Why so many MATs are yet to develop a compelling vision (and how they can go about forging and embedding one)

Earlier this year we produced a paper that set out our five key development priorities for multi-academy trusts: http://www.forumeducation.org/some-key-challenges-and-opportunities-for-the-mat-sector/. This strategic framework set out five key areas for MAT development: vision, school improvement, governance, becoming an employer of choice, and the quest for financial sustainability. All five are interdependent and, if developed successfully, will ensure that MATs are able to deliver on much of their promise, and ensure they make a profound difference to children and young people’s lives.

Within these interdependencies, there is one area upon which each of the other four fundamentally depends – the MAT’s vision. Without a compelling and sufficiently ambitious vision, MATs will fail to generate the behaviours, practices and systems that are so crucial to fulfilling the organisation’s potential. MATs will fail to capture the imaginations of their staff, their local communities and their stakeholders in a way that reflects and takes forward the golden opportunity they have to transform children and young people’s lives.

Our view is that still too many MATs are far from generating a clear and compelling vision for education and children’s lives in 2018 and beyond. Vision – first and foremost – is about reading the landscape, gaining a deep understanding of children and young people’s todays and tomorrows – including the opportunities and challenges they face, and setting a course that will leave the most profound legacy possible. Simply saying we are going to ‘improve children’s lives’, ‘achieve outstanding outcomes’ or give children ‘the best education’ – as so many MATs and schools do – is noble, but far too abstract to change behaviour and motivate change. It certainly isn’t anywhere near enough to begin to define the behaviours and practices in the other four areas. MATs should use their autonomy to do far better than that, as we have explained here: http://www.forumeducation.org/thinkpiece-are-we-failing-children-and-young-people-due-to-a-lack-of-vision/ . Forming that compelling vision is always the starting point!

Without a vision, I argue that MATs quickly become a sort of delivery agent of the Department for Education or what I term as ‘Civil Service MATs’. It’s easy to see why. The influence of government accountabilities can make or break careers. The vacuum in vision-wanting MATs is quickly filled with a presiding narrative based on league table positions, performance in exams and tests, performance in Ofsteds, and – dare I say it – “the number of schools we’ve got”. Important though many of these things are, they are not in themselves a vision for children and young people and their better todays and tomorrows. They are instead what Simon Sinek describes as ‘the what’ –an outcome, a result; they are not the ‘why’. They won’t in themselves motivate deep or profound change.

In these MATs every aspect of the MAT’s culture and operations quickly becomes driven to meet government measures, defined and limited as they are by the priorities of politicians rather than the people who know our children and young people best. The question here is, what are these MATs doing differently? Are we simply getting better at feeding a system rather than rising to the challenges and opportunities of our time? Are their leaders truly making the most of their autonomy and expertise?

Read our 6 hints and tips for developing a vision for your MAT: 6 hints and tips for developing a vision for your MAT

Indeed, where MAT visions are well-considered and much more compelling, I do see trusts prioritising areas such as literacy and numeracy – skills that are crucial to children’ ability to survive in the modern world, but not enough to ensure they thrive in it. However, this onus is found alongside high-level commitments that reflect the specific needs, opportunities and challenges of our time: such as a clear commitment to equip pupils to be resilient and adaptable learners, to be entrepreneurial and creative in spirit (ready for an economy increasingly defined by self-employment), to be masters rather than servants of technology, to be masters of their physical and mental health, to be confident and engaged members of their local communities, and to have a deep awareness of global cultures and environmental issues. These MATs understand the full potential of the vision and legacy they can create as a community of experts, professionals and citizens, working together in the interests of thousands of pupils. They spend time understanding and establishing their place in the wider world beyond ‘the system’.

This is the foundation which still too many MATs are missing. Yet, even then, having a strong vision is is not in itself enough. Once formed (and it must be regularly revisited) it is important to embed it, to make sure it shapes that culture and is brought to life in the day to day workings of schools, central teams, and in the interactions with the communities that individual MATs serve. How can vision take hold across the other four areas of governance, school improvement, employment, and finances?


