As a MAT leader, how can you support successful growth?
The number of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is continuing to grow, and along with this many MATs are expanding too in order to reap the benefits associated with size. It’s clear that in order to be viable, as both economic units AND as agents of school improvement, small MATs need to grow.
Of the 2,723 academy trusts, over 1,700 comprise just one academy (either a free-standing converter or a MAT with just one school waiting, or trying, to acquire more). Over 700 MATs have five or fewer academies and just 350 are responsible for six or more schools. However, the number of academies in a MAT doesn’t tell you everything – the number of pupils is also relevant. Modelling undertaken by the National Schools Commissioner suggests that:
- when MATs have around 1,250 pupils (or three middle-sized primary schools) a topslice of five per cent will typically enable them to fund an executive head, finance director and HR manager. Beyond these posts, schools will still need to buy-in or employ other expertise they need – including for school improvement.
- as MATs grow towards having between 2,500 to 3,000 pupils (or one secondary school and four primaries) they can additionally pay for extra functions to be provided centrally such as ICT strategy, management and procurement, school improvement support and estates and maintenance.
- when MATs double in size again and have 5,000+ pupils (or two secondaries and eight primary schools) their topslice could also buy executive heads for their clusters, estates, finance and HR teams, ICT network support, a range of school improvement support, marketing and PR.
However, MATs face three big challenges in trying to grow to a viable size. First it is often hard to find the right schools that fit with their vision and expertise. There is no easy answer to this, though the more MATs establish a clear strategic view of the sort of trust they want to develop and the geography they want to serve, the more this will provide the basis for a focused conversation with local authorities and the Regional School Commissioner’s office about suitable opportunities for growth.
Second, MATs are now aware that there is a risk of biting off more than they can chew in terms of making commitments to bring about school improvement. A later blog in this series will discuss this.
Third, how do MATs build the infrastructure they need to support a larger number of schools in advance of additional schools joining the trust – and having the extra income they will bring? Again there is no off-the-shelf answer but here are my five top tips.
Five top tips for building the infrastructure needed to support growth
1. Develop a plan for managing the increased scale of the MAT. An executive head or a CEO can oversee three – or if they are geographically concentrated and not too big – four or even five schools. But at some point the MAT will become too large and unwieldy to sustain this model. Learnings from both the corporate sector and existing larger MATs suggest that geographical clusters provide the appropriate scale to share resources, leaders and learning – and to exercise oversight. So MATs need to work out which functions might best be carried out at school, cluster and MAT level and how they can complement each other.
2. Set a realistic level of topslice to fund the development of the MAT’s infrastructure. Resist the temptation to reduce the amount charged to schools in order to try and make it more attractive to join your MAT. The average topslice among MATs with two or more academies is 4.6 per cent.
3. Sort out your approach on autonomy and standardisation. Some MATs aim to cede as much autonomy to their schools as possible – it’s seen as a ‘reward’ for a school making improvement. Other MATs operate fairly tight centralised models. But autonomy and standardisation should not be seen as polar opposites. It may well be right for some systems and procedures to apply to all schools – whether because of legal necessity (in areas such as HR and safeguarding); financial or operational efficiency (ICT, procurement, performance and financial management) or because it aids the development of a common language about learning and school improvement. In these cases MATs will either immediately or over time be wise to adopt systems that automatically collect and enable data to be analysed in multiple ways – i.e. at pupil group, subject, school or MAT level.
But if everything is standardised then the opportunity to learn from difference or for a school to express its identity is limited. Deciding what goes in which column is, therefore, important. And so is the process for agreeing this. MATs should be aiming to align their practice by co-constructing with their school leaders and local governing bodies the answers to these issues.
4. Review arrangements for leadership and governance. Arrangements for MATs to involve and consult with school leaders and local governing bodies in a small trust may be relatively informal. CEOs and boards should think ahead to how they will operate when their MAT is double its existing size. MATs might need to consider restructuring their board, reviewing the local governance model, establishing a forum for liaising with chairs of governors, holding more structured executive team meetings with school principals, formalising how middle leaders across the trust work with each other, and using intranets, websites and apps to communicate with pupils, parents and staff.
5. Appoint a chief operating officer (COO), or director of finance with a broad remit, as early as possible in the life of the MAT to lead the work on developing the MAT’s infrastructure. Funding may be an issue but the expectation should be that a COO will rapidly earn back their salary from the savings they make in rationalising the operations of the trust. The next blog in this series will look at financial management across academies and MATs.
This is the first blog from our series for MAT leaders. Make sure you register your details here to be notified about further updates in this series.
Robert Hill’s cv includes periods as a policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher. For the last 12 years Robert has been an independent education consultant specialising in researching, consulting and writing about school-to-school partnership work. He has made support for MATs a particular focus of his work.