In their own words: lessons learned by multi academy trusts in their journey since creation

In England, there are just over 1,200 multi academy trusts (MATs) made up of two or more schools, each of them operating in a unique set of circumstances. The lessons they have learned can inform those looking to form or join a MAT by shedding light on the approaches others have found productive and some common barriers to success.

Despite this, there is currently little research from a governance perspective to inform other schools and new academy trusts about the obstacles faced when establishing a MAT and what those governing have done to overcome these since creation. Previous research has often been focused on trying to identify “good practice” in MAT governance which means that many of the learning points unique to each MAT, and embedded within local contexts, have not yet been fully explored.

Recognising the need for those governing MATs to share their experiences, NGA has put together a set of case studies sensitive to the diversity within the MAT sector. NGA is particularly interested in the stories that each MAT has to tell which add to the rich tapestry of governance knowledge. This includes what trustees and executive leaders have learned from any obstacles faced, what they have found successful or less so and how they have adapted over time in response to these challenges and changing circumstances. The experience of NGA staff, as well as the feedback from our Community MATs network, suggests that these are exactly the learning points that can be of most value to other new and developing MATs.

Overall, these case studies serve as a platform for MATs to share their journeys with others, explain what these journeys have involved and highlight the key lessons learned along the way.

The case studies

Currently, there are five case studies available to NGA members. These come from:

  • Faringdon Academy of Schools

  • Sidney Stringer multi academy trust

  • The Evolve Trust (Mansfield);

  • The Spring Partnership Trust (Bromley);

  • The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (Oxfordshire and Windsor & Maidenhead).

In each case, NGA researchers visited the MATs central offices. Here, the research team interviewed the chair of trustees and chief executive, often as well as academy committee members or members of the executive team the trust. NGA researchers also analysed a selection of key documents (including the scheme of delegation, articles of association and trust board minutes) to supplement the data from the interviews.

NGA would like to thank the chair of trustees, the chief executive, MAT staff and academy committee members who gave up their time to speak to the project team. The courage and generosity they have shown in providing such rich and insightful reflections will be of immense value to others involved in the governance of groups of schools and – ultimately – contribute to securing an excellent education for every child.

Faringdon Academy of Schools

Publication date: May 2019
Location: Oxfordshire.
Size of MAT: Roughly 2,800 pupils across eight schools.
Phase of schools: Mixed (seven primary, one secondary with sixth form).
How the MAT was formed: The MAT was formed when three schools, which were collaborating informally within a partnership, formally joined together in 2012.

Learning points:
  1. It is important to balance having a clear vision and values across the trust with respecting the individual characteristics of schools.
  2. For Faringdon, school-to-school collaboration is at the heart of their success and provides a cost-effective and well received solution to school improvement.
  3. Mixed MATs should look to coordinate their provision in order to make transitions between key stages easier for pupils and realise some of the benefits of all-through education.
  4. It is important to choose the right partners, and ensure that the trust has capacity to support the schools it is taking on, before expanding.
  5. Key leadership roles within the trust will inevitably change over time and it is important to remain flexible to facilitate growth.
  6. By centralising services MATs can not only realise benefits in terms of economies of scale, but also free up schools’ leaders’ capacity to focus on school improvement.
  7. Finances are often a point of contention, particularly when it comes to reserves and the redistribution of resources.
  8. Investing in in-house staff training has a significant pay-off in terms of recruitment and retention down the line.
  9. Governance must adapt as a trust grows in order to remain sustainable and effective.
  10. Those governing at a local level have an important role to play in ensuring that the trust is governed well and, if used effectively, they can alleviate much of the work required of trustees.
  11. Getting communication right between the layers of governance and management is vital but challenging. It involves putting into place a number of different approaches.
  12. Getting skilled, impartial and dedicated volunteers, with the time to commit to the role, is important at both a local governance and trust board level.
  13. Training for those governing at all levels is vital for helping them understand their roles and responsibilities.

Read case study

Sidney Stringer

Publication date: April 2019
Location: Coventry, West Midlands.
Size of MAT: Roughly 2,700 pupils across three schools.
Phase of schools: Mixed (secondary, primary and special schools).
How the MAT was formed: The MAT was formed in 2014 when Sidney Stringer Academy, a mainstream secondary school with around 1,350 pupils, was approached by the local authority to sponsor two struggling schools. 

