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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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 ?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.