MAT expansion and cultural matters

On 16th March 2018 Katie Paxton-Dogget and I spoke at the ICSA Academy Governance workshop. This was a very interesting and informative event, one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Katie and I spoke about the role played by culture during MAT expansion.

Our slides: (I’ve written some notes to accompany the slides to make it easier to follow what we talked about. These notes are as below.)

MATs, as we know, are a group of schools which are governed by one trust board. Although the core purpose of individual schools is the same ie providing a good education to their pupils, schools are not clones. Each school has its own culture and in order to set up and then expand the MAT, the trustees need to have a good and thorough understanding of the culture of the schools they want to in their MAT. The governors of the schools thinking of joining the MAT also need to understand the culture of the MAT.

Slide 2:

What do we mean when we speak of the culture of an organisation, in this case schools and MATs? There are various attributes which describe culture in schools such as

  • Attitudes towards pupils, especially different groups of pupils such as SEN, those receiving pupil premium
  • Attitudes towards staff
  • Attitudes towards parents
  • School policies

Slide 3:

Culture can be shaped by the governance structure of the school. I specifically make reference to Church of England schools as these account for over 4,500 primary schools and 200 secondary schools but the principles also apply to Roman Catholic or other faith schools. They bring with them particular issues when it comes to any sort of merger.

Slide 4:

Other factors which describe the culture of a school are

  • The community where the school is located
  • Academic and behaviour expectations
  • How the school defines its “success”

When trustees start thinking of expanding the trust or joining a MAT, they will carry out due diligence. This usually involves looking at measurable things like finances. It is equally important to define what cultural attributes are important to the existing MAT as well as to the school joining the MAT. For this reason they need to give careful consideration to each of these factors if the expansion is to be successful and of benefit to all the pupils.

Slide 5:

It is natural for people to compare the culture of their school with the culture of the MAT and the culture of the other schools in the MAT. You may have the same culture as the MAT you are thinking of joining; you may be dancing to the sane tune. The greater the similarities the easier it will be for the school to feel a part of the MAT.

Slide 6:

Differences in culture are one of the major reasons why schools may find it difficult to become an integral part of the MAT. The greater the difference, the greater the cultural shock. This is why comparing the culture of both organisations should be a fundamental part of due diligence.

Slide 7:

As culture is the shared values and beliefs of people which influence how they behave and their practices, a sudden change in practices will change the culture. If care isn’t taken to bring about a smooth transition then there is a danger that this may cause

  • Unease amongst staff
  • Morale drops
  • Increased stress, absenteeism
  • Failures/problems are attributed to the “other side”
  • Staff leave
  • Parents lose confidence and pupils leave
  • Results dip

Slide 8:

When a MAT expands then depending upon the circumstances there are three options as far as working together are concerned.

  • Two cultures remain separate – umbrella trusts!
  • One culture is dominant and replaces other – sponsorship/forced academisation
  • Take best practices from both – community MATs

Whichever option is decided upon the trustees need to ensure that the transition is smooth and for this they need to. Put few things into place.

Slide 9:

Trustees need to ensure that there is transparency around the whole process. This is

  • Vitally important in today’s digital age. Will stop mis-information from spreading
  • They need to explain the reasoning behind the expansion/joining. It must be noted that there may be some things may not be shared fully
  • They need to be clear about what will change and what will remain the same?
  • They need to explain any organisational change
  • They need to be open about how the school will be governed once it joins the MAT

Slide 10:

With transparency comes honesty and honesty mean that staff will be able to trust you.

Honesty also ensures that there are no surprises waiting to be uncovered later in the process!

Slide 11:

Communication is of vital importance in this process. Trustees and governors on FGB need to

  • Relay details of the process
  • Ensure that everyone understands the positive effects expanding the MAT or joining the MAT will have
  • The needs to make sure that the messages from everyone are consistent and clear. And clear isn’t the same as transparent!
  • They need to let everyone know when the expansion is to happen so no one feels left out of the loop
  • They need to ensure that communications continue after the initial announcement
  • And they need to make sure these are as frequent as possible

Slide 12:

As far as communications are concerned they need to be made to

  • Staff
    • They will be especially worried about jobs so there need t be HR meetings
  • Parents and communities
    • Consultation documents and events
  • Communications need to be both face to face and via other means

Slide 13:

The things which need to be communicated in a transparent manner are

  • Difference between the Trust contract and the school contract, staffing structure
  • Don’t make commitments you can’t keep
  • Re-branding. People may feel very strongly about
    • School name/logo
    • School colours
    • School uniform
    • It may be necessary to change these but again be transparent and communicate why it needs to be done
    • Curriculum offer may be modified which may affect staffing.

Slide 14:

So, for a smooth transition you need to be transparent, honest and tell everyone why you are doing what you are doing.

Slide 15:

If you manage the whole process well then the smooth transition means you will get

  • Buy in from everyone
  • Everyone will feel part of the new organisation and the new culture.

MAT expansion matters @ICSA_News #AcademyWorkshop

MAT expansion is a topic which gets lots of airtime nowadays. There are good stories about how MATs have expanded while keeping education at the heart of their plans as well as some which can only be described as horror stories. There have been concerns that some MATs have become too big too quickly. It is therefore timely that ICSA have put on a workshop (on 16th March 2018) which looks at MAT expansion.

The workshop will focus on various aspects of MAT expansion. The first session by Andrew Guest, Academy Specialist, Cambridge Education, Founding Chief Executive, Diocese of Salisbury Academy Trust and Group Strategic Development Manager, Mott MacDonald will look at due diligence. Schools thinking of joining a MAT, academies thinking of setting up a MAT or MATs looking to expand need to carry out a robust due diligence process. This would ensure the governors/trustees that the plans for expansion have considered all issues and will help them make an informed decision about what to do.

In order to deliver the best outcomes for children of the schools in the MAT, the governance needs to be highly effective. Governing a MAT is different to being a governor of a maintained school or a standalone academy. As the MAT grows, trustees need to keep the governance structure under review. The session by Terry Parkin, CEO, King’s Group Academies will be discussion various governance structures which trustees can adapt for their MAT.

Katie Paxton-Doggett, Company Secretary, Ridgeway Education Trust and Vice Chair, National Governance Association and I will be discussing the importance of culture and transparency when trustees start to think about expansion.

Anna Machin, Governance & Compliance Manager, Ark and Emma Perkin, Lead Consultant, The Constant Group will be looking at the importance of good communication so that the stakeholders are kept informed and good relations are maintained during the expansion process.

Richard Lane, Partner, Farrer & Co will be focusing on learning lessons from the corporate sector which has seen many successful as well as failures when it comes to expansion.

This workshop promises to be interesting and very useful. If you would like to attend then you can book a place using this link.

Further reading:

Expanding you academy trust: resources for multi-academy trusts

Multi-academy trusts; report of the Commons Education Select Committee and the government’s response

Growth of Multi-Academy Trusts: do we need to put the brakes on?

Headteachers’ Roundtable Summit matters

On Friday 23rd Feb 2018 I attended the Headteachers’ Roundtable Summit. The Headteachers’ Roundtable was set up on 12th October 2012 during a meeting at the Guardian Offices. The group started on social media and now has 30, 000 twitter followers and an active blog. The group is a think tank and works to develop educational policies. The notable publications so far have been the Five Policy Papers for the General Election 2015, Alternative Green Paper 2016 and the Doorstop Manifesto 2017. The two striking things about the group in my view are that they think its right and proper that politicians should be involved in education and that they crowd source and develop their policy ideas.

It is because of the fact that they seek views when developing their policy statements that I think people involved in education, including governors, should try and attend their events. As governors are responsible for setting strategic direction their input into policy discussions is of vital importance. It was appreciated by all the governors who were able to attend that the organisers, recognising the voluntary nature of governance, were able to offer a discounted ticket price. The other advantage to governors of attending events such as these is that we get to meet people outside of our schools/LAs/MATs. Education isn’t only what happens in our schools. As they say there is whole world out there and it helps if we know what’s happening outside of our schools.

