Multi-academy trusts: Four opportunities and challenges

In our work with multi academy trusts across the country this year, we’ve had some fascinating conversations with many leaders, classroom teachers and educational experts about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for MATs.

Here’s a run-down of the key themes coming up time and time again.

1. Culture and support

Culture: You’ve told us that one of the main driving forces behind multi-academy trusts is the idea of teaming up and supporting each other, particularly when many schools have broken away from local authority control. But bringing any group of people together can be a challenge, not least from a cultural perspective; there are differing opinions and experiences on what works, how it works, and how it’s always been done. From a MAT’s point of view, it’s probably presumptuous to assume all staff in all schools will be happy being part of the Trust, and leaders may find resistance to directives from the executive board and further challenges along the way. So how does the board bring people, well - on board? How do they ensure a collaborative and constructive culture whilst engaging staff and keeping morale high?

Knowledge sharing: The same can be said for sharing resources and knowledge across schools. According to former education secretary Nicky Morgan, MATs are the “most efficient way” to spread best practice and raise the bar for weaker schools. But building a network isn’t as simple as pulling people together and assuming they’ll get along - the network has to be built and relationships nurtured. In December 2016, we brought together MAT leaders for an exclusive dinner hosted by Sir Michael Barber, and in May this year, the first of our MAT Advisory Forums involved many of you in a range of discussions related to the MAT landscape. There’s no doubt there will be plenty more exciting opportunities here, and we’re proud to be a part of them.

Workload: A key reason teaching staff might appear resistance to change on the surface is to do with existing workload pressures and the fear of this increasing due to change. We’ll soon be following up on this with some more detailed thinking in this area, but for now it’s important to highlight the impact this has on the cultural change which needs to happen across schools: how do MAT executive boards encourage teachers to want to stay? How does being part of a MAT benefit teachers when it comes to reducing workloads?

2. Data

Data is used to inform performance, but what’s clear from our many conversations with you is that the challenge facing MATs is how exactly to pull all of the available data together, and often across primary and secondary. Much like individual schools, Trusts need to predict student progress rates, track actual performance against those rates, and use the information to intervene where required. As many schools have their own methods of data collection, MATs are challenged with getting the same data in the same way at the same points in the academic year - from every school, for every student. If they aren’t able to do this, how does the Trust track performance as a whole and show the benefits of bringing the schools together? 

3. Spend and funding

You’ve told us you’re positive about the potential economies of scale being in a MAT can offer, which is particularly important due to the fall in budgets available to state schools. But it’s difficult enough managing spend within a school, and this is a challenge that’s clearly only multiplied across a MAT as executive boards are forced to think about how to spend across a group of schools. Though the questions are the same - how far can the money reach, what provides them with the best return, what’s absolutely necessary that they can’t be without? - the issue of value for money and return on investment is obviously amplified.

“The early signs we are seeing suggest that there are significant benefits in schools collaborating either through MATs or federations of maintained schools”

- Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

4. Measuring success

In the recent years since multi-academy trusts really became part of the educational landscape, political and social pressure on the success or failure of MATs has remained constant.Performance tables are a key driver behind this. There’s huge pressure on MATs to prove that they’re making improvements in schools and to learners. The Sutton Trust’s 2016 chain effects study looked at the impact of joining a MAT on disadvantaged pupils in sponsored academies; Merryn Hutchings, a professor at London Metropolitan University who conducted the research, said that “whereas some chains do appear to have transformed the chances of their disadvantaged pupils”, unfortunately others “are pretty average and don’t make much difference”. However, there is evidence that some MATs really do raise pupil performance and produce excellent results. Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said earlier this year: “the early signs we are seeing suggest that there are significant benefits in schools collaborating either through MATs or federations of maintained schools”, so there are clear early signs of success.

The future

As with any new venture, there are undoubtedly challenges on the road ahead. But it’s a journey with plenty of opportunities along the way. If they get it right, MATs can revolutionise the educational landscape and become trailblazers for progress and change. We’d love to know what you think - are these the issues facing your trust at the moment, or are there even more pressing considerations?

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