“it’s now time for government to keep up and provide so many MATs with the transitional support, investment and thought leadership they deserve.”
As an independent champion of the MAT sector, and someone who spends significant time and resource in supporting it to become better, I am the first to admit that the sector is generally underachieving – if it were a school it would at best be ‘requires improvement’ (with some ‘good’ features) – and I don’t lay the blame with the majority of MAT leaders. Last year, Forum Strategy published its five priority areas for MAT development ( http://hippofish.co.uk/some-key-challenges-and-opportunities-for-the-mat-sector/ ), a piece of work that received a huge number of hits and continues to inform our thinking, as well as our strategy and training work, with multi-academy trusts. It’s timely to reflect that the DfE has made little headway on so many of these areas, and that the risk of failure across the system remains very high – and in some cases, even in the last twelve months, has spilled over. It’s time for renewed leadership.
I see the transformational effects that well-led, well-informed multi-academy trusts can make. I’m loathe to use examples, but consider the huge impact that leaders such as Cathie Paine, Steve Lancashire, Chris Wheatley, Tiffany Beck, Rebecca Meredith and Adrian Rogers are making, to name a few. The potential is enormous. Yet, so many MATs are struggling on a number of fronts, held back by a lack of investment and thought leadership in areas such as building credible corporate governance; guidance and proper funding to scale up school improvement processes and capacity; and distractions such as the Strategic School Improvement Fund bid processes which haven taken hours to write, but have now been canned going forwards.
Let’s take governance first. Rather than invest in the recruitment, proper induction, mandatory training and regular guidance for MAT trustees (see our recommendations here: https://schoolsweek.co.uk/how-to-improve-academy-trust-governance/ ) , the DfE has seemingly side stepped the issue. Instead of bolstering trust boards as the frontline of accountability through adequate training and investment, the DfE has instead spent money on a reactive approach to monitoring trusts by bringing in more civil servants. Ofsted – which should have received a remit and sufficient funding to ensure compliance across the system – has been all but sidelined in what from the outside looks very strange to say the least. Indeed, when we put together a roundtable earlier this year with dozens of MAT leaders on what the inspection of MATs could look like, Ofsted turned up and listened very hard, with thoughtful responses. The DfE didn’t turn up or respond to the document – they had a lot of meetings to attend apparently. (see here: http://hippofish.co.uk/policy-roundtable-paper-2-the-role-of-ofsted-in-the-inspection-of-multi-academy-trusts/ )
Indeed, the DfE seems to be taking an odd approach to supporting boards. A number of MATs have described having civil servants turning up to observe their board meetings, but it being apparent that their own experience of corporate governance and sustainable MAT development is very often lacking in places. The department has also commissioned a small group of organisations to provide trustee leadership development and board reviews earlier this year – in the process creating a closed economy of support, narrowing choice and placing a huge strain on those chosen organisations’ capacity to deliver. Instead of dis-incentivising MAT boards to commission their own support and training, the Department should have given the funding directly to MATs and trustees themselves so that an economy developed where the best training took off and the poor training providers withered.
The consequence of all of this is a significant amount of variability in the quality of trust boards. Many trustees have received no induction around the underpinning principles of corporate governance and it shows. There is a lack of understanding amongst so many trust boards around how the MAT sector operates and what the principles of sustainable MAT development are. This confusion extends it seems to RSC offices, many of whom have different views on interpretations of the Academies Handbook, frustrating MAT CEOs and trustees alike. And, we all know the stories of conflicts of interest and some trust CEOs over extending their organisations capacity (without adequate challenge from their trust boards) in a quest for more funding and higher prestige. Wakefield, Bright Tribe and Perry Beeches to name a few, were all, ultimately, a consequence of this failure to generate robust corporate governance across the system. Those catastrophic failures have all happened on the watch of those leading the system in the last two or three years.
