The ability of MATs to raise pupil performance is ‘limited and varied’. That was the blunt conclusion of a report in February 2017 by the Education Committee of The House of Commons.
There are MATs that have a strong track record on improving schools and raising attainment – even in areas where failure had become entrenched. But taken as a whole the picture is not so rosy. The 2016 exam results showed that two thirds of MATs had Progress 8 scores that were below average across the secondary schools in their trust. MATs did better at Key Stage 2 with over half achieving above average progress in writing and maths. They were, though, below average on reading. MAT performance for disadvantaged pupils has also been limited as annual reports from the Sutton Trust have highlighted.
Variation is an issue because progress within MATs and between MATs serving similar types of pupils differs quite markedly. There is also variation over time – it is not yet consistently the case, for example, that the longer a school is part of a MAT the more certain it is to improve.
Several factors have contributed to this situation. Some MATs have been overambitious about the number of academies they could improve at any one time. Quite often MATs have assumed responsibility for schools that are amongst the hardest to improve and, they might argue, they have not had long enough to make their full impact. But the fact remains that the MAT system still has to prove itself and a lack of focus on how to undertake school improvement at scale across a group of schools hasn’t helped.
However, things are changing rapidly. A number of programmes have bubbled up that are supporting MATs to be better school improvers. The government is also in the process of commissioning research on effective practice, but here are my five top tips on what all MATs should be doing.
- Know your schools well. Ofsted’s annual report for 2016/17 contained the disappointing conclusion that in the MATs where it carried out focused inspections leaders did not know their schools well enough: they were not ‘challenging or monitoring their schools rigorously enough’. As a result they were slow to pick up on issues and provide support. MATs should understand the needs and challenges facing each of their schools, the performance and progress of different groups of pupils, the appropriateness of the curriculum, the quality of the teaching, the standards of behaviour, the rigour of the assessment process and the effectiveness of the leadership. Peer review, learning walks, book reviews and feedback from pupils and parents can supplement the information that should come from being able to interrogate smart and timely data systems.
- Know how to support your schools. Schools need different forms of support at different stages in their improvement journey. Does a MAT, for example, know how to do school turn-around? Just because a MAT is built around the performance of a high-performing school does not mean that it will necessarily have the understanding or skills to support schools in very different contexts with different problems. Conversely some MATs are very good at doing the basics and moving schools from ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’ to ‘good’ but struggle with how to step up a gear and embed excellence across the MAT. Or they find themselves stuck in making progress with certain subjects or groups of pupils. Another challenge lies in getting the right balance between maximising internal expertise, and knowing when to draw on external help and challenge both from individual and schools outside the MAT.
- Develop and deploy leaders and expertise. The quality of school leaders is essential in driving school improvement. So it makes sense for MATs to be strategic about identifying their best leaders and practitioners and deploying that expertise across the trust. Of course, MATs should ensure that schools ‘losing’ a leader or specialist teacher for part or all of the week have proper arrangements in place to backfill the role. But by linking strategic deployments within and across schools to development programmes for emerging, middle and senior leaders MATs can achieve a win-win. Their best leaders can help accelerate improvement across the trust and they build up a strong pool of talent for the future.
- Invest in joint staff development. Support for teachers to improve their practice is a key factor in improving teaching and learning and pupil progress. At the very least MATs should be organising joint inset and twilight sessions to address gaps or weaknesses in subject knowledge or pedagogical practice. They should be empowering subject and faculty leaders to jointly plan and swap schemes of work and share effective practice. However, the big gain from being part of a MAT will come the more trusts enable classroom staff to work together in their clusters through joint lesson planning, modelling expert practice, observing each other, sharing and moderating approaches to assessment, using common models to coach improved practice and undertaking inquiry-led learning.
- Monitor progress and track impact. Too many school partnerships – and MATs are not exempt from this – don’t know the value they are adding. They initiate well-intentioned programmes but are not rigorous enough in terms of looking at their impact. Adopting common assessment and data collection systems, working to a standard assessment calendar across all schools in a trust and having dashboards that enable senior and boards to easily spot outliers in performance, are the basic tools for monitoring progress. But the impact of MAT-initiated improvement services, support and interventions can also be assessed in other ways. MATs can be specific about success measures, use Hattie-style methods and feedback loops to track progress in real time, commission external reviews, build in review points and share findings across openly across the trust. Learning from what does not work – or only works on a limited basis -can be as useful as knowing what works well.
MATs have tremendous potential as agents of school improvement. They could be the means of fully realising the power and effectiveness of school-to-school collaboration. But for this to happen MATs will need to be disciplined and diligent in their approach and review and refine their improvement model as they find out what works.
This blog is part of our series for MAT leaders. Make sure you register for Robert’s upcoming webinar on this topic, and read other blogs in this series here.
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.