MAT mergers: does 1+1 always = more than 2?

Mergers and acquisitions (M&As) occur frequently in the corporate sector. Turn to the financial pages on just about any day of the week for news of the latest merger or takeover. While some M&As succeed many fail to deliver the value that was anticipated.

In the world of MATs we are very familiar with the acquisition part of the equation. A MAT sponsoring a weak or struggling school is akin to an acquisition – and certainly the way that some MATs grew post 2010 was reminiscent of the rise of a corporate empire. The re-brokering of academies is also increasing (up to 167 in 2016) and this too is feeding the acquisition pipeline.

But mergers too are now very much part of the MAT scene. You only have to look at the minutes of those Headteacher Board meetings that are published to get a sense of the scale of M&A activity among academies and trusts. In some cases this is being driven by groups of schools deciding to convert to academy status together and seeking to join the same MAT. In other instances small trusts have recognised that they are not viable when it comes to running cost-effective business support functions and/or providing school improvement support. They are merging with another trust of the same size or seeking to join a larger MAT.

Given these trends what can we learn from the corporate sector about M&As that might be relevant to MATs? In an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review Hamid Bouchikhi and John Kimberly describe seven lessons that will make it more likely that M&As will result in successful integration. I have taken the essence of these lessons and transposed them into a MAT context. And then added one point of my own!

First, mergers are about much more than economics – i.e. realising economies of scale, merging IT systems, reducing senior management costs or maximising purchasing power.  Rationalising functions and services is, say Bouchikhi and Kimberly, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a successful merger. Academies and boards also need to address what are described as ‘psychological issues’. They need to forge a new shared identity. This goes way beyond choosing a new name and logo. The parties to a merger have to be able to answer the question ‘Who are we?’ They should be able to describe what makes them distinct, what is it that they want to achieve together and what are their shared values that will underpin how they work together?

Moreover they should be answering those questions in such a way that others – pupils, parents, staff, the local community and other schools – can see what they stand for and are striving to achieve. Vision, values are mission critical to making mergers successful.

Second, those involved in considering a merger should check in advance whether these ‘identity’ related issues are likely to undermine the chances of success. In practical terms this means MAT due diligence should examine more than just data relating to pupil and staff performance, financial sustainability, and projections of pupil numbers and the state of the school estate – important though those things are. It should also embrace understanding the culture of the different schools or MATs coming together and assessing whether they are likely to be compatible. Potential partners should spend time in each other’s schools, and ensure that their respective leaders and board members talk to and get to know each other. They should understand the culture and context within which different MATs are working, learn about each other’s aspirations and find out what it is hoped to achieve from a merger. Are the potential partners ready to let go of their existing identities in order to create a new merged identity?

Third, partners need to be clear about the terms under which the merger is taking place. The authors describe four different types of M&A – and we can see how they apply to MATs:

  • Assimilation, which occurs when the identity of a school acquired by a trust is deliberately dissolved and assimilated into the identity of the new MAT. There is no pretence at equality in the takeover arrangements. The MAT effectively imports its systems, operating practices, brand and management into the school it is taking on. That is effectively what often happens when a MAT acts as a sponsor – particularly if a school is weak or failing at the point of takeover. How well and how long it takes for staff, parents and pupils to accept the situation and feel part of a new enterprise will depend on how attached they were to the old regime, the reputation of the incoming MAT and the communication, people skills and professional competence of the new MAT team. Assimilation can be a very effective strategy when a school is broken.
  • Confederation is the polar opposite of assimilation. Each organisation or school keeps its name, governance, leadership and autonomy. Any central role is more about co-ordination with sharing or integration limited to agreed areas of mutual interest – such as support functions, professional development, recruitment and possibly an element of school improvement support or challenge. Technically this model does not apply to MATs but I have come across a number of MATs that, despite their legal form, effectively operate as confederations with participating academies still cleaving to their old identity. This model may work in the corporate sector but with trusts a confederation approach tends to equate to a weak marriage of convenience. The partners are not ready to form something new and different. It’s a minimalist MAT model: the MAT will always struggle to be more than the sum of its parts. The academies in such arrangements are only likely to get limited value from being part of a larger entity and the organisation itself is vulnerable if one of their members starts to develop problems – they are unlikely to have cultivated the skills, systems and disciplines necessary to intervene and arrest decline.
  • Federation (not to be confused with school federations) differs from confederation in the minds of the authors by virtue of there being a new layer of identity sitting alongside the existing identity. In MAT terms that means you positively foster the uniqueness of individual organisations or schools while having a lstrong overarching layer that co-ordinates and supports their work and holds them to account for their bottom line performance. The formal structure of a MAT may be similar or the same as in the confederation model but the culture underpinning it is very different. In contrast with the confederation approach, accepting different identities is not a legacy issue but a positive asset that benefits the whole organisation and from which all parts of the enterprise can benefit and learn. There are many MATs that would say that this accurately reflects their philosophy – and it is how they would make a pitch to any schools that would want to join their MAT.
  • Metamorphosis describes a process for dissolving or losing existing identities and blending them into a completely new identity. In this scenario the new MAT is different from what its constituent academies or MATs have been before. There are no winners and losers from the merger process: staff and other stakeholders have the opportunity to shape and create the shared identity of the new MAT. This helps to forge ownership of the new MAT’s agenda. Adopting metamorphosis as the approach is also likely to generate the social capital and goodwill that will help to realise the practical benefits of a merger and to tackle the nitty-gritty thorny integration issues. As with the other M&A approaches I could take you to MATs that are pursuing this route.

Fourth, MATs need to be pragmatic; one size does not fit all. So MATs might adopt one approach in one situation (e.g. assimilation when sponsoring a weak school) and another approach in another (e.g metamorphosis if joining with another cluster of schools or federation – as defined above – if an outstanding school joined the group). The important thing is for MATs not to kid themselves or their prospective partners: to be clear and honest about the approach they are adopting.

Fifth, successful mergers must address substantive as well as symbolic issues of identity. Symbolic issues include agreeing a mission statement, adopting a set of values, commissioning a new website, creating a new logo and promoting the new identity to staff, the community and the wider world. These are important but need to be accompanied by tackling issues of substance – such as governance, the role of the board and local governing bodies, budget management, leadership structures, rationalisation of posts or letting people go who do not share the new vision. For MATs substantive matters also include developing a model for collaborating deeply on school improvement. If MATs are to fully realize their potential this has to go beyond sharing data and holding to account and encompass how leaders and staff across the trust are going to build capacity, share expertise and work together to improve outcomes for children and young people. Symbolic initiatives will be exposed if they are not quickly backed up with decisions on substance.

Sixth, forging a new identity is not just the property of those leading the merger process. Bouchikhi and Kimberly say that ‘Identity is shaped, owned and reinforced by the organisation’s key stakeholders. It lies in the eyes of the beholders.’ Leaders that fail to understand this end up operating in a parallel universe running an organisation that does not reflect how the rest of the world sees them. For MATs this means engaging with staff, parents, pupils, the local community and media, the RSC and other local schools.

Seventh (and from my perspective this cannot be said too often) aligning identities is not a one-off task but a process that takes several years. That fits with what we know about other forms of school partnerships: the benefits will come through if collaboration is pursed in a disciplined way but it can time for the full benefit and impact to be achieved. That is a difficult message but necessary in an education world that all too often is looking for instant improvement.

