We like sharing real stories at NGA: it is after all one of the best ways we communicate, and education is all about learning and applying the lessons of others. The way MATs have developed in recent years has been truly fascinating to watch. The system was never really planned out and trusts have evolved over time, sometimes in a rather messy or complicated fashion. But the problem is that the vast majority of these narratives remain untold, leaving new trusts to repeat mistakes made by others. There have been a number of MAT case studies focusing on good practice, but we haven’t seen many brave enough to publicise mistakes.
NGA recognised the need to share MATs’ individual stories which is reflected in our new case studies series. The Evolve Trust, the Spring Partnership Trust and the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust have all now laid bare the challenges they faced in order to help other MATs on their own journeys. This insight doesn’t attempt to narrow down findings to a set of generalisations or come up with a step-by-step guide to success, simply to lift the lid on what is going on in an evolving sector.
It is good to talk but doing so is not always as easy as it sounds: being honest about the ups and downs you’ve experienced is a bold move but a powerful one. When we started our Community MATs network in 2016, it became clear that trustees value the chance to discuss shared experiences and challenges. At this week’s network meeting in London, the challenge of getting communication right within MATs was a prominent topic once again. The complexities of the MAT system are taking their toll on communication lines, which in some trusts are being stretched to the point of breaking. Sometimes this is simply because trusts are not responding to their changing contexts and over time communication channels that were relied on have become less relevant and effective.
Having the same people sit on different layers of the structure can seem like a convenient way of addressing this issue, but we know this can result in a ‘my school’ mentality developing. This can then become a barrier to creating a shared organisational identity. The separation debate is therefore no longer being limited to just members and trustees but increasingly trustees and local committee members. Both the DfE and NGA take the position that these should be different individuals.
There are of course lots of other ways MATs communicate through their structures; the trusts we have been speaking to all reviewed their methods of communication as they developed. While many placed trustees on local academy committees in the early days, most have recognised that this is not sustainable in the long term.
Another area picked up from the case study series that we have decided to look at again is the time to govern. The chair of one our case study MATs commits 20 hours a week while another estimated she spends around three days a week on her role. This is a major concern for some and something we will do more research on going forwards.
The secretary of state recently announced a shakeup of school accountability and acknowledged there “must be improvements in the governance of MATs as they grow in size and number, and how we, on behalf of the public, hold them to account”. We are awaiting more details but perhaps one of the key considerations within this review should be the expectations placed upon volunteers chairing increasingly complex organisations. While we know the governance in some MATs has been poor, we must not lose sight of the fact that so many individuals are donating huge amounts of their free time.
One of the things that add to these pressures is considering the growth of a trust. This is an important issue, as in many of the cases where things have gone wrong, trusts have expanded too quickly. A related learning point across all of the case studies is ensuring that the MAT adapts as it grows – this means having a growth strategy that works for your trust in the long term, not just in the early days. For many this has involved a consolidation period, either because they have proactively decided this would be wise, or have had to react to prevent things from spiralling out of control. All the MATs we have profiled so far have changed significantly over time which brings many challenges and can mean making the difficult decision to turn down schools the regional schools commissioners ask them to take on.
Becoming resilient to external pressures and only growing in line with the values and vision developed by trustees and executive leaders are lessons many trusts have learned the hard way.
Thinking about growth in a different way, our case studies revealed the importance of factoring in risk when taking on schools. One trust found that, while having rigorous due diligence is important, issues can and do continue to unfold once a school is incorporated into a trust and some “tolerance for uncertainty” can be valuable. Trust boards need to factor this in and be brave enough to intervene when need arises.
We hope many other trusts will come forward with their own stories. Our three case study MATs are leading the way; 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.
Click here to read the case studies
Find out more about the Community MATs Network