Simon Rea and Simon Day from Isos Partnership (www.isospartnership.com) share learning from their work and research with MATs over the last 12 months.
At the beginning of a new calendar year, many MATs may be looking at their MAT-wide improvement plans to consider what progress is being made and what needs to be done this term. Many MAT leaders will also be wrestling with how to balance their time and focus on improvement in the classroom with the necessary focus on financial management, staffing, and back office systems.
We were fortunate during 2018 to work with Robert Hill, the Regional School Commisioner South West team, and over 30 MATs across the South West region to develop a self-evaluation framework focused on school improvement across trusts - it’s available here. A self-evaluation framework for MATs - surely there are lots of these around already? Actually, one of the rewarding aspects to this project was how many MATs said how useful it was to take time to reflect on the core business of school improvement across their trusts; and how (relatively) little material there was to help them with this thinking (compared to the available material on finance, governance and HR, for example). Later in 2018 we were part of a national research team led by Professor Toby Greany (Nottingham University) analysing how organisations including MATs worked across multiple schools to develop school improvement. This report was published by the DfE in December and can be found here - Sustainable Improvement in Multi-School Groups, DfE, 2018.
Our work on these two projects and our support to individual MATs highlighted a range of school improvement areas that MATs prioritised or were reflecting on. We summarise three below - with learning from our work with MATs and some questions MATs have been considering:
1. Developing the school improvement capacity needed to support schools within the trust
- Over time MATs said they were increasingly looking to the capacity within their own trusts: using school-to-school support across their MAT rather than sourcing external capacity. A number of MATs we worked with had found it helpful to adopt a basic rule-of-thumb ratio between schools in their trust that were able to offer significant school improvement capacity to others (often referred to in the David Carter language of “capacity-givers”) and schools that were in need of support (“capacity-takers”). Some trusts for example talked about a rough 3:1 or 4:1 ratio between capacity givers and takers. This thinking had helped them when taking difficult decisions about whether they had the necessary capacity to sponsor schools. These MATs recognised both that every school has good practice to share and, over time and with the right support, takers could and should become givers of school improvement support.
- Questions for MATs: How does your MAT use the school improvement capacity you have to support the needs of all your schools and pupils? Does your trust have a strategy that explains how that capacity is organised and where it is located?
2. Using subject or phase networks to support school improvement
- In some MATs we worked with, subject or phase networks were being used to share practice and resources between schools. In others, their role had developed further by undertaking joint lesson planning, leading work on joint curriculum development, and implementing particular approaches to teaching and learning. Whatever role you want subject networks to play, one of the key lessons from the MATs we worked with was ensuring they are well led and facilitated (often by subject consultants or Specialist Leaders of Education). Where they were seen to be most effective, the networks were also regularly reviewing their impact so they could maximize the value they were adding to school improvement across their MAT.
- Questions for MATs: How does your MAT use subject networks, and do they have a clear role and purpose across your trust? Are there opportunities for conversations about what great teaching and learning looks like across your MAT?
3. Building capacity through quality assurance processes
- Most MATs we worked with had quality assurance processes to assure the quality of provision, the accuracy of self-evaluations, and the capacity of leadership. For some MATs, they knew there was work to do to ensure the processes promoted consistency, impact was clear, time was not wasted, and they were clearly supporting effective governance. The processes ranged from gathering soft intelligence to formal reviews and risk assessments. In going a step further, some trusts were explicitly thinking about how their quality assurance processes could be used to develop capacity in other school leaders from across the MAT by involving them in formal reviews. Where these worked well, they were able to develop capacity in others, engage other leaders in supported follow-up, and widen the circle of expertise.
- Questions for MATs: How does your MAT regularly quality assure performance and progress? How could you use these processes to develop the capacity of senior leaders across your trust?
Many of these will be issues for all MATs as they develop their own approaches to school improvement, based on their context and the needs of their schools. They will also be issues as MATs grow and expand. One of the additional challenges here for MATs is how to adjust their MAT-wide approaches as new schools join: how to embrace new practice joining and recognise its individuality whilst adjusting their MAT-wide approaches. MAT approaches to school improvement will therefore need to flex and develop all the time as new schools join and evaluation continues. To help with this, MATs in some areas are working together in informal networks or organised learning sets to share their approaches, test different methods, and learn with each other in real time.
In our follow-up piece we hope to explore and reflect on further areas of MAT school improvement.