And so to my own observation. Experience from other parts of the public sector, particularly the NHS, shows that while structural upheaval is under way there is a real risk of an core organisation’s core business suffering. Leaders get distracted, managers  absorbed in other tasks and standards start to slip. This points to MATs ensuring that they stay focused on their immediate school improvement priorities during a M&A process. Changes aimed at improving things for future generations of children and young children should not be at the expense of those currently going through the school system.


Will SRIBs be a damp squib or will they herald something much more significant?

First things first. In order to comprehend this post and keep up-to-date with the burgeoning alphabet soup of government acronyms, you need to know that SRIBs are Sub-Regional Improvement Boards, SSIF is the Strategic School Improvement Fund and TLIF is the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund.

In each of the eight RSC (Regional School Commissioner) regions local authorities (LA)s are being grouped together into  SRIBs. In some cases a single large authority might constitute a sub-region – particularly if it has a significant number of weak or underperforming schools. In other cases the sub-region might comprise several LAs. Although a formal announcement has yet to be made we can expect there to be around 35 of these SRIBs.

SRIBs will bring together Teaching School Council representatives, LA directors of children’s services (or their representative), diocesan representatives, RSCs and/or their deputies and a representative of the DfE’s regional delivery division (of which more anon).

MATs will not be directly represented on SRIBs but through regular sessions between RSCs and MAT CEOs their views will be fed into the Boards.

The remit of SRIBs will – at least to start with – be focused around coordinating the effective use of the £140 million a year of SSIF funding that will run through 2017/18 and 2018/19. SRIBs will identify improvement priorities for their area through data and local intelligence; agree the packages of support that are required to address thematic weaknesses and the challenges of particular struggling schools; make recommendations to the DfE on bids for SSIF funding; and monitor the progress of successful applications.

So is this just more centralist bureaucracy or is it an enlightened and welcome development? Let’s start with the positive.

The good news 

SRIBS build on what has already been developing informally in some RSC areas. The school system has become very fragmented and so it is very welcome that there is to be a forum for bringing together the RSC, LAs, diocesan and Teaching School representatives. It’s also welcome that the new arrangements are place-based and cross the maintained school/academy divide and take an overview of local school improvement issues – irrespective of the school structure or designation. This is long overdue.

The plans also represent a sensible evolution of the original and unrealistic proposals in the 2016 White Paper that envisaged Teaching Schools as the sole or main brokers of school improvement support. But it’s good that the DfE has not thrown out the baby with the bathwater and that teaching school aliances are still being recognised as playing a key role in the improvement agenda.

So far so good – I suspect ministers will not have found it easy to accept the need for this sort of machinery but credit to them for biting the bullet.

Questions and reservations

Having said that I have a number of reservations and questions about the new arrangements.

First, the DfE is making the same mistake that New Labour made post 2000. A whole range of funding pots are being established which require groups of schools to submit bids. As well as the SSIF and TLIF there is funding for Opportunity Areas, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the Academy Growth Fund and LA commissioned school improvement. The history of competitive bidding (both within and outside education) as a device for distributing funding to support improvement is not that strong. It sucks up a lot of time putting bids together, some bidders syphon off funding to help plug baseline funding gaps and prop up their main budget. Improvement effort also tends to fall away when the funding stops – the risk is that the programme is seen as an add-on rather than being mainstream.

Second, the funding for the SSIF only runs for two years: all interventions must end by March 2019. That’s crazy – many projects will really only just be getting into their stride when they have to stop. The lesson from so many programmes (e.g. Excellence in Cities and London Challenge) is that you need to sustain the strategy over a much longer period. You also need to refine interventions evaluating impact as you go. The learning from an 18 month project (which is what the phase 2 applications will be) is bound to be be limited.

Third, it is a deficit model – SSIF is focused on weaknesses. High-performing jurisdictions such as Ontario focus on all schools working together to effect improvement across the board. So is it sensible to separate the SSIF and TLIF agendas – particularly as the sums involved are not that large and only the SSIF will come within the remit of SRIBs?

Fourth, will SRIBs have enough financial muscle? £140 million a year may sound a lot but £600 million was cut from school improvement support when the Education Services Grant was axed. Moreover sharing the SSIF funding among 35 SRIBs would mean mean just £4 million per sub-region. That’s welcome additional support but hardly an abundance of riches. However, adding in the £75 million from the TLIF, the £50 million allocated to LAs and the extra £20 million for the EEF would double the sum each sub-region received. This would provide a much more  realistic pot for supporting a holistic school improvement strategy for a sub-region.

Fifth, SRIBs as constituted at this stage, perpetuate a centralist model. Yes, co-ordinating the views and work of a range of stakeholders is a good thing. Basing SSIF recommendations on the views of a National Expert Panel is sensible and progressive. But decisions are still ultimately being taken by Ministers. Civil servants are in the driving seat at every level of the process. Surely it would have been more interesting and innovative to have let SRIBs make their own decisions and compare and contrast how different sub-regions operated and made impact.

The DfE still essentially sees itself as a giant local education authority responsible for all schools in the country. A tendency that is likely to be reinforced as the department extends its regional operations and delivery functions. Sitting alongside the RSCs and their staff will be a new Education Standards team. Their remit will cover wider school improvement, teacher sufficiency and teacher leadership and development issues. In practice I foresee some tensions between RSCs and their Education Standards colleagues with academies having to respond to demands from both teams.

Sixth, excluding all MAT CEOs from SRIBs seems a bit odd. They constitute some of our most able and strategic school thinkers and leaders. The reason given is that there might be a conflict of interest – i.e. MATs might be subject to intervention and/or be involved in a SSIF bid. But teaching school council representatives on SRIBs will also face some of those issues in that they will be very much involved in bids. Surely MAT representatives could be involved but recuse themselves from any matter in which their MAT was involved.

Seventh, how does this agenda fit with the role of other local bodies? Some LAs, for example, have their own highly effective improvement board arrangements, in which school leaders play a leading role. City mayors may not have a formal remit for education but if the example of London is anything to go by a concern about skills will quickly move mayors into engaging with the quality of schooling.

Some of these concerns may be unfair. After all we are only at the start of a process and changes could be made along the way. I hope that SRIBs really do add value and that this leads to greater trust in local arrangements. But I am left with this question: will SRIBs and SSIF become an effective platform for harnessing, steering and realising the full value of school-led improvement expertise or do they represent the beginning of the end for the vision of a school-led improvement system?



Beyond MATs – how local networks could help accelerate the development of MATs

The performance of MATs is, to quote the recent report of the Education Select Committee, ‘limited and variable’. We also know that many MATs are still in need of considerable strengthening and development. They can now access capacity building grants via their Regional School Commissioner and a growing range of development programmes are coming on line to help MAT leaders to reflect on and understand how they might build capacity. But I want to suggest that there might be sources of support for MATs that are much closer to home.

Listed below are ten areas of potential MAT weakness where local school partnerships, universities, employers,  local authorities and community organisations might be a source of practical help for MATs. In some localities the local education infrastructure may be very fragmented or broken. Some MATs may be operating in a local environment that is hostile to MATs. But there are areas where there is still a strong sense of local identity and a functioning education community. In these localities there is life beyond MATs and a range of networks that can provide support and resource.

MATs do not have to invent or do everything themselves. Forming a MAT is not a virility test. Nor do MATs have to prove their distinctiveness by turning their back on what is working well locally. Some MATs could make faster progress by being more open to using help that is on their doorstep.

Here are the 10 suggested areas where MATs might consider checking out what support is, or could be, available locally.

