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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.