Every session I attended was informative and interesting. In this post I’ll write about points from the various presentations I attended which I think governors should be aware of.

The Opening remarks were delivered by the Stephen Tierney. Stephen talked about accountability systems which are affecting how we work/operate. He also mentioned off rolling of students. This is something governors should be looking into. Ask for number of students on roll in each year at the beginning of the year and at the end. Ask for explanations if there is a difference in these. How confident are you that students are not being off rolled for the sake of league tables etc? Stephen also talked about the accountability system affecting recruitment of teachers. While, as governors, we can’t do much about the accountability system, we can try and make our schools an employer of choice. We can also try and ensure that we retain staff by making sure that it is not what is happening in school which is driving staff away. As governors do you know if your school conducts exit interviews and do you get to see the results of these? If your head/SLT come to you with a new initiative do you ask about the implications introducing that new system will have on your workforce? Are they being told to do extra work or is the new system a better one and is replacing an old one?

In the morning session there were two keynote sessions. In the first one Laura McInerney in conversation with Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee. It was good to see the Chair of the Committee engaging with heads, teachers and governors. He said that although he was in favour of academies and autonomy, he felt there wasn’t enough transparency in the system. If you are a trustee in a MAT, then I’d like to ask you how transparent are your decisions? Would you be able to explain the reasoning behind them (obviously there may be some things which you may need to keep confidential to the board but these will be few. Confidentiality shouldn’t be used as means of avoiding transparency.

The second keynote was delivered by David Benson, Head Kensington Aldridge Academy. It was an honour to listen to David talk about the way he, his staff, staff of neighbouring schools and most importantly his students coped during the days and weeks after the Grenfell Tower fire. David Benson gave a shout out to his governors which was wonderful to hear. He talked to us about the days after the fire and how the students and staff coped. This was made possible by the ethos and culture of the school which is supportive and collaborative. As governors do we know, really KNOW, what our school culture and ethos is? How would your head/staff and governors have responded if it had been you in their place? How do you make sure that the new staff are totally committed to the ethos of your school? David Benson placed great emphasis on the teaching and learning framework and the strong CPD programme. As governors do you know how strong your staff CPD programme is? Is it effective? Does it help staff to develop and cater to their needs and the need of the whole school?

The next session I attended was by Sir David Carter. Other sessions taking place at the same time were Fixing the Middle Tier: The Hoodinerney Model (this aims to streamline roles/responsibilities of everyone from Secretary of State to heads; Laura McInerney and Matthew Hood), Radical changes to tea her workload through intelligent assessment practice (exploring impact of marking and assessment on workload relative to their impact on learning; Tom Sherrington) and Our Biggest Blindspot in Education (looking at Initial Teacher Training and retention; Prof Samantha Twiselton). Sir David Carter’s session was entitled “The Standards You Pass By Are The Standards You Accept”. David believes that this quotation (of a remark made by an Australian general) applies to all leaders. He then posed some questions which I think we, as governors, should be asking ourselves. These questions were:

  • How do you embody your values?
    • How do you enact your values?
    • How do you ensure those who you lead can “see” your values?
    • If you ask them can they say what your values are?
    • Are your values “visible” and explicit when you
      • Appoint staff
      • Promote staff
      • Performance manage staff
      • Praise and sanction students
      • Respond to upset/challenging visitors to your school
      • Create strategic plans (this is very important from a governance point of view. Governors set the strategic direction of their schools and their values should be a thread running through these plans)
      • Set targets
  • How do you help others to model ethical leadership?
    • Is the behaviour you want to model for others the behaviour they see when they look at you?
  • How does your leadership raise expectations in your community?
  • What standards would you never walk past?
    • When thinking of behaviour of?
      • Adults and children
      • Adults and other adults
      • Parents and school
    • When considering inclusion?
    • What considering equality for all for
      • Entitlement to quality teaching (for all children in the community and not just within your school)
      • Professional development
      • Wellbeing of staff (staff are not robotic practitioners) [I have written previously about wellbeing and our responsibilities]

Sir David also talked about coaching and mentoring and said coaching/mentoring new CEOs is a part of his job that he really enjoys. The following questions are the ones he asks the most when coaching/mentoring.

  1. What are your current developmental goals and how far have you come in the last 12 months?
  2. How challenging of your own performance do you want to be?
  3. How close is the alignment between your personal leadership competencies and the behaviours you show most frequently?
  4. Do you embody your own motivations and values?
  5. What habits and insecurities hold you back?
  6. Do you behave differently when you are being observed in public as opposed to a more private setting?

Chairs and governors often mentor new governors. If you are one who mentors new people on your board you may like to modify the above questions to suit your governance setting and use them.

Sir Carter emphasised the need to model good, ethical leadership. This is important for governors to do too. He also emphasised that ethical leadership will look after ALL children. He asked us to pick up the phone and offer support to the school down the road who we know is facing difficulties. Chairs of Governors should remember that NLGs are there to offer support. So if you need some help then contact your nearest NLG who will happily support you. He also pointed out that there are no quick fixes to bring about school improvement. Having said that, there is no time to waste; if improvement will take five years then year one is as important as year five. We also need to recognise that a school which doesn’t have good results yet but is doing all the right things to get there is different from a school which has a meaningless strategy.

Sir Carter said that schools belong to communities. Our role as ethical leaders is to create a legacy so that the school is in a better place than when we started leading it. Sir Carter also gave us four questions the answers to which would indicate how ethical our leadership is. These are:

  1. The Sleeping Test: If I do this can I sleep at night?
  2. The Newspaper Test: Would I still do this if it was published in a newspaper?
  3. The Mirror Test: If I do this can I look at myself in the mirror?
  4. The Teenager Test: Would I mind my child knowing I did this?

Sir Carter ended his presentation by asking us the following:

What are the standards that you would never walk past if accepting them meant children remained dis-advantaged?

As governors I think it’s very important that we reflect on the above five questions individually and as a board.

One of the afternoon keynotes was by Laura McInerney. She walked us through the history of education policy, various education secretaries and challenges facing us. The three issues we should watch out for are:

  • No moiré funding
  • More selection, possibly at post 16
  • Sex education

Laura also told us about Teacher Tapp, which she and Prof Becky Allen have been developing and which is starting to yield some interesting data. The one remark that really stuck with me was when Laura said,

People give us their taxes and their children

As governors we must ensure that we spend people’s taxes wisely and educate their children well.

The last keynote was delivered by Geoff Barton. He talked about five things we should be looking to change.

  • Accountability: The high stakes accountability is making us fearful and timid. Geoff said we need to stop thinking and talking about Ofsted and banish the Ofsted banners.
  • I think this is an area where as governors we can lend support to our heads and SLT. If your head wants to have a mocksted, then challenge them. Ask them what would a mocksted show which they don’t know already. Ask them to justify spending money (of there is precious little anyway) on consultants offering mocksteds. Ask them if that spend is value for money. Ask them if the same support can’t be accessed from elsewhere. Perhaps, see if your head would like an experienced head to as a mentor. This would be more supportive and helpful and contribute more to your head’s professional development than getting someone in to do a mocksted. And it would be less stressful too, I imagine.
  • Think about flexible working. Trust your teachers
  • Tell your school’s story
  • Look after your young people. Help them to navigate social media. Bring a human dimension to how you deal with them.
  • This, again, is something governors can and should be asking our school leaders.
  • Be ethical.
  • Irrespective of our leadership role, ethical leadership is something we all should practice. Governors have a hugely important role to play in setting the tone and the expectations. If the Governing Body behaves in an ethical manner then so will the rest of the institution. Geoff, like Sir David Carter, mentioned the mirror test. An ethical governor, head, member of the SLT, teaching and support staff should be able to look themselves in the mirror when they make any decision or take any step.