  1. Governance – an area-wide school partnership could provide MATs with links to the business community and the third sector, and establish a clearing house for identifying appropriate personnel for MAT boards and local governing bodies. Some small MATs might be well advised to continue using local authority clerking services – where they are knowledgable, efficient and cost effective.
  2. Leadership – a local teaching school alliance should be able to provide access to development programmes for aspiring, middle and senior leaders. Experienced local heads from outside a MAT may be equipped to act as mentors or coaches for new heads or executive heads within a MAT. School partnership boards could, along with their local authority and teaching school alliance (TSA), commission or provide a strategic programme for developing leadership talent. The Getting Ahead programme commissioned by the Mayor of London through Challenge Partners and PwC helps talented senior leaders to become future principals. It’s a prime example of what is possible on an area or regional basis.
  3. Quality assurance – this area is an obvious win. Many schools are now using structured peer review as a key plank of their improvement strategy. Peer review within a small or even medium-sized MAT will be limited in the value it adds. Academies within a MAT will gain from being challenged on their practice and will learn from participating in reviews of other schools and MATs. In areas such as Bradford, Wigan and Cumbria MATs are part of networks encompassing all schools that are sharing data and using this to commission support.
  4. Curriculum development – some of the most interesting and effective educational programmes both in this country and other jurisdictions have come when schools in an area or sub-region collaborate closely on designing and implementing a shared curriculum model. Maybe that is too ambitious to expect in the fragmented educational world of today but schools and colleges across an area – irrespective of whether they are part of a MAT or not – could support each other to implement curricular programmes such as Maths mastery, computer coding and the new GCSEs and T-levels. They are also more likely to get a positive response from employers if there is a co-ordinated approach to issues relating to work experience and business engagement. In addition TSAs can convene networks and master classes for subject leaders. And, schools across a locality can benefit hugely by practising systematic and rigorous moderation.
  5. School-to-school improvement – this is another obvious area where MATs can benefit from the combined strength of a broader base of schools. This may come in the form of specialist expertise to tackle particular challenges, high quality professional development programmes, inquiry-led learning projects or participating in one of the Education Endowment Foundation’s research projects.
  6. Staff recruitment – there is an overwhelming case for accelerating moves towards organising initial teacher education on a sub-regional basis. We need to end the tension between university and school-based routes and get schools and higher education working together to deliver a curriculum that, over a three to five year period, provides trainees with the academic knowledge, pedagogical expertise and the classroom skills they need to become effective, with assignments at different schools extending beyond the initial PGCE year. More immediately locality-based teacher recruitment pools and fairs and an area-wide approach to NQT and post-NQT development would benefit MATs.
  7. Behaviour management – it may be too much to expect collaboration around general admission procedures. But fair access protocols around hard-to-place pupils are a must and could provide the basis for co-ordinating access to alternative provision and sharing staff and units with specialist expertise.
  8. Special needs – this is another no-brainer where it makes sense for small MATs to collaborate with other schools in their area to commission assessment services for pupils with high-level needs, agree pathways for supporting pupils with different types and levels of need, develop SENCOs and co-ordinating access to specialist support.
  9. Pupil welfare and well-being – drawing on a local authority’s safeguarding expertise and the procedures and the practice of other MATs and schools will help new MATs make sure they are on top of a high-risk issue. There is also the potential for schools in a locality to use their collective muscle to pin down the support that children’s services and clinical commissioning groups will provide on issues such as mental health. Schools as a group could also develop an extra-curriculum offer or entitlement for every pupil by building links with arts, sporting and community organisations.
  10. Sustainability – at a time of acute budget pressures the numbers on a school’s roll are hugely significant. We cannot afford too much surplus capacity – much as the market purists may desire it. MATs should be first in line to support working with other schools and statutory agencies on agreeing a coherent plan for pupil places, free schools and post-16 provision. Competitive pressures should not prevent MATs from getting involved in dialogue on this. Nor should MAT hold back from sharing with each other their thinking around MAT growth – not least because MAT mergers are becoming a feature of the MAT landscape. There is also scope for MATs to collaborate with other MATs on the organisation of back office functions and/or to commission them from other providers (including potentially their local authority). It would be ludicrous to expect every MAT to try to be a self-sufficient provider of all the functions it needs.

Essentially my argument is this. MATs can become a powerful vehicle for improving pupil progress and outcomes but they need to focus more on school improvement. The more they can free themselves to focus on this by drawing on other parts of the local educational ecosystem to help accelerate their viability and capacity the better. If they do this they will also be helping to support the growth of a more responsive and more effective form of middle tier.





Achievement First – learning for MATs from a charter school network

Ever since the multi-academy revolution got under way it has seemed odd to me that neither policy makers nor MATs have tried to learn more systematically from the experience and lessons of the not-for-profit charter school networks in the USA. They are arguably the closest cousins that MATs have and they have been around for 10 to 15 years longer. The failure is all the more remarkable because as their approaches to school improvement have tended to be more systematic than have thus far been adopted in many MATs.

Over the past couple of months I have been in contact with Achievement First, a charter school network of 32 schools operating in three cities in Connecticut, in Providence, Rhode Island and Brooklyn, New York. Like many MATs Achievement First grew out of a strong school, which opened in 1999, with the charter school network established in 2003 by the founders of that school.

Most of the network’s schools are new schools – what we would call Free Schools – rather than turn-around schools. MAT leaders would also recognise Achievement First’s mission, which is to close the achievement gap and “to prove that urban students can achieve at the same high levels as their suburban peers”. Unlike MATs all pupils are admitted through a blind lottery system. Ninety eight per cent of students are African American or Latino and, reflecting the overall network average, over 80 per cent of the students qualify for a free or reduced-priced lunch.

The network has a big central office team of 200. However, this includes principals and academic deans who are employed centrally. In the Brooklyn school I visited they had seven academic deans: three focused on coaching and instructional issues (one of them serving as school principal), one responsible for what we would call pastoral matters, one on attendance, behaviour and relations with parents, one on special needs and one on school operations.

In terms of their approach to school improvement I have picked out twelve characteristics of their model. I am not suggesting that MATs should be following these approaches – what is much more significant is that they have a theory of action. They have a clear strategy for improving outcomes for young people.