  1. Governance

Trustees and governing bodies should be the keepers of the vision and the champions of it. Yet are they involved in shaping it from the outset and does vision go on to define the way in which they work? Trustees are responsible for holding the CEO (and through them the executive team) to account – so do the priorities they set for the CEO truly reflect the vision of the trust? Do the KPIs the trust board sets for the CEO and for organisation encourage and enable them to deliver upon it?

We all know the saying: ‘what gets measured gets done’ – so it’s crucially important to ask: do the KPIs set by the trust board sufficiently reflect and help to take forward the vision? Indeed, by making these KPIs public (on the MAT website, literature etc.), MATs can also help to reinforce accountability in a system where the only real public accountabilities are those set by the DfE and Ofsted. That takes bold leadership, but it can go a long way towards setting out your trust’s public message around what success looks like – be it pupil wellbeing, leaver/parental satisfaction, retention rates of staff or otherwise?

Another important way in which the trust board can embed and maintain focus on vision is through their agendas and, indeed, committee structures. One important test is whether a board can relate every item on a trust board meeting agenda to the MAT’s vision. A clear vision also aids decision making, with each decision taken being made against the question ‘How does this help us to work towards our organisational vision?’

Key questions: Does your trust board have true ownership of the vision and is the vision carefully reflected in how it holds executives to account? Do meeting agendas and decisions taken clearly refer back to it?


  1. Becoming an Employer of Choice

No prospective leader or teacher wants to work for an organisation perceived simply as an Ofsted factory – and this is certainly the case for the new generation of graduates. As we have written elsewhere, working for an organisation that is ‘an agent of change’ and has a strong sense of purpose is the number one priority for those people who are either in the early stages of their careers or about to enter the jobs market. Indeed, in a highly competitive jobs market, where CEOs in all other sectors are describing recruitment as their number one investment priority (KPMG, June 2017), the strength and pervasiveness of your MAT’s vision for children and young people is fundamental to attracting the very best talent.

In terms of retention, this is fundamentally about how the vision permeates into employee’s day to day working lives. Are they inspired and encouraged to focus on the things that matter? As employees are they given sufficient opportunity to contribute towards fulfilling the vision, and does that reflect in their performance objectives and professional development? I know of one excellent example where a MAT encourages anyone in the organisation who wishes to (as an individual or as a group), to propose a project that will contribute to the wider trust vision, and if well planned and thought through they are given space (and a little money) to take it forward. Other MATs ensure that employees are engaged in specific projects that directly link to organisational priorities and innovation. This new generation of teachers and leaders want to be part of something bigger – and making that a reality is key to holding onto them.

(See our case study on how REAch2 Academy Trust is involving staff across its school in making its vision a reality through 11B411: MAT DEVELOPMENT: Vision and purpose into practice )

In terms of recruitment itself, this is partly around how to project and promote your trust to potential candidates. Do your marketing materials reflect too much of an emphasis on those government accountabilities such as your position in league tables or Ofsted grades? Do you define your MAT – as so many do – by the number of schools you have or the phase you operate in? Or does the recruitment marketing reflect a bigger, bolder and more profound vision for what your MAT is trying to create? Does it clearly capture people’s imagination and clearly present the organisation as a place where employees can be agents of change. Some MATs are also asking staff to explain at interview why they wish to work for that particular MAT and how they can contribute to the wider MAT vision – ensuring that new recruits are aligned and motivated to take the vision forward.

(See our case study on how Focus Academy Trust is developing a strong sense of collective commitment to MAT success amongst its staff : MAT Development: How MATs can develop collective commitment for school improvement at scale )

Key questions: Does the MAT present a compelling sense of vision and mission through its recruitment materials? Does the day to day reality of working for the trust sufficiently connect into the broader vision for change – including through the criteria for performance management, content of CPD and in leadership opportunities? 


  1. School Improvement

School Improvement represents the delivery of the vision. It is this that impacts directly on the educational and learning experiences of children and young people.

Again, how well the vision is integrated within school improvement is determined by the notion of ‘what gets measured gets done’. From the due-diligence phase of a school joining a MAT, right through to the onus placed on the nature of school to school support deployments, vision only becomes a reality if it is given priority and value within the school improvement process.