In the coming weeks and months members of the Headteachers’ Roundtable will be reflecting on the discussions which took place on the day and formulating policy documents. So keep an eye out for them. In the meantime:

Further reading:


This is a very important post by Adam. Governors, please have a read of this.

A Chemical Orthodoxy


Earlier this school year, my Headteacher (who is a legend) asked me to present to governors on the topic of marking. Internal school politics and policies aside, I have attached the document I wrote for them as well as the slides I used when presenting. It does not represent anyone’s views but my own and does not speak for the school or carry its endorsement. I hope it comes in use!

Marking Review for sharing

Marking for governors new abridged (1)

*Unfortunately, I was gazumpted to the best “marking” blog title  

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Meeting matters: 3 reasons why leaders should talk less in meetings

I came across an article by Brendan Reid in which he discusses why leaders should talk less during meetings. This is something people chairing governing body meetings should think about too. The article is reproduced below with Brendan’s kind permission.


I’ve stopped talking so much in meetings. More precisely, I’ve stopped talking first in meetings.

A while back, I was in a meeting led by another manager and I noticed something that has stuck with me ever since. This manager had a very strong presence and personality, and he was very quick to inject his opinions into a multi-person conversation. So much so, the entire dynamic of the meeting was altered by his presence. Other meeting participants seemed reluctant to contribute. Any subsequent ideas shared seemed to be based on his initial concept. It all seemed very constrained.

On the surface, a strong, vocal manager appears to demonstrate classic (stereotypical?) leadership qualities. Clear, direct, confident, intelligent. But what I observed in this meeting indicated the exact opposite to me.

Since this meeting, I’ve been extremely aware of leadership behaviors in meetings. I watch other managers. I watch myself. I observe the behaviors and reactions of meeting participants and contributors. And, I’ve ultimately concluded that most managers (myself included) are talking way too much and way too early in meetings.

In this week’s blog, we’re going to look at 3 specific leadership advantages to speaking less and waiting longer before talking in meetings.

Some of the qualities that make for good leaders – confidence, decisiveness, passion, intelligence – can have undesired consequences if you’re not careful. The very attributes responsible for the leadership opportunities you’ve been awarded can backfire if left unchecked. Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you?

You’re in a 6-person meeting with several different personality types represented. The type “A” leader dominates the conversation and leaves the meeting feeling it went well. Everyone else leaves quiet and confused.

You’re a meeting participant and a senior executive expresses a very strong opinion early in the conversation. Others either sit quietly or jump on board with her idea trying to seem agreeable and avoid embarrassment or conflict.

You’re a leader in a meeting and you kick it off by sharing your perspective on the issue and then ask for other ideas. You ask people to challenge you. Nobody does. The team ends up aligning to your original idea with very little debate or discussion.

Two dominant personalities are in a 6-person meeting. After some initial dialogue, the entire discussion gravitates to their ideas only. In the end, the group only compares those two loudly voiced ideas and any others are forgotten about or never heard in the first place.

We’ve all been in meetings like this. I would argue they are the norm. As leaders, we want to offer direction and clarity. As contributors, we want to have our ideas heard and be viewed as strong and assertive. But what impact is that having? Are we actually leading or are we just acting like we think a leader should?

Here are 3 reasons I think leaders should speak less and wait longer to speak in meetings:

1. Inspire Creativity

When a leader speaks early and decisively in a meeting, he or she artificially constrains creativity. Put yourself in the shoes of the other meeting participants for a moment. A strong leader or manager makes a decisive argument at the beginning of the meeting and then asks for other ideas. This sets artificial constraints for everyone else. Whether you realize it or not you’ve set mental boundaries for the types of ideas now likely to be brought forward.