  1. Ambitious aspiration – the message at Achievement First schools is that ALL students are going to college and in four out of fives cases they will be the first member of their family to do so. The network continuously exposes students to the college ethos: classrooms are named after universities, and students make field trips to college campuses, hear speakers talk about college, write research papers on colleges and, as described below, master a curriculum designed to facilitate college entry.
  2. A strong focus on attendance – Achievement First schools view class time as sacred. Clear attendance goals are set, backed up by strong, swift intervention with students and parents if student attendance falters. A significant part of a dean’s evaluation consists of his or her ability to maintain 97 per cent, or greater, student attendance.
  3. More time for learning – the Achievement First school day is nearly two hours longer than the traditional public school day, starting with breakfast at 7.15 and finishing at 4pm. This enables many students to have two reading classes and an extended math class every day, with tutoring available during and after school, an average of one to two hours of homework per night, and an intensive independent reading program. However, school finishes at 1pm on Friday, with Friday afternoon allocated for professional development, instruction on specific aspects of pedagogy and time for teachers to co-prepare lessons.
  4. A rigorous curriculum model – working back from the assumption that students need to be college-ready the network has clearly defined ‘scope and sequence’ documents that outline the ambitious academic standards students are expected to master at each grade level, so that success in one grade can be seamlessly built on in the next. Initially the network implemented this approach through having common units of work (equivalent to our schemes of work), with lessons planned in schools. However, Achievement First then bought in central expertise to write high quality lesson plans. Within each the school the academic deans work with teachers on reviewing the lesson plan content so that staff understand and own the content, and have planned in detail how to deliver the lesson to be appropriate to the context and progress of their students. Each segment of a lesson is tightly scripted and timed. This highly scaffolded approach partly reflects the fact that many of the teachers in Achievement First schools are new to teaching.
  5. Real time assessment – in key areas (maths and ELA – English language arts) short weekly tests are administered, with results reviewed by academic deans and followed up with coaching for individual teachers or extra support for specific pupils as required. Every six weeks teachers undertake interim assessments (IA) that measure whether students have actually mastered what they have been taught. Teachers and principals spend a ‘data day’ after each IA dedicated to reviewing the individual assessments and together creating data-driven instructional plans that target whole class, small group and one-on-one instruction to address any gaps in student learning.
  6. A heavy emphasis on building the capacity of teachers – in addition to helping with lesson plans a key role of the academic dean is coaching teachers. Teachers will be observed several times a week. Although the school day is long teachers have an extended amount of time away from the classroom each day to spend on lesson preparation, sessions with their instructional coach, interaction with individual pupils and parents and assessment/marking.
  7. Incentivising good behaviour – merits and demerits are awarded to pupils for upholding (or not) the network’s ‘REACH’ values (Respect, Enthusiasm, Achievement, Citizenship and Hard Work). Each week pupils get a printout that includes their account balance – a summary of their credits and deductions – the credits convert into school dollars that pupils can invest in different types of reward at the student store. If students have an average of 80 school dollars they can earn special privileges and field trips. Demerits are tiered and have different point values, based on severity.
  8. Systematic routines – there are clear procedures for just about everything, and they are written down. From the way students call for attention in class, to using the elevator, to moving from class to class, to going to the bathroom, to building relationships, to diffusing difficult situations, to setting the right climate for the school, the network has built on its experience and codified its standard operating practices.
  9. Personalised pastoral care – Achievement First schools are small learning communities in which all the teachers and leaders know the names of all the students. The schools use a co-advisor system in which a class of 25-27 students is co-advised by two teachers, which enables them to develop meaningful relationships with all the students in their advisory group.
  10. Creating a joyful culture – the discipline of Achievement First’s approach is evident but the network also believes that great education should be ‘rigorous AND fun, challenging AND engaging, structured AND joyful’. Teachers are in part evaluated on their ability to ensure that joy is high in every class and dominates regular school-wide celebrations.
  11. Investing in leadership development – Achievement First has developed a Charter Network Accelerator programme: an intensive training program for charter management organisation (CMO) leaders that draws on the tools, practices and lessons of other high-performing CMOs. Achievement First makes a point of collaborating, learning from and sharing its practices and resources with other CMOs (including making resources available on an open-source basis).
  12. Change management – Achievement First has drawn on the thinking of John Kotter and the Harvard Business School to help build ownership amongst staff for their approaches to working with students. In Brooklyn, for example, the staff work through their values towards the end of each school year so that they are ready to share them with new staff joining them that autumn.

The Achievement First systematic approach is proving effective. You can read about its results on its website as well as its approach to special needs and providing catch-up support. You will also find details about a more innovative approach to schooling that it is trialling  at its  Greenfield site in Connecticut.



MATs: The known unknowns that should be known

For some time now I have been banging the drum for the DfE (though it could equally well be Ofsted, the Education Endowment Foundation, a philanthropist or MATs themselves) to commission research into what is known about how school improvement is working in MATs. After all improving outcomes for pupils is the raison d’être of MATs and so it should not be asking too much to have a deeper understanding about what effective practice looks like.

As a way of taking the debate forward here are are 10 areas where it would make sense for the MAT sector – both established and fledgling MATs – to have greater knowledge about what is happening and, more importantly, what practices and behaviour are having the greatest impact.

  1. Teaching and learning vision – to what extent have MATs thought through and adopted across the academies in their trust a shared vision of what great teaching and learning for their students looks like? How far is that driving the development of a common approach to the design of the curriculum, schemes of work, lesson planning and professional development?
  2. Spectrum of learning needs – how well do MATs understand the learning needs of pupils across their trusts and put in place strategies, provision and specialist support to meet them (including the needs of high potential students)? To what extent are MATs gaming the performance tables by siphoning off pupils with learning challenges and difficulties into inappropriate settings?
  3. Systems for behavior management – how are MAT setting expectations round behaviour standards, classroom management and engagement with parents? Are MATs adopting trust-wide policies for exclusions, arrangements for disruptive pupils, pastoral and pupil support, behaviour management training and rewards and sanctions for pupils ?
  4. Supporting academies to improve – how far does each academy determine its own school improvement strategy or to what extent is this driven at a cluster, regional or MAT level? Does the MAT adopt standard systems for securing improvement and how far does the approach vary according to an academy’s position on its school improvement journey? How are MATs combining and targeting school improvement resources from within individual academies with support and expertise from clusters, other trust academies, the central MAT team, schools outside the MAT and other external support?
  5. Consistency and local identity – what issues are MATs are more likely to see as non-negotiables than others (for example, core data sets, systems for attendance, behaviour, timetabling, assessment, exam board and lesson planning)? Do MATs differentiate their approach according to the issue, the teacher and the performance of academies? How do MATs legitimise non-negotiables through co-construction, evidence and impact? To what extent do they set out in detail in detail how standard systems and processes are to operate? And do the non-negotiables evolve as the MAT grows and matures?
  6. Quality assurance – how are MATs tracking and reporting progress data at different levels of the MAT? Are there clear trends and practices in terms of how MATs are organising  classroom observations, book-checks, peer review, ‘challenge’ sessions with heads of schools, benchmarking within and outside the MAT and using data dashboards as the basis for intelligent reporting to MAT boards?
  7. Leadership deployment and development – how are the respective roles and responsibilities for leading learning and holding academies to account distributed across academies, clusters, regions and the trust as a whole? How does the the MAT deploy and direct expertise across the trust? How are MATs proactively linking leadership development programmes with leadership deployments and coaching?
  8. Professional development and performance management of staff – how are MATs assessing and recognising the performance of staff, applying capability procedures, identifying development needs, organising joint training and development sessions, using shared lesson planning and common coaching models? How far have MATs embraced  inquiry-led learning as a driver of improvement and understood how to practise knowledge transfer within the MAT and with other schools?
  9. Specific pedagogical approaches – how far are MATs adopting specific pedadogical programmes – such as a particular approach to teaching phonics or adopting a maths mastery programme? Are MATs evaluating their pedagogical approaches so that they know whether their pupils are making greater progress than comparable pupils in other schools.
  10. Variations in performance and progress within MATs – what is it that academies or MATs are doing differently that might account for some of their academies, or groups of academies, making faster progress than others?

Analytical and survey work on these issues would need to be linked to using the national pupil data base to identify where there might be links or correlations between practice and performance.

It’s a disgrace that we know more about how charter school groups in the USA operate than we do about how MATs in England are working and developing. It’s time to put this right.Turning the known unknowns into knowns would be an infinitely better use of money than funding the distracting and dangerous grammar school diversion.

