executive-coaching/
You can read David’s recent thinkpiece on thriving trusts (co-authored with Charlie Tebbutt, former COO of the Beckfoot Trust) here: http://forumstrategy.org/thriving-trusts-thinkpiece-2-what-do-we-consider-to-be-a-thriving-academy-trust-in-2023/