For example, the problem set out for a meeting is to close a gap in sales. The leader starts off with a strong idea about a new type of marketing campaign. Then he asks for other ideas from the group. The tendency now will be to build on the first idea or to suggest other ideas for marketing campaigns. Without knowing it, the leader has artificially constrained all the thinking and dialogue. What if a marketing campaign wasn’t the only way to close the sales gap? What if there are entire other lines of thinking? You’ve lost those now.

When a leader speaks assertively and early in a conversation, the other participants are more likely to align to that idea or build upon that idea. To insert a fundamentally different idea feels combative. It feels risky. You’ve inadvertently created a situation where only the strongest participants will have the courage to counter your thinking. You’ve limited creativity.

My advice to managers is to start meetings by setting the most basic context e.g. here is the problem we’re trying to solve. Then, whether you have a great idea or not, start by soliciting ideas from the group before giving an opinion. You’ll free the team up to be creative and you’ll probably end up discovering your ideas weren’t as good as you thought they were.

2.  Activate the Introverts

Most meetings are dominated by extroverts. This is not optimal because they don’t hold a monopoly on good ideas. When you start too strong in meetings, by inserting your opinions and taking strong positions on issues, you make it harder for anyone other than type “A” personalities to participate. This is a flawed strategy that reduces the number of potential ideas in any meeting you’re in.

The best managers actively solicit ideas. They pull them out of the more introverted among us. They are committed to creating an environment that feels comfortable to share ideas and opinions. Too many managers allow the loudest voices to dominate meetings which leads to suboptimal results and engagement.

My advice to managers is to start by soliciting ideas from the quieter members of your team. As an introvert, I can say I’m much more comfortable answering questions or responding to a request to share my idea than interjecting it spontaneously into a heated debate. The truth is, the extroverts will get their ideas heard one way or the other. You don’t have to worry about them. Start by proactively engaging the less vocal members of the team first and then let the others participate.

3. Reap the Benefits of Information

In a poker game, there is a huge advantage to playing your hand last. It’s called positional advantage. You have the benefit of seeing what everyone else does before you have to do anything. That information gives you a better chance to win. The exactly same principle holds true in meetings and in negotiations. There is a major advantage to waiting before acting.

When I’m in an important meeting, I’ll often ask for opinions of the group before sharing anything. That way I can learn about their perspectives and positions and tailor my points based on what I’ve heard. I have time to refine my argument, build counter arguments or decide to support one of the ideas that has already been presented.

Some managers feel like they need to speak early and loud so nobody beats them to the punch. They can’t stand the thought of another person stealing their idea. The meeting degrades into a bunch of loud voices all competing for time. I think this strategy is flawed. I’d much rather listen and then share my thoughts after I’ve benefitted from everyone else’s perspective. I can show leadership by combining pieces of other ideas. I can show judgement by identifying gaps in early ideas. I can hit a homerun by learning from the reactions to early ideas and then offering my own optimized idea.

My advice to managers is to wait a little longer before injecting your opinions into meetings. Not just to inspire creativity and activate less vocal participants, but also to benefit from the informational advantage that comes from acting later.

Many leaders operate with only one gear. They’re aggressive. They’re vocal. For years, I’ve observed this type “A” tendency in myself and other managers around me. I think it’s a strategic flaw and I’ve made a point of controlling it. There are times when acting aggressively is warranted but I see many advantages to speaking less and speaking later.


Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 3

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the first blog of the series. To read the original please click here.

MATs – could do better on school improvement

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 2

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the second blog of the series. To read the original please click here. 

Making the sums add up: financial challenges facing academy trusts

The financial outlook for many schools is tough. In July 2017 the Department for Education re-allocated part of its budget and increased school funding by £1.3 billion for two years starting in April 2018. The additional money will help ease the introduction of the national funding formula (NFF) – though some schools will still lose out as the NFF kicks in. Overall, however, while spending per pupil is now being maintained in real terms between 2017 and 2019, if you take the whole of the spending review period from 2015 to 2019 then, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, the impact of inflation and increasing pupil numbers, means that there will have been a real-terms cut of nearly five per cent.