Grammar schools: MATs should ignore the siren calls and act together to support all high potential students

The arguments against grammar schools are clear and overwhelming:

  • Selection at 11 presumes intelligence is given and fixed rather than developed and developing. Brain and social development are just about to kick off as young people enter the teenage years and so making a decision at age 11 about the form of schooling for a child is perverse and flawed.
  • Selection at 11 tells the majority of students that they are not in the top echelon and fosters lower self-esteem and can lower both their own and their teachers’ expectations of what they can achieve.
  • Grammar schools have a poor record on social mobility in terms of meeting the needs of pupils on free school meals (FSM) – just a very low percentage (2.4%) of grammar school pupils are FSM. Poorer children are less likely to go to grammar schools than rich peers with the same primary test results. Even introducing quotas for FSM pupils is unlikely to make a material difference: they would only benefit a very small number of pupils.
  • The overall performance of non-grammar school students educated in a selective system is negative rather than positive, when compared with those educated in a comprehensive system.
  • Losing the most able students and staff to grammar schools is likely to have an impact on the balance and cohesion of other schools and their ability to recruit staff.
  • The government has yet to show it can produce a ‘tutor-proof’ test.
  • Education systems that perform best are those that tend not to stratify and stream but prioritise – until at least the age of 16 – all students attaining the required standards while also creating opportunities for the most advanced students to undertake extension work and activities.
  • Grammar schools are a misdirected strategy because the historic problem of English education is not with top performers but with the long tail of under-achievement – relative to student cohorts in other countries.

Despite these arguments some multi-academy trusts (MATs) will come (or feel) under pressure from government ministers to apply to open a grammar school. In some cases, MAT Board members are preempting any approach from the DfE and toying with engaging with the grammar school agenda.

MATs should think very carefully before they clamber aboard this particular runaway train. Here are five questions they should ask themselves:

  1. How would such a move would fit a MAT’s founding mission and values. Organisations dilute or undermine their ethos and moral purpose at their peril. Some MATs may worry about how their ‘brand’ will be perceived if they do not have a grammar school in their stable of schools. But even if they were they to open a grammar school the vast majority of parents and students are still going to be served by non-selective schools. Is the MAT on the side of the many or the few?
  1. How will opening a grammar school further a MAT’s core business and objective of improving outcomes for all pupils? There must be a risk that the agenda becomes a diversion and distraction from improving the rates of progress and performance of pupils across the MAT. This was an issue flagged up by Neil Carmichael MP, the Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee. It’s a concern that reflects the thinking of people like Professor John Hattie who has warned about structural solutions acting as ‘the politics of distraction’ leading educators away from the core business of improving the quality of teaching and learning.
  1. What will be the impact on other schools? Is there a risk that it will sow division amongst headteachers and teachers of schools within the MAT? How will the MAT’s reputation within the wider school community, in the localities where they apply to establish a grammar school, be perceived? What will be the overall impact on pupil place planning? Will it make it easier or harder to collaborate and work with other schools?
  1. What are the financial implications of opening a grammar school? It would appear that there will be some extra capital for new grammar schools but the initiative is unlikely to yield significant extra revenue funding.
  1. How sustainable is the policy? It is still not certain whether and in what form Parliament will legislate on this issue. Even if the proposals are enacted exactly as the government proposes (not the most likely scenario), and even allowing for another Conservative government being elected in 2020, the policy is politically vulnerable in the medium term given the lack of evidence for its provenance. Indeed a Conservative government led by a different Prime Minister might well take a different view of on the issue.

MATs should have confidence in what they are already doing. They are already in the front line of fighting to improve social mobility – they don’t need lectures from the Prime Minster or her adviser on this. However, what MATs as a group might do is call the government’s bluff. If Theresa May is really concerned about extending social mobility then rather than just authorising a costly unproven programme that will benefit relative few young people, she should be open to supporting something altogether more ambitious.

MATs as a class should get together with the Education Endowment Foundation and commit to an action research programme that is evaluated in a rigorous way. The programme would test and implement strategies that support the progress of all students with high potential – and particularly those from poorer backgrounds. Such an approach would build on the evidence of what was most effective in the earlier Gifted and Talented programmes and on learning from other parts of the world. The initiative should involve universities and businesses that value high quality skills and knowledge. However, the programme would particularly target how to empower students and teachers to improve school strategies and classroom practice for those making the fastest progress.

It’s time for MATs as a sector to exercise the moral leadership that is at the heart of what they are trying to do. They should ignore the siren calls of selection. Instead of being seduced by grammar schools MATs together should embrace a new commitment to realising student potential. They should follow though and do this even if the government dismisses and disparages their efforts. MATs should do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do.

Is bigger necessarily better?

Is bigger necessarily better? I pose the question in the context of the growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs). The underlying assumption within the sector is that scaling up MATs and supporting them to expand is both a good and necessary objective. Certainly the Department for Education is putting a lot of resource into supporting the growth of small, medium-sized and even the largest MATs.

This makes sense at a number of levels. A larger MAT of, say, 15 rather than five academies brings economies of scale in terms of procurement, organisation of back office functions, being able to afford a good blend of central professional experts, developing and deploying leadership talent and having a bigger pool of expertise to share across schools. At the ASCL conference last year Sir David Carter set out the fairly compelling financial logic for developing MATs of between 10-15 schools.

However, what is less clear is whether there are some diseconomies of scale – particularly with regard to improving teaching and learning? That is, after all, the core purpose and business of a MAT and must ultimately be the test of their effectiveness. Is there a correlation between size and impact? If there are some diseconomies of scale at what point do they kick in – and why?

We just don’t know the answer to these questions. We do know that overall MAT performance at key stage 2, in terms of pupil progress, is broadly in line with all schools nationally. At key stage 4 the picture is not yet quite so positive – though the profile of historically poorly performing schools taken on by sponsored MATs partly explains this. But we don’t know why some MATs are performing more effectively than others. Without that knowledge or research base it is not surprising that we do not have an overarching framework for guiding the overall shape and development of the MAT sector.

Compulsory academisation has, with the exception of failing schools, been put on the back burner but the drift towards greater and possibly universal academisation of all schools in England continues. But over the next decade are we looking to see the creation of 2,000 MATs with an average of around 10 schools in each MAT? Or is the preferred model of 1,000 MATs with an average of 20 schools per MAT? Or do we envisage 500 MATs each having around 40 academies?

We have a direction of travel (encouraging schools to become academies and supporting MATs to grow) but without any roadmap and without the data necessary to create the map. To change the metaphor we have set sail for a brave new world without any charts and without knowing what lies just over the horizon.

This is an urgent issue. As the chart below shows  81% per cent of academies are in academy trusts that have 10 or fewer academies in them. And there are potentially hundreds if not thousands of new fledgling MATs still to arrive on the scene. Their current size is almost certainly not sustainable in the medium term but what scale of operation should they be considering?

Number of academy trusts by size of trust, December 2016mats-dec-2016


I do not believe there is one optimum size for all MATs – the size of a MAT will depend on the mission, geography, size of schools, organisational structure and school improvement model of the MAT. But we do need to know whether school improvement is best confined to working across groups of 15-20 schools, or whether can it be scaled up sustainably and successfully over larger group of schools and, if so, what are the preconditions for doing this. A few of the biggest MATs can be considered as high performers as measured both by Ofsted judgements and progress in test and exam results. However, other larger MATs have struggled to bring improvement across the board – though in both cases there are significant variations within as well as between MATs. In some cases growth has been sanctioned but at present the jury is out on whether this is working as a significant of their academies have yet to be inspected and/or there are an insufficient number of years over which to assess performance. So it is by no means a given that larger does necessarily equal better.

I would suggest we need to adopt a three-fold strategy.

