No going back: Choosing the right MAT for your school

Written by: Paul K Ainsworth | Published:
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Once your school has joined a multi-academy trust there is rarely any going back. As such, we must choose the right MAT for our ethos and community. Paul K Ainsworth offers some advice to primary heads and governors when taking this important decision


Is this the year that your school joins a multi-academy trust (MAT) or will you continue to plough your own furrow? If it is going to be this year, then the challenging question is: which is the right MAT for you, your school and your community? Remember once you have joined there is rarely any going back.

MATs continue to divide opinion among many educationalists. I think that Covid has affected people’s views of academisation very differently. Some schools who had joined MATs have been grateful for the support and care they received during the pandemic. Some leaders in standalone schools have felt so lonely that they are now eager to look at MAT opportunities.

However, there are those headteachers who have relished the independence of being able to find their own way during Covid and are even more determined to remain as standalone academies or maintained schools.

The government’s view is clear. In April, the now former education secretary Gavin Williamson made a speech to the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) reiterating the government’s commitment for all schools to be part of a MAT (DfE, 2021). He described “how even more schools can join a strong family to turn that 50 per cent of pupils studying in academies into 100 per cent”.

Cards on the table, over the last three years, I have worked with three MATs which have rapidly expanded. There are schools that have been instructed to join these MATs and other schools who have chosen to do so. This article aims to collate some of the considerations that they have made before deciding that the MAT in question was suitable for them.

But first, a disclaimer: this article is certainly not designed to encourage any particular decision, but simply to emphasise some of the aspects you must consider when deciding on your school’s future.


Vision and culture

The first thing to be clear about is whether the vision of the MAT lines up with the vision for your school. They are unlikely to be the same but you are looking for synergy in what the MAT is aiming to achieve and what your school has been striving towards.

One question to ask is whether your school will be permitted to retain its vision, sitting alongside that of the MAT. Or would the MAT’s overarching vision replace that of your school?

Have a look at the websites of other schools in the MAT to see how this works in practice. While the vision is important, the culture of the MAT is vital. Culture can be considered as vision plus behaviour, or it is the vision in practice. Over time I have seen MATs present a certain vision but when you speak to school leaders you realise the manner or behaviour in which officers interact with schools can be very different in practice.


Identity

Look at how much identity individual schools are allowed to keep. There are MATs where schools are satellites of the “mother ship”. They all have similar names, identical uniforms and websites. How important is the identity of your school to your community? There are some instances where rebranding is an important aspect of the school improvement journey and leaders will look forward to this transformation. But this is not always the case.


Governance

The role of a governing body in a MAT is very different and effectively the school governing body becomes a sub-committee of the trust board. Once a school has joined a MAT the governing body has very few powers and only those the trust board delegates to it.

If a governing body comes to regret its choice of MAT, there is very little it can do to reverse the decision. If they choose to battle against the MAT, they may even be disbanded.

However, other schools find the scrutiny that the trust provides more effective than their previous governing body and they relish the guidance they are given. There are also schools that struggle to recruit governors and the slimmed down model of the trust can be a considerable advantage. Some trusts will operate joint governing bodies to support this further.

You need to look at the model of governance in the trust and consider if this will work for your school. In a smaller MAT there may be opportunities for your current governors to join the trust board. However generally colleagues do not sit on both a local governing body and the trust board. There is a danger that if your most effective governors join the trust board your local governing body will become less effective.


School improvement

It could be argued that the most important function of the MAT is its school improvement capacity – so, how can it help you make your school more effective?

It is interesting to look at MAT websites and see where school improvement is placed. It always makes me worry when it is placed towards the bottom of a very long list of other services.

First, consider whether school improvement takes a very standardised approach or whether there are freedoms for schools to develop their own practice. Some MATs will use the same approaches for things like phonics, maths and writing. They may even have developed a common wider curriculum with well-resourced materials. Some school leaders are happy with this approach and others are not.

Which MAT officers will come and help you on your school improvement journey and how often will they visit? Do you have confidence in their abilities and experience to support your school? Some MATs will have a huge central education team including experienced system leaders and subject specialists – find out what support you will receive and ask the MAT leaders how they feel they can improve your school. You have to be open to advice and this will be a very different relationship from that which you have with your local authority.

Ask about the assessment strategy, too. Nearly all MATs will want to standardise this so there is a consistent flow of information from schools to governing bodies to the trust board. There used to be a tendency for a high number of data drops in a year but in many MATs this has generally been reduced.


Finance

Many schools will focus on the money element and try to work out if the sum they pay into the MAT exactly matches the services they receive. There are also schools who believe that a MAT will suddenly fund their deficit budget.

The MAT’s only source of income is money from its schools. Many MATs will take a percentage contribution from each school which can be anywhere from two to 12.5 per cent. They may have a sliding scale according to the performance of the school.

Remember, if a MAT takes a very small contribution they are unlikely to be able offer a wide range of services. Equally some MATs will take a lower contribution but charge for services. Finally, some MATs will take a pooling approach – they will collect all funds from their schools and have a funding formula including staffing structures to create parity across the organisation.

If you feel uncomfortable with any of these systems then the MATs operating them will not be the right organisation for you.


Back office functions

Most MATs will have a range of back office services – from finance to HR to estates – and will tend to standardise the systems they use. Each MAT will have its own offer with a combination of employed staff and service level agreements with specialists. What it should mean is that there are experts on hand to help you.

If your roof falls in, there are a range of colleagues who will help with your contingency plans and fixing it while you focus on your staff and pupils. If the colleague who is your expert on the MIS is off with Covid, there will be colleagues in other schools who can help you out…


Added value

Each MAT will have something that is really fantastic which your school can benefit from. It may be a very high level of CPD for teachers, superb leadership programmes, a well-developed ITT route, high level expertise in ICT, or wonderful enrichment opportunities for pupils. It is unlikely that every MAT will do everything, so try and ascertain whether the offer complements your school’s provision.


Better together

It is perhaps stating the obvious given the job I do, but I believe that joining the right MAT can be best decision that any school leader can take. But once you have made that choice you have to seize every opportunity available. You will be part of a family that will celebrate your achievements and on the darkest days be there to hold you up and keep you going. Choose wisely and then focus on making the partnership a success.

  • Paul K Ainsworth has held director of school improvement roles in four multi-academy trusts and currently works with Infinity Academies Trust in Lincolnshire. He has supported leaders of small rural primary schools to large urban ones, working intensively with those in Ofsted categories. No Silver Bullets: Day-in, day-out school improvement is Paul’s ninth book following Get that Teaching Job, Middle Leadership, and The Senior Leader’s Yearbook. He is also a TEDx speaker.


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