Schools and academies also face the issue of how they are going to fund a pay increase for staff if there is a settlement of more than one per cent – the level assumed when the funding settlement was fixed. Single academy trusts will find it hard to navigate these financial pressures on their own, but multi-academy trusts (MATs) also have some big challenges to confront.

The challenge for MATs

The first is whether to allow each academy in a MAT to receive its total General Annual Grant (GAG) or whether to pool GAG funding between schools and for the trust board to allocate it according to the needs of particular academies. At the moment only a small minority of MATs are using the provisions for pooling set out in the academies financial handbook. But the DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017 reports that over half of MATs are planning to do this. However, the advent of the NFF may well push policy on pooling in the other direction. Academy leaders and local governing bodies are likely to argue that the NFF means they are entitled to the formula allocation for their school – if a MAT starts to reallocate funding between schools then it could be argued they are acting like a local authority under the funding system that is being replaced and that this undermines the whole point of the NFF.

The second big strategic issue for MATs to wrestle with is how to manage reserves. There is a strong case for saying that as a MAT board legally holds the risk for all schools in the trust, it should set the rate and pool and manage reserves centrally. The fact that capital and condition improvement funding is allocated to a MAT, rather than an individual academy, reinforces this approach. However, when schools join a MAT they are either in deficit or have reserves. If it is the latter they might well argue that they have been putting money aside for a particular project and would want a guarantee that they could access ‘their’ balance when they were ready to spend it. These are tricky waters to navigate but some MATs have worked through the issues and come up with a comprehensive reserves policy.

Efficient management of academies and MATs finances

More generally my five top tips for developing sound financial management of both standalone academies and MATs would be:

  1. Plan your budget over a three-year time horizon – the advent of the NFF should help to do this and trusts can also project forward pupil numbers for each school to provide an estimate or potential scenarios of their likely income. Boards are under an obligation to set a balanced budget for their trust. They should avoid approving a deficit budget for any particular academy unless there are exceptional one-off costs, there is a clear and swift path to balancing the budget and reserves and cash-flow are sufficient to cover the shortfall and sustain smooth and timely financial transactions across the trust.
  2. Authorise your director of finance (trusts are required to appoint an appropriately qualified chief financial officer) to integrate financial management systems, reporting and personnel as early as possible in the life of the trust. This will support better internal assurance and understanding of each academy’s finances. Also ensure that the scheme of delegation and, if the trust has one, governance handbook make crystal clear the respective responsibilities of the trust board, finance committee and local governing bodies for drawing up, approving and monitoring budgets.
  3. Optimise the use of procurement frameworks. The DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017 revealed that only 55 per cent of trusts were using a procurement framework. Both standalone academies and small MATs that do not have purchasing muscle in their own right, can draw on established procurement frameworks to start benefiting from economies of scale.
  4. Benchmark your costs and use this information to highlight areas where there could be the greatest scope for efficiencies. The Education and Skill Funding Agency’s benchmarking tool provides a starting point for doing this. The chart below shows where academy trusts say they are currently making savings. Some trusts are using activity cost budgeting (ACB) to take a more fundamental look at the finances of individual schools. ACB involves analysing and comparting how much it costs to teach a course, subject or group, for a given number of pupils, and then analysing how and why some schools are able to achieve comparable or better outcomes for less cost than others.
  5. Use clusters to help realise economies of scale. A report by the Education Policy Institute has found that MATs that are more geographically dispersed tend to spend more per pupil on back office costs. Clusters also provide the basis for sharing leadership posts and specialist teaching roles. Obviously this point applies primarily to MATs, but standalone academies should increasingly be thinking about sharing functions or using local consortia for their back-office and support functions.
Where Academy Trusts are making savings

Pictured above: where academy trusts are making savings.

Source: DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017; Base: 159 MATs with two or academies and 257 standalone academy