First, we need to look we can learn from other education jurisdictions about the operation of tight formalised learning networks. Chartered Management Organisations in the US and School Boards in the Netherlands provide an obvious starting point. Take  KIPP Charter Schools as an example. KIPP has grown to comprising 200 schools across the US but uses a federal structure of 31 regions (an average of six to seven schools per region) to operate these schools. KIPP regions are governed by a local board of directors, led by an executive director or superintendent and often partner with neighboring schools and community-based organisations. The role of the KIPP Foundation nationally is to train and develop outstanding educators to lead KIPP schools, provide tools, resources and training for teaching and learning and to promote innovation. Another CMO, Aspire Public Schools, has 40 schools – but focused in just two states: 36 in California and four in Tennessee. The average size of school in both these CMOs is just 400 students.

Second, we need an informed evidenced-based commentary what is happening on the ground within MATs as they expand. We need to understand the different scenarios and models that MATs are using to grow, examine their approaches to school improvement and track and assess their impact in terms of improvements in performance. Correlations may be hard to establish but a process for capturing, refining and sharing learning in a disciplined and systematic way is what is called for.

The MAT ‘health checks’ that are being developed by the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, are a helpful move in this direction. The five domains of the proposed framework (school improvement, governance, people and leadership, financial sustainability and risk management) could potentially provide a sound focus for MATs as they plan to take their organisation to scale. And because it is envisaged that the ‘health checks’ will use a peer review approach they should help to move knowledge around the system. Alongside that, however ,the DfE should as matter of urgency initiate some longitudinal research that tracks and evaluates school improvement models and their relative effectiveness, efficiency and impact. The secretary of state, so it is said, likes evidence-based policy. Well here is a prime case where evidence is urgently needed to inform policy.

Third, we need to change the terms of the debate about the growth of MATs. Many of those reading this blog will be familiar with the graphic that David Hargreaves (see below) developed for explaining the challenge facing teaching school alliances as they developed their partnerships. He plotted time on one axis and partnership depth on another. He suggested that many partnerships started off informally and initially might undertake only relatively superficial collaborative work – such as joint insets. However, as the partnership deepened so it became more formalised.hargreaves-grid

I have adapted that graphic to be relevant to a MAT context (see below) – retaining the horizontal ‘depth’ axis but replacing the vertical ‘time’ axis with ‘number of academies in a MAT’. I worry that despite the debacle of unchecked growth between 2010 and 2012 too many MATs see growth just in terms of expansion to the neglect of depth. Growth should be about both dimensions. mat-growth-and-depth

A mature MAT will prioritise going deeper in terms of facilitating its teachers and leaders to work together ever more closely to improve teaching and learning. They will be testing and understanding how to scale up their school improvement model – that does not mean imposition of standards and systems from the centre (though it may make sense to standardise some approaches) but consolidating knowledge and implementing practice based on collaborative classroom activity that is regularly assessed for its impact. The test of expansion should be whether it adds value to the MAT. Will opening more schools make the MAT stronger and/or more successful at fulfilling its mission? As a study on Chartered Management Organisations puts it:

‘A good practice is to ask yourself and your team, “What are you trying to accomplish and to what extent does that require additional campuses?”’

My hypothesis (to be developed in a later blog) is that the key to combining growth with depth is clustering. Clusters provide the vehicle for deep collaboration focused on teachers and classroom practice, using Hattie-style approaches within and across schools in the cluster to accelerate pupil progress by empowering teachers to plan, develop, observe and coach each other and by assessing the impact on pupils’ learning. A MAT complements this by providing the challenge, professional capital, knowledge and expertise that comes from being part of a larger group. The central team of the MAT evolve to focus on setting a strategic context and clear teaching and learning priorities, facilitating cluster activity, providing research know-how and tools, supplying impact data, helping move knowledge around (through, for example, user-friendly apps and online networks), scaling up what works, holding people and academies to account and ensuring consistency on key fundamentals.

Some MATs might achieve this by working within the parameter of 10-15 academies, as proposed by Sir David Carter. Other MATs may grow larger but should, I suggest, have to demonstrate that they understand how to do practice school improvement at scale and have an effective model for combining cluster and whole MAT activity before they are permitted to grow any further. Some MATs might stay small (below the Carter threshold) and focus on local school improvement while buying support services from another MAT or supplier.

MATs are not ends in themselves. Their purpose must be to improve pupil outcomes, wellbeing and life chances. That entails putting teacher development and improved teaching and learning centre stage. So let’s find out, examine and understand what the best MATs are doing to achieve this and make this the basis for sustainable growth.



Making MATs work for village schools

Can the multi-academy trust model (MAT) be made to work for village schools? This is a vital question as there are 4,000 schools in England with fewer than 150 pupils and 1,400 with fewer than 75 pupils.

In some circles and among some academy groups there is an assumption that the MAT model is not viable for these small schools. And, given their business and operating model, it would indeed be hard for some of the larger more established MATs to take in and support schools with just 30 or 50 pupils each.

However, the MAT model can be applicable to our smallest schools provided certain conditions are met. In reaching that conclusion we need to draw on the evidence of how federations in rural areas have helped to safeguard the future of small schools that otherwise might no longer be viable – and look at the experience of the rural MATs that are already up and running.

First – and perhaps obviously – small schools need to pool all their back office, administrative and support functions so that they are all run directly by the MAT – and/or outsourced to another organisation to provide. Most MATs adopt such a strategy but normally take a few years to completely integrate these functions. Village MATs would need to bite the bullet and be prepared to start off with centralised business functions from day one.

Second, the model will only work if there are a number of village schools in the same locality that can be formed into a cluster or clusters. These clusters then need to be run as a virtual single school – for example, sharing school leaders, subject leaders and special needs co-ordination. An executive head would lead the cluster with a nominated teacher (or in a larger village school, ‘head of school’) designated as the responsible person on the site for day-to-day contact with parents. This would strengthen leadership and expertise but provide a more cost effective model for providing schooling.

Critics or sceptics of this approach, which might include parents and governors of village schools, would argue that they would be losing control of ‘their’ school. That need not be the case. They could, for example, retain a Local Governing Body. Each school should also be encouraged and expected to retain its own sense of identity and engagement with the local community.

Third, the MAT would ideally include 1,000 pupils or more. This might be achieved by, say, 15 schools operating through three clusters. Fewer schools/clusters could be viable if they were conceived as being the rural hub or hubs of a MAT that also operated one or more urban clusters – this is a model RSCs should be encouraging.

Fourth, village schools might have to contribute a topslice that is a bit higher than the average (of four to five per cent) – but for many of them that would be no different from what they have been paying to their local authority.

Fifth, the DfE, the Church of England National Society and the Catholic Church would need to revisit their National Memoranda of Understanding. Roughly a third of primary schools are voluntary aided or controlled and they normally co-exist in close proximity to village schools. It makes sense for faith-based and community school to be able to work together in MATs – while respecting and safeguarding their distinctive traditions. It’s crazy to force them to work in separate silos. The Church of England is happy to accept community schools into diocesan and Anglican faith-based MATs, but both faith traditions resist ‘their’ schools joining in a mixed MAT if they are not able to nominate the members and thus oversee the appointment of Board trustees/directors. They are worried that any dilution of faith control would lead to the loss of ‘their’ schools to the state. The Memoranda of Understanding in effect acquiesce in this concern.

There are, however, alternative models. For example, one or two dioceses have agreed, as an exception, to a faith school being part of a non-faith led MAT and for an addendum to the Funding Agreement being used to safeguard the religious character and governance of the school. That model should become much more common. It would enable sensible geographical clusters to develop while safeguarding the legitimate concerns of the church authorities. Issues related to land and assets would also need to be accommodated – but that cannot be any more complex to resolve than PFI!