A good example here is when a school looks to join a trust and the ‘improvement’ areas that it prioritises. Many MATs will say they prioritise pupil wellbeing, but how many MATs survey children at this stage of the process on how happy and confident they are at school? How many will consider how much time children spend outdoors (currently three quarters of children in England spend less time outside then prison inmates), and how many MATs will speak with former pupils of the school to gauge how well prepared or otherwise they have been for the next stage of their education? This is time consuming stuff, but it is valuable in understanding how the trust can add value in terms of taking forward its vision in that particular community and in providing a sound basis for educational improvement.

The school improvement model must strongly represent the MAT’s vision, yet too many are almost entirely defined simply by central government priorities (which must be met, but won’t in themselves shape a vision with a profound legacy). A question for any trust is, do the data dashboards and the information you measure internally in terms of school performance truly reflect the focus and ambition of your MATs vision? Are you monitoring progress in the areas that matter to your trust – as well as to the national accountability system – and are you investing in deploying support and expertise to achieve improvements in these areas where necessary? Is the data reported to Local Governing Bodies and the trust board reflective of the vision (we are back into the realms of what governors prioritise and measure).

The specialisms of expert practitioners should also reflect the vision. In my own view, every MAT should now have school to school improvement expertise in safe use of technology, pupil wellbeing, and addressing teacher workload. The point is that the more we build expertise and professional capacity to deliver the vision we wish to achieve, the more it will be embedded within the lifeblood of the organisation.


Key questions: Do we define school improvement with clear reference to vision? Are we measuring, monitoring, and – where necessary – providing expert support to those areas that may not be directly measured by government, but matter significantly to the children and young people we serve?


  1. Financial sustainability

Times are extremely challenging and funding is tight. This means budgets and funding decisions need to be careful thought through and trusts need to prioritise how money is spent. I see too many trusts and schools make decisions based on cost rather than value to the organisation, often without reference to the wider vision of the organisation and how aspects of spending contribute towards it.

As MATs are now strongly encouraged to provide 3 -5 year budget plans, it is important that a strong and compelling vision for the trust forms the basis of this exercise. Clarity of vision will enable trusts to have a firmer idea around potential spend in terms of the curriculum, resourcing, capital spending, and development of the corporate structure in the years to come – making a process that is no exact science at least a more strategic one.

A shared vision across schools can also help to aid the collective procurement of contracts and services, with everyone across the MAT being able to feed into the objectives and performance indicators of specific contracts and therefore ensuring that external contractors are also enabling the trust to achieve its vision. Shared vision can also create more cohesiveness between schools and a willingness to share staff and resources more openly based on a shared commitment to a wider cause.

As with governance, making key financial decisions with reference to the vision is extremely important so that investment continues to be made in projects that fulfil the wider ambitions and direction of the trust for its children and young people, and decisions to cut a made based on a lesser

We have strongly argued that many MATs are missing a big trick in terms of their financial sustainability in that they are almost all reinventing the wheel in developing identical back office functions and support. Wherever possible and appropriate MATs must be looking to work together with one another at a regional level to avoid this, however, making the right choices around which MATs to work with and how is, again, ultimately a question of how well it fits with the vision for each trust. Making such decisions on a purely financial basis alone will not always lead to a ‘best fit’.


Key questions: Does the trust have a 3 -5 year budget plan that is grounded in a compelling vision for improving the lives of children and young people? Are schools working together to commission contracts that truly meet their pupils’  needs and add value, as well as providing economies of scale? Is the trust building alliances with other trusts that are aligned with its vision in order to avoid duplication where possible?


So does your MAT have a clear, compelling and relevant vision for education in 2018 and how it prepares children to thrive today and in tomorrow’s world? Does the vision translate into the behaviours, practices and priorities of all within and across schools and the organisation? Or is the vision just words on a piece of paper, leaving a vacuum ready to be defined by the priorities of politicians alone – creating a Civil Service MAT in all but name? These are all big considerations for the MAT trustees and leaders, and we suggest the four key question areas set out above are a good place to begin your self-audit as to whether your MAT is truly translating a compelling vision into day to day practice and outcomes.


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

For more on our leadership training for MAT Senior Leadership Teams, please visit: MAT Senior Leadership Team Development Programme


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