Learning points:
  1. It is vital to be clear with schools on the “non-negotiables” and to intervene when a school falls short of expectations. To do this, it is important that those governing put in place a variety of mechanisms to generate an accurate picture of school performance. 
  2. Even with a broad ethos and set of non-negotiables, getting buy-in from schools can be challenging – particular for those schools that feel as though they have “given more” to the MAT than others. 
  3. While being in a MAT has created opportunities for some staff to progress their career and export best practice, there is a finite amount of school improvement capacity within a MAT and it takes time and expertise to turn around a struggling school.
  4. Being the chief executive of a MAT is a very different role to being the headteacher of a school.
  5. Getting communication across the trust right is difficult, with MATs required to keep numerous different communication channels open at once.
  6. All those involved in governance of the MAT saw the time commitment as significant, with the chair of trustees spending between 10 and 20 hours a week on governance duties. 
  7. With the time commitment being significant, trustees need to find ways to make the role manageable. 
  8. Conducting rigorous and independent due diligence on all schools joining the trust, especially in terms of finance, is vitally important.
  9. Managing financial expectations across the MAT can be difficult and there is often tension concerning how much money each school is entitled too.
  10. Economies of scale are possible within a MAT but they are not as easy to realise as some people assume. 

Read case study

The Evolve Trust

Publication date: April 2018
Location: All schools located in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.
Size of MAT: Roughly 1,750 pupils across three schools.
Phase of schools: Mixed (secondary, primary and special schools).
How the MAT was formed: The MAT was founded in 2014 when Brunts Academy, a large secondary school with around 1,500 pupils, was asked by the regional schools commissioner to sponsor Beech Hill special school in 2014 and the Robin Hood primary and nursery school in 2015.

Learning points:
  1. Having a ‘lead school’ does not work in the long term
  2. Be clear about what the trust stands for in order to withstand pressures to expand
  3. It is not all about growth, it is possible to develop an identity around being a small MAT and this has significant benefits
  4. Managing financial expectations across schools can be difficult
  5. Clear delegation and methods of communication are vital for getting all voices heard while separating the different layers of governance
  6. local governing bodies cannot fulfil all of a school’s governance functions, but they play a crucial role in informing decision making by being the ‘eyes and ears’ of the MAT
  7. Trustees need to control the agenda for trust board meetings
  8. Members have an important role to play as the guardians of the ethos and values of the trust

Read case study

The Spring Partnership Trust

Publication date: April 2018
Location: All schools located in Bromley, Kent.
Size of MAT: Roughly 1,850 pupils across four schools.
Phase of schools: All primary.
How the MAT was formed: The MAT was founded in 2014 when Hayes Primary School sponsored another local primary school in Bromley, St. Mary Cray Primary School. Beech Hill special school in 2014 and the Robin Hood primary and nursery school in 2015.

Learning points:
  1. Changes to the scheme of delegation are part of the process of growth
  2. Communication between the layers of governance is challenging but crucial
  3. Moving from a ‘my school’ mind-set to a single organisation mind-set can be challenging
  4. As a MAT grows, the skills and experience required on the board of trustees will change
  5. Accept some risk associated with expanding a MAT regardless of due diligence
  6. Do not underestimate the importance of having a clear vision
  7. There needs to be one ‘executive leader’ and the role changes as the MAT grows
  8. Reasons for growth can change as a MAT develops
  9. It is possible to achieve benefits in terms of school improvement, staffing and financial efficiency

Read case study

The Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust

Publication date: May 2018
Location: All schools located in Oxfordshire and Windsor & Maidenhead.
Size of MAT: Roughly 6,000 pupils across thirty plus schools.
Phase of schools: 27 primary schools, three infant schools, one junior school and one middle school.
How the MAT was formed: The trust was formed in 2012 when one of the church schools in the Diocese was identified by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education at the time, as requiring an academy solution due to poor standards. The Diocesan Board of Education decided that a MAT sponsored by the Diocese was the best way to provide for that and other schools in need of support.

Learning points:
  1. High level of delegation to local governing bodies relies on robust systems of support and oversight
  2. Embedding a trust’s values and vision takes work
  3. Financial challenges are not necessarily resolved by forming or joining a MAT
  4. It is not always necessary to provide services in-house
  5. The trust has to be adaptable as it grows
  6. Positive professional relationships are vital
  7. Getting the right people around the table matters
  8. Be equipped to support school improvement and intervene when things go wrong

Read case study

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