Governors and dioceses need to put aside their vested interests and consider what is in the best interests of the children. Although many village schools are delivering a high quality of education the model is fragile – it only needs one teacher to go sick or perform poorly or for the head to hand in their notice and the school can end up in a vulnerable position. Recruiting heads for these schools is becoming harder and in some cases impossible. Moreover being part of a MAT would free teachers from many administrative burdens and give them access to a much richer range of professional development. Pupils would have access to a richer repertoire of teaching and have new opportunities to work pupils in other schools.

The clinching argument is this. Unless some village schools are prepared to change they risk being closed. The economics of education funding over the next few years will make it harder for them to survive. We should be supporting the retention of village schools – which are often central to the sense of identity and vitality in a community – by enabling them to adapt to a changing environment. The government should earmark some of its capacity and growth funding to support the development of more MATs focused on rural schools – learning from federations and those village-based MATs that are already up and running.

Where is the MAT agenda going?

Now that Justine Greening has announced that the government is abandoning plans to coerce all school into becoming academies – at least for the time being – it’s a good moment to reappraise where we are with the academies and the multi-academy trust (MAT) agenda.

Here are ten issues for school leaders, governors and policy makers to reflect on:

  1. Schools (apart those deemed inadequate by Ofsted) can now decide in their own time whether and how to become an academy and join a MAT. They have the space to find partners with a shared vision and values and undertake due diligence. There is now no excuse for forming what I call ‘manic MATs’ – i.e groups (of often local) schools rushing to huddle together because they are frightened of being ‘done to’ or taken over by a ‘predatory’ MAT. A school now has the time to consider and identify those schools and/or MATs that will best help it to meet the challenges it faces and deliver the best outcomes for its pupils.
  2. Many of the early stand-alone converter academies may find that they need to review their position. Given the scale of change and challenges facing schools, it is questionable whether operating as a single school represents a wise long-term policy. However, I suspect that many stand-alone secondary academies will find it hard and painful to make the journey from what they perceive as ‘autonomy’ to real and deep collaboration. And some will leave it too late to to make the move.
  3. The rationale and narrative for joining or forming a MAT needs to shift. Instead of MAT status being seen as a punishment for weak academies it should be conceived as the route to the deepest form of school partnership. MATs provide a vehicle for schools to work together but within a  disciplined framework – lacking in many other partnership initiatives and structures – that holds school to account both individually and collectively for their progress and impact.
  4. The practice of many MATs in helping to develop talent, introduce new leadership models and forge a leadership pipeline should be shared more widely. It’s a message that governors worried about finding or recruiting  a replacement head need to hear.
  5. The opportunity to reorganise business functions and so free school leaders to  focus more on teaching and learning  is another plus for the MAT model. It could also provide a route to reducing the admin workload of teachers.  And, of course, economies of scale increasingly come into play as MATs grow. This will be vital as budget pressures increase. Those MATs that want to remain small will need to examine buying business support functions lock, stock and barrel from another MAT or organisation – rather than spend lots of time and effort trying to make their own operation viable.
  6. There needs to be much more emphasis on the core business of MATs: school improvement. What is it that the best MATs are doing that is helping to accelerate progress and impact? How are they organising quality assurance oversight, developing staff,  organising coaching, facilitating inquiry-led learning, moving expertise around academies and co-constructing curriculum and lesson plans?  Which issues and approaches are mandatory across the MAT and which are are left to individual academies?  It’s a scandal that the DfE is not commissioning independent research on this.
  7. More resource needs to go into organisational capacity building. The DfE does provide capacity building funds to fledgling MATs – though whether all of them use the money wisely is another matter. It has also facilitated the start-up of various CEO development programmes. But it’s been woefully late in the day and is nowhere near being delivered at the scale that will enable, over time, the establishment of 2,000 highly effective MATs.
  8. Mergers between MATs are popping up here and there. We can expect more as part of a consolidation of the sector – we need to understand how to do this effectively. Watch this space for a future blog!
  9. Regional Schools Commissioners seem to be struggling to find sufficient sponsors to support all those schools requiring significant or substantial improvement. As well expanding capacity-building efforts, a clear set of principles or a template for providing financial support to MATs that take on such schools might help – particularly if the approach were applied consistently across the country.
  10. As the post below this one argued there are a range of governance issues that need sorting out. This should not all be left to the government – the MAT sector needs to come together and provide leadership. We need a stronger voice for MATs. A school-led self-improving system requires this!

A huge amount of effort and public money has gone into developing MATs. Arguments rage about whether it has been worthwhile. In my view it’s still too early to make that call – but what I am clear about is that the investment is more likely to be justified if we attend in greater detail to building MATs carefully and sustainably.






Governing responsibly: tackling the weaknesses in the governance of academy trusts

The conduct of academy trusts is never far from the news. Just last week the spotlight was on the Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) for its failure to publish a review into alleged financial irregularities at Bright Tribe Academies Trust. The Labour Party at its conference promised to give local authorities greater oversight of academies’ finances.

In many ways the question marks over academies are unfair. Most trusts are being competently led, managed and governed. Indeed the academy governance model has a number of virtues. It is more flexible and less bureaucratic than the traditional model of governing maintained schools. The advent of board decision-making has placed a greater emphasis on getting people with the right skills round the table. The separation between board and school-level governance roles is enabling schools leaders to focus more on leading learning

However, as in other other areas of life a relatively few bad apples are tarnishing the reputation of the whole multi-academy trust (MAT) sector and eroding public confidence in the academy model. There have been four problems:

  1. Over-rapid expansion of academies. It hasn’t just been one MAT but probably up to 20 that have been encouraged and allowed to expand too fast. Sir David Carter and Michael Wilshaw were pretty damning about this in their evidence to the Education Select Committee in July. And it is not entirely clear to me that the lessons have been completely learnt. Where were boards of directors when this level of expansion was driven by over-ambitious CEOs took place? Where was the exercise of due diligence?
  2. Poor financial oversight. Since March 2014, 45 academy trusts have been issued with financial notices to improve. In some cases the issue relates to deficits, in some cases to lack of financial systems, in some cases to fraud and in some cases to inappropriate payments (in particular the issue of third party payments to those connected with the board and associated failures to declare interests, follow due process and adhere to proper contractual procedures).
  3. Questionable remuneration packages. In July  The Observer exposed ‘the extravagant expenses’ paid to  a number of senior MAT employees. In March Sir Michael Wilshaw tartly told the Secretary of State in March 2016 that the “Salary levels for the chief executives of some of these MATs [subject to batch inspections by Ofsted] do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies.”
  4. Weak control of academic standards and progress. Since 2012, more than 160 academies have received warning, pre-warning or termination notices (50 in the last academic year). In part this is related to the over-rapid expansion of academies between 2010 and 2013 but in part it is separate. Between September 2015 and June 2016, 119 academies had to be re-brokered from one sponsor to another And the rate of progress in moving schools out of Ofsted categories is nothing to shout about – though  we should remember that MATs have taken on some of the toughest schools in the system.

These are the symptoms of something being amiss with academy governance in at least part of the sector. The symptoms are serious but we also need to dig below the surface and identify the deeper problems. To start with some boards and CEOs seem to have lost their moral compass. They may have started off committed to improving outcomes and life chances for young people but somewhere along the way they got seduced into building empires, making money and rewarding friends and colleagues. They fall into a mindset where they seem to think that that they own the MAT – it is ‘their’ organisation to do with as they please.

