MATs: What’s in it for us?

Written by: Paul Whiteman | Published:

We must all be in or joining a multi-academy trust by 2030, but with the DfE still to present evidence for its policy, we must ask: is there a compelling case for academisation or is it blind compulsion? Paul Whiteman explains


When the government released its White Paper for education last month (DfE, 2022), it was their plans for a minimum length school week and the new “parent pledge” attainment targets that got the attention.

The announcement that all schools must be in a multi-academy trust (MAT) or have plans to join or form one by 2030 got far less coverage.

In a way that isn’t surprising. School leaders are still fighting a constant battle against the on-going disruption caused by Covid, trying to manage high levels of staff absence, and mitigate against lost learning for pupils when attendance is still low. With all their attention focused on the now, longer-term plans for tinkering with structures just don’t seem like a priority.

After all, 2030 is at least two general elections – and at the current rate of turnover about five secretaries of state – away. The more immediate pressure of new attainment targets to hit with no additional support is clearly more urgent.

That said, I know from our members that the relative quiet on the subject of academisation does not mean that they have been persuaded. In fact, at our annual conference last month, we heard an emergency motion on the White Paper, questioning the government’s claim that MATs are the main driver of higher standards.

The education secretary promised our October 2021 conference that he would be guided by the evidence. The evidence on this is controversial at best.

Our members are leading great schools in all sorts of structures. We know that many leaders working in MATs have found benefits in doing so. But with a little over half of schools yet to join one, it is clear that those benefits have not translated into a clamour to sign up. Ultimately, excellent teaching and learning take place in many different contexts; it is people not structures that make the biggest difference to pupil outcomes.

In reality, the government can see that the school system is “messy”, made up of so many different types of schools with different rules and ways of funding. They want to tidy it up. That’s a legitimate objective, but let’s be clear about it and make sure that pupil outcomes are supported as the system evolves.

The government has to do two things if it wants schools to sign up to its plans. Acknowledge the success of schools not yet in MATs and establish how this has been achieved. I am sure the DfE will discover that it is through the agency that enables great leadership, together with the schools’ individual and unique identities. That being the case it is no wonder schools are sceptical about joining a structure that they feel will remove the very things that support their success.

The government must also answer the question: “What’s in it for us?” – and answer it with more than just broad headline statements. If the government is so convinced that a fully MAT-led system would be best for everyone then they need to show school leaders how. If you create a compelling case you will not need to consider compulsion. But for many schools there is a real trust deficit.

Following the White Paper, we surveyed members about their views on the 2030 goals, and the plans for academisation. More than 1,000 leaders from a variety of school structures responded.

Of those already in a trust, 57% said they were satisfied with their experience of being in a MAT. They cited a number of advantages, including greater collaboration between teachers and leaders across the MAT (58%), centralised HR and finance functions (57%), and greater access to shared teaching and learning resources (49%).

However, there were serious concerns raised about joining a MAT by those not already in one, including a loss of autonomy and greater centralised control (92%), a loss of autonomy for the school’s governing body (74%), concern about retaining a school’s unique local context (83%), and concern about the financial impact on the school (60%).

Just 17% of those not already in a MAT anticipate joining a MAT at some point in the next four years, with 62% not anticipating their school choosing to join a MAT at any point in the future.

So it is clear that the government needs to do more to convince those who have not already joined MATs that the move will be right for them.

The government needs to engage head-on with legitimate concerns being raised by school leaders and governing bodies. In fact, many of these questions are ones being asked by parents and schools’ local communities as well.

When asked what might make school leaders more likely to join a MAT, the top answer was greater rights to leave a trust when it is not working for the school (52%) and greater protections around funding to limit top-slicing or pooling of funds by the trust (51%).

When you think about it, that desire matches the goal. The MAT should serve the school, not vice-versa. If the MAT is of limited help, the school should be free to find another. It is vital that proper consideration is given to how schools can “divorce” their MAT when things aren’t working, as well as to what interventions will be made if MATs under-perform.

Ultimately, while there are just as many views on academisation out there as there are different types of school, and while many of our members see the potential advantages to being part of a trust, the majority are yet to be convinced.

That is what the government needs to address if it wants the majority of schools enthused about the journey set out in the White Paper. I can only hope that our findings are helpful in identifying issues to be addressed.

The commitment to weigh the evidence and listen to the profession I take as genuine. This fuels my hope that through the anticipated engagement the profession can help to evolve a system where these debates become a matter of history. 

  • Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.


Further information

  • DfE: White Paper: Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child, March 2022:https://bit.ly/3qLTqQX


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