Another of the five development areas we identified last year was school improvement at scale. The first issue here has been the sheer lack of thought leadership and guidance emerging from the DfE. Instead, we have seen grandma being told how to suck eggs, with guidance around about how experienced school leaders take individual schools on a journey of improvement. People who have been NLEs (as so many MAT leaders have), for example, don’t need this. What they need is guidance on how to achieve a model of improvement at scale, ensuring improvement becomes an organisational habit that is based on principles such as clear vision, building capacity, generating intelligence and data management across multiple sites, process and project management, quality assurance of school improvement providers (including SLEs!), and engagement with research evidence and staying ahead of best practices. Instead, experienced and highly accomplished school leaders were given a schematic tool on how to identify and ‘move along’ various categories of schools, something that is, after all, their bread and butter. Our seven principles of school improvement at scale identified the strategic factors that boards and CEOs should consider, drawing on research and evidence both from within and beyond the MAT sector: http://hippofish.co.uk/7-pillars-of-improvement-at-scale/ . The DfE should have done this.
A real challenge for many MATs is not only how they go about scaling up their improvement offer, but also how they fund it. The MAT Development and Improvement Fund, whilst providing welcome funding, has created a chasm of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. MATs were also expected to meet a deadline just days before Christmas, then had to wait way past the DfE’s self-imposed deadline for a decision. MATs who had a plan (as expected by the DfE) from January onwards to recruit school improvement leaders and commission support were left hanging for weeks. It wasn’t a pretty moment. Meanwhile, the Strategic School improvement Fund bids that, collectively, countless CEOs spent hundreds if not thousands of hours writing, has been canned, not least after the first round was deemed as not fit for purpose. A report described “civil servants not having been able to provide consistent support to all potential applicants, which in turn was partly the result of the lack of clarity around how they were expected to participate in the process.” It wasn’t all that strategic. MAT sector leaders in the DfE were always going to struggle to make the case for this continued investment. Those that are left running SIFF projects are working overtime on limited resources, and I know some whose work life balance is completely shot by a ‘more for less’ mindset that comes with it.
The third area we identified was vision, asking how does the MAT system take the opportunity to redefine what its measures of success are? This was an optimistic question, and one that many individual MATs have taken on board, ensuring that the success of their schools is as much about enriching children’s lives and preparing them for a rapidly changing economy, as it is the scores on the doors. The success of local accountability is closely linked to getting this right. Yet, the DfE hasn’t taken this opportunity to encourage a bolder, broader vision. It has given league tables and Ofsted judgments centre stage, and celebrated the outcomes of some trusts very publicly, with some of these same trusts later criticised for practices around exclusion practices. Many MAT leaders are demonstrating the courage to shape a new, thoughtful, future-focused, and inclusive vision for what success is, which is part of the raison d’etre of the MAT system’s onus on professional autonomy: http://hippofish.co.uk/why-many-mats-must-develop-more-compelling-visions-and-how-do-they-go-about-embedding-them/
On the other two areas we suggested in last year’s piece (becoming ’employers of choice’ and ‘financial sustainability’) I do think the responsibility lies with trusts rather than government to provide strategic solutions. This means reaching out to learn from other sectors and from research on how to achieve strategic solutions to these major challenges, not least from the charities and third sector. It is here that MAT CEOs really need to skill up – yet, again, expensive DfE ‘endorsed; leadership programmes are very light on both issues in terms of input, thought leadership content and resources.
The new academic year heralds a new opportunity. Whilst some MATs are doing amazing things, the last few years are defined by major failures in some trusts and missed opportunities for sector leadership, piecemeal funding processes that have been poorly managed, a general lack of investment and understanding around the crucial area of MAT governance, and a lack of cohesive or practical advice on achieving the holy grail of MAT leadership – school improvement at scale.
I end where I started by saying I am a champion of the MAT sector, I believe many MATs are creating a fantastic legacy; it’s now time for government to keep up and provide the many other MATs with the transitional support, investment and thought leadership they deserve. That means asking hard questions about the experience and expertise of the people providing sector-wide leadership. It is about more than telling leaders how to improve schools – they know this; it is about how to create a cohesive and intelligent system – that is championed sufficiently at the heart of government, with better strategy and funding and less reactive tinkering as the result. We’re now at an important crossroads for the MAT sector where a new and better way can be found. Over to you Mr Hinds.