Second, MAT governance is too heavily weighted towards upward accountability – i.e. to Ministers via regional school commissioners – and not sufficiently rooted in reporting to parents, pupils and the local community. A system built on heavy upward accountability tends to foster a culture of compliance and game playing in order to meet targets and expectations. A process that values stakeholder engagement requires a more open, transparent and inclusive approach to performance and the rate of progress. They are not, of course either/or options – both are needed. But funding agreements prioritise accountability to the centre rather than to the locality.

Third, there are structural weakness in the academy governance model. There is not a sufficient separation between those who serve as members of a trust and those appointed as directors. So when it comes to appointing (or dismissing) directors the decisions are effectively in the hands of a self-perpetuating caucus. In addition the respective roles of the chair and the CEO are not always thought through and delineated.

Some MATs have made the mistake of carrying over the culture of governance and the personnel from the schools they inherited without understanding the  statutory responsibilities of director. In other MATs they have failed to properly consider and agree which decisions are to be taken at board, which at cluster and which at academy level. Consequently they find that their schemes of delegation are confusing and directors and local governors come into conflict with the central MAT.

Perhaps most worrying is the misapplication of the concept of earned autonomy. The assumption in some MATs is that if a school is performing strongly it should have maximum freedom and the MAT should not interfere with its leadership and management. Of course the strengths and identify of such academies should be respected but the whole point of a MAT is to grow a teaching and learning model where schools are continually and ever more deeply engaging with, learning from and support each other. That requires a shared purpose, shared leadership, shared systems, shared resources and shared accountability. MATs are, at best, unlikely to reach their potential and, at worst, storing up problems for the future if the MAT is simply a holding body for a series of largely autonomous units.

Fourth, some MATs have  believed their own hype. Business guru, Jim Collins, describes the classic pathway to failure of once highly successful corporations: they succomb to ‘hubris born of success’, engage in ‘an undisciplined pursuit of more’ and practise ‘a denial of risk and peril’. Those descriptors apply all too aptly to the actions of some of our MATs.

Fifth, there are systemic weaknesses in compliance systems. In some MATs monitoring systems are patchy – they do not have a real-time grip on academic or financial performance and pupil wellbeing. Internal audit procedures are not always well entrenched. External auditors are missing key issues. The EFA is overstretched having to oversee more and more and more academies with fewer resources. We have to rely on Freedom of Information requests and whistle-blowers to identify a number of the worst abuses.

Sixth, some MATs are struggling to get full value from their trustees/directors. In part this may be – particularly in fledgling MATs – there is a failure to appreciate the implications of being on a company board means and exercising the legal responsibilities of a director. In part it may be because boards fail to get the right blend of skills round the table and in part it may be because a trust does not put sufficient effort and resource into training and developing its board and governors (or academy council members).

So what’s to be done about this state affairs? Here is another of my ‘lists of 10 useful suggestions’ – this one targeted on improving MAT governance.

  1. Establish and live by your values throughout the organisation. Effective MATs are grounded in the vision and mission of what they are trying to achieve and have adopted core values of how as a group of academies they will work together.  Leaders model these values which have been been discussed with staff and shared with the wider school community. Developing and instilling the value base of the organisation is probably the single most important way of improving MAT governance.
  2. Review the governance structure. Review how many members the MAT has and make sure that most of them do not serve in a dual capacity as directors. The EFA should consider lowering the threshold for having an audit committee from £50 million to £10 million but in the meantime MATs need to make sure that their internal audit mechanisms and reporting arrangements are robust.  A remuneration committee should also be the norm (it won’t meet many times a year) and it should have access to good independent advice.
  3. Be clear about what’s to be decided at what level within the MAT and reflect that in detailed schemes of delegation, governance handbooks and training programmes. Getting this right may be demanding and involve hard conversations but ideally the arrangements will be co-constructed and so command support across the MAT. All who are exercising responsibility – board members, the centrally employed staff of the MAT, governors/academy council members and senior and middle in individual academies – each needs to have a precise understanding of their respective accountabilities. That includes CEOs and chairs of boards having a clear understanding of how they will exercise their remits.
  4. Adopt a growth strategy having regard to a MAT’s wider context. There is a lot of pressure on MATs to expand – both to reach what is considered a viable economic scale of operation and to help with improving struggling schools.  Those can be perfectly reasonable objectives. But good governance will also consider another dimension of growth – depth. What does the MAT need to do to develop its organisational capacity and business systems, its staff and leaders and, above all, what are the priorities for improving teaching and learning? These factors need to be looked at alongside expanding the number of academies. Sometimes growth means having a period of consolidation rather than accepting more academies. As and when expansion is the right course then the board needs to insist on applying thorough due diligence to each and every academy it is minded to take into the MAT.
  5. Operate real time tracking systems across all areas of activity. Smart data systems and easy-to-read dashboards should, of course, track educational progress and performance and monitor financial out-turns. But they should also encompass other areas of activity such as attendance (of staff and pupils), pupil mobility, staff turnover, behaviour, exclusions, health and safety, applications for entry, safeguarding and looked after children. Directors need the information to able to spot worrying trends,  provide challenge and authorise and – where necessary – insist on corrective action.
  6. Step up a gear on training and development for directors and governors/academy council members. That starts with MATs looking at their induction programmes to ensure that new trustees understand their statutory responsibilities as company directors. For those in governance positions in local academies it will mean them understanding what their role is – and how fits into a broader governance framework. It will also involve identifying accurately the development needs of directors and governors. Doing this then provides a platform for a cross-MAT training programme. By bringing together those involved in governance across the MAT, training sessions will help forge links and relationships and contribute to building the social capital of the MAT – as well deepening knowledge of key issues.
  7. Practise strong local accountability so that a MAT feels answerable to local stakeholders alongside its obligations to government. A MAT can do this by adopting a transparent and open approach that enables local people to access its data, finances and outcomes of its meetings. MATs can also engage with parents and local communities through parent councils, family learning, online communication and consultation sessions. I would also argue that mature governance would see MATs encouraging their schools to be collegiate: collaborating with other schools and the local authority on issues such as place planning, admissions, special needs and vulnerable groups of children.
  8. Observe the advice of Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT. Russell argues that headteachers (and MAT leaders) should be paid through a single base salary, set by the trust and approved by the trustees. If senior leaders are undertaking additional work over and above their normal roles the proper way for that effort to be recognised is through their salary rather than them taking a share of any income generated for the trust. Russell also advises MAT leaders to avoid employing close relatives and related-party transactions which have been open to abuse.
  9. Provide a stronger mandate to and oversight of external audit and establish an independent regulator. It is wishful thinking to expect the EFA to oversee and check the financial proprieties of each academy trust. The rising number of academies and MATs will just swamp the diminishing resources of the EFA. Better for the EFA to focus on improving the quality of external audit  by ensuring the audit framework is fit for purpose, that appointment of auditors is undertaken properly and that audit firms are held to account for weaknesses and irregularities they fail to spot. And better still if there were also an independent regulator of academy finances that reported to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
  10. The sector (i.e. MAT leaders) to step up and provide leadership. We are moving to to a school-led system. So, just as we are looking to school leaders to provide the system leadership and commitment to improve all schools, we should likewise expect MAT leaders and board chairs to step up to the plate and lead moves for more effective governance – as has been done in the corporate sector. The MAT sector might draw up a code of conduct for MAT directors. It could develop some training and self-evaluation tools for MATs,  provide opportunities for debate and exchange of practice and establish a forum for engaging with regulators and the media.

It’s not too late to do something about the weakness in MAT governance. But time is running out. Each new scandal and fresh revelation chips away at the trust in the academy governance model and provides ammunition for those who would be quite happy for MATs to fail. Let’s act before it’s too late.