Academy chains

Note: on this page the most recent addition to my blog on the hallmarks of effective academy chains appears at the top, with previous sections coming below. So the section that follows (‘Effective governance of multi-academy trusts) is the ninth section and the eight previous sections (‘An introduction to the development of chains’; ‘Effective academy chains – applying a conceptual framework’; ‘Using vision and strategy to shape an academy chain’; ‘Managing the expansion of academy chains’; ‘What does to mean to be the CEO of a multi-academy trust?’;  ‘Inspection of academy chains’ ; ‘School improvement in multi-academy trusts’ and ‘Effective governance of multi-academy trusts’)  can be found below it. The intention is to build up a comprehensive guide on leading and running academy chains.

The performance of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is increasingly coming under the spotlight. Independent research reports are benchmarking the performance of different types of academies with other comparable schools and new tables from the Department for Education are analysing the performance of MATs. These reports are also highlighting variations in performance and progress within MATs.

So here are ten principles that MATs can use to judge the effectiveness of their performance systems:

  1.  Look at performance in the round. The best MATs are using systems that integrate performance data across a range of domains. In other words they are bringing together data from their different academies covering such areas as attendance (both pupil and staff), behavior, progress, attainment, teacher performance, financial monitoring, unit costs, safeguarding and child welfare. Effective MATs are also ensuring that their performance targets include measures that relate to their wider vision and mission as well to the government’s expectations for academic attainment.
  2. Standardise management information systems. Academies coming into a MAT may well be using different systems. It will normally make sense to move to having common systems across the MAT as soon as possible.
  3. Develop a shared understanding of the metrics that underpin the approach to performance management. At a simple level this might mean making sure that all schools in the MAT work to the same framework for defining and reporting unacceptable behavior. At a deeper level it will involve having a shared view of what outstanding teaching and learning looks like; building a common view of the standards that children in each year group should be achieving; defining the progress they should be making each year; and agreeing how to assess this.
  4. Ensure as much data is reported in real time as possible. This will look different for different issues. Smart recording of attendance and behavior data, for example, enables trends to be monitored (if necessary) on a daily basis. Many schools track pupils’ educational performance against projected or targeted progress on a half termly basis. For some groups of children and schools it might need to be more frequent. But whatever the frequency the information reports need to be available quickly as time lost waiting for the analysis equates to days and weeks lost in taking remedial action. Quality assurance sessions across a MAT, along with local governing body and board meetings, need to be timed to fit in with data reports becoming available.
  5. Invest in thinking about how best to present data. Classroom teachers will mainly want to see and analyse data relating to individual pupils. Middle leaders, on the other hand, may be more interested in looking at progress across a subject or a year – or at the performance of particular sub groups of pupils. Senior MAT leaders will need regular reports on how each academy is progressing relative to its improvement targets along with prompts that quickly alert them to academic or financial performance going awry. MAT boards will require their own particular type of data report that enables them to easily and clearly assess the all-round progress and performance of each academy without having to wade through umpteen pages of textual commentary. Similarly reporting to parents – both collectively and individually – will entail different formats.
  6. Benchmark the MAT with others. Many MATs have vision or mission statements that talk about the high aspirations or expectations they have for their pupils. If this is to mean anything then the MAT should be ensuring that they are constantly looking to compare performance not just across the MAT or with other similar schools but with top quartile performers as well. Benchmarking helps guard against complacency and makes an organisation ask questions about why it is not achieving the standards others are reaching. Encouraging academies to be active members of broader school groupings – such as teaching school alliances, Challenge Partners or locality-based partnerships – will also help the MAT to avoid becoming too insular in its thinking on performance.
  7. Reality check what the performance data is telling you. Learning walks, classroom observations, drop-ins, book checks, moderation sessions and one-to-one meetings are just some ways in which MAT staff and senior leaders across academies can jointly challenge and delve into what the data is showing. This also helps to develop consistency of practice across the MAT.
  8. Use data to develop schools as well as hold people to account. Too often performance data and management are identified solely with accountability. But data is like a can opener – it shows areas that need investigation. So, for example, data might show that a particular group of pupils is struggling. That can be harnessed to pupil voice to find out pupil perspectives on their learning and why they are not making faster progress. Peer reviews that help an academy to reflect on its development will be most effective when they are grounded in data analysis. Particular issues flagged by data reports might lead to commissioning a group of middle leaders to work on a specific challenge across the MAT. And data will form an essential part of the annual conversation with each teacher about a personal plan for their further development.
  9. Know your impact. This is a point powerfully made by Professor John Hattie: data is our friend in helping us to understand what approaches in the classroom are having greater impact than others. Empowering teachers across a MAT to work together to understand how their teaching and learning can be more impactful is at the heart of what any MAT should be about.
  10. Co-construct as much of your approach to data and performance management as possible. There may be some ‘non-negotiables’ that all academies in the MAT have to adhere to – particularly if a school is joining a MAT. But ideally there is buy-in to the performance management regime from all the schools in the trust.

EFFECTIVE ACADEMY CHAINS – INTