BLOG: The MAT sector’s priority is to now connect with those who matter

Michael Pain’s termly blog

Michael Pain, CEO, Forum Strategy

Another term comes to an end and there is much to reflect on around the development of the multi-academy trust sector. Whilst much is being achieved, and so many trusts up and down the country are sustaining or securing improvements in their schools – often in highly challenging circumstances, the sector itself is coming under fire. The image of MATs has not been done any favours by the small minority of cases exposed by Panorama and the press. These examples – some of which demand genuine concern and proper review – are not reflective of the sector as a whole, yet the vast majority of good people who lead trusts are being tarred and little is being done at a national level to counter it. There is a vacuum that needs to be filled in terms of the message around how so many academy trusts are making a positive difference.

Trustees, CEOs and leaders across the sector are also facing some stark challenges. Money and leadership capacity is tight for so many, the demand for school improvement activity continues to grow, and the educational landscape is still characterised by confusing initiatives that pull trusts away from their core mission and sustainable development. I also firmly believe that much is still needed to bolster the governance of many academy trusts, ensuring all trusts have access to people with sufficient experience, understanding and expertise to govern multi-million pound public sector organisations.

Direction is needed, yet this is a system that in many ways feels adrift in terms of government vision and strategy. Where Michael Gove fired the starting gun loud and clear, it now seems that the government have – in many ways – left the stadium. The recent ‘celebration event’ at Lancaster House was a rather limp affair and missed a trick in injecting renewed impetus and enthusiasm for the work that so many trusts are doing. It also failed to set out a proper plan for the sector’s future development. Most CEOs didn’t know the event was happening, never mind the world at large who still need convincing about the benefits and potential of multi-academy trusts.

Michael Gove fired the starting gun loud and clear, it now seems that the government have – in many ways – left the stadium.

So, what are the key priorities for the sector in the coming months? I believe there are things that government and trusts themselves need to prioritise if the sector is going to gain wider support.

Trusts need to do more to connect with their communities

I believe, at the heart of these uncertain times – and in the absence of leadership from the DfE – lies a need for academy trusts themselves to connect with their communities, making themselves more open and more accountable to the people they serve. Trusts need to be better at connecting with and involving their end-users in what they do. Yet, when we recently reviewed a sample of academy trust annual reports, we found that very few trusts included KPIs measuring levels of satisfaction and engagement amongst parents and pupils, for example. What gets measured gets prioritised, and most were almost entirely focused on government metrics. Annual reports were often also very dry and were certainly not written to inspire or inform end-users. I know that the former National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter has been actively sharing examples of good annual reports and trust communications via twitter. There’s a reason for this. Trusts need to do more to open up to and build the links with the people they serve first and foremost – parents and pupils. In any other sector, strategy and improvement is largely driven by the views of the end-user (the ‘customer’ knows best); yet in schools and academies the emphasis still largely remains on a short-termist, top-down, accountability system. That top down accountability system matters, of course, but when it is seen as the ‘be all and end all’ it can distract from the bigger picture, and, in the worst cases, lead to some of the unethical behaviours we have seen. Shifting the emphasis, at least a little, I believe, will help.

Why is this so important? The world is moving quickly. Trusts must understand the needs and expectations of those they serve in order to properly prepare children and young people for their lives ahead in a fast-changing and complex environment.  There are some great examples of this. REAch2 have worked hard to develop 11B411, a scheme that connects with pupils’ and families’ aspirations – opening minds to the opportunities and enriching experiences that the world has to offer: ; Meanwhile, Infinity academy trust has worked hard to understand the mental health challenges faced by so many pupils in the communities it serves, and has developed provision in response: There are other such examples, none of which are driven by a government initiative or a dedicated funding stream. These are trusts investing in strategies and approaches that are directly driven by their understanding of the needs of those they serve. They listen carefully, they look to the horizon, and they marry the expectations of government with the needs of their communities in a changing landscape – they ensure they are accountable to both.

Trusts must understand the needs and expectations of those they serve in order to properly prepare children and young people for their lives ahead in a fast-changing and complex environment. 

Indeed, during tight financial times, it is so important that trusts engage with and involve their communities in their work. We know from the work of so many thousands of school governors that an abundance of social capital exists, and we’re seeing more trusts better engage people and organisations locally who can contribute to their work. They do this by investing in communications and developing opportunities to involve communities through volunteerism and partnership. This mindset begins at the top and in my recent book, Being The CEO, I have said how important it is that CEOs have a ‘direct line of sight’ to the classroom, and the same can be said of their schools’ communities as well. CEOs must be leading stakeholder engagement as a priority – creating a culture that places value on openness and community relations at all levels of the organisation, as well as using their scale to engage businesses, charities, other public sector institutions and community leaders. It’s from this authentic and purposeful starting point, based on a collective vision for children and their communities, that the academy trust sector will gain wider support from society – not a DfE press release or reception.

It’s from this authentic and purposeful starting point – based on a collective vision for children, young people and the communities they are growing up in – that the academy trust sector will gain wider support from society. 

So what more can trusts do on this front? Why not consider some of the following:

  • Create a stakeholder group (made up of community leaders, local business leaders, parents, and pupils) that can advise trustees and the executive team on how to be more responsive and help to inform strategy;
  • Consider giving local governing bodies a bigger role in community engagement and leading local-level partnerships. Many schemes of delegation do not reflect such a role, but is probably the one that local governing bodies are best placed to lead on. They have the local intelligence and relationships!;
  • Adapt your trust KPIs so that they provide an opportunity – probably annually – to seek levels of satisfaction amongst parents, pupils, and staff.
  • Reform and enhance trust-level communications. Write annual reports, termly newsletters, and website and social media content that is of direct interest to your end-users – getting the basics right! Consider the best avenues for reaching communities and show how you are listening, engaging, improving and innovating to respond and to prepare children and young people for the future. Thank those who are making a difference.
  • Celebrate success. Make sure that the hard work of your staff, pupils and volunteers in regularly featured in the local media. Some CEOs are now writing columns for local publications in order to inform and recognise achievements.

Indeed, we’re really keen to hear from more trusts that are already doing some of these things well. With a renewed expectation around being more accountable to and informed by parents in the new governance handbook, this is certainly an area that trusts will need to give further thought to in the months ahead.

There is much that can be done, and I am pleased that we are doing our bit to share practice and support MATs to think about what works best for them in their context. Our national MAT leaders conference this autumn will focus on the theme of ‘Serving A Generation: MATs at the heart of their communities’. But, what about government’s role, and the national approach to supporting the sector?:

It’s time to establish a highly credible voice for MATs at a national level

I do feel that the academy trust sector needs something else at a national level. It is not realistic to expect a Department of ever-changing ministers and mandarins to be able to provide a voice for the sector, and, in all honesty, do we want that anyway? In my summer blog last year, I called for a National College for Academy Leadership. I still believe this is the right thing to do, not least as I saw first hand the great work of the National College for School Leadership between 2005 and 2012. Indeed, if Michael Gove had changed the remit of NCSL (rather than closing it) to support the development of the academy trust system and CEOs and trustees in particular, I think we would be in a much better, more sustainable place by now.

A National College for Academy Leadership would have a similar role to NCSL. It would be quasi-independent, funded by government over the long-term, but independent enough to undertake extensive and needs-driven research and thought-leadership around what effective academy trust leadership and management looks like. It would, as NCSL did, commit to listening to CEOs, trustees and leaders – as well as looking at data – to identify excellence and to understand the barriers and challenges that academy leaders face – advising government accordingly. And, it would draw on peer organisations in other sectors, such as NHS Improvement, to share intelligence and improve leadership development standards through collaboration. I would see the National College regulating leadership development providers across the sector, and filling the gaps – of which there are still many – where needed. It would help to foster and broker MAT to MAT partnership working where it wasn’t being led by the sector itself.

What NCSL did so well was to create a clear and compelling narrative for school leadership development and improvement, underpinned by a robust evidence base and the best thought leadership the sector had to offer. It gained the confidence of the sector’s most pioneering and accomplished leaders – and embraced them as part of its work. Such an organisation would be well-placed to champion the work of academy trusts, whilst being realistic about the improvements and development still required. Now that the academy system represents half of all pupil places across the country, isn’t it time we got serious about supporting it and ensuring its successful strategic development?


Forum Strategy is a leading consultancy, also delivering five regional CEO networks and the Being The CEO programme. Michael Pain’s book, Being The CEO, is published through John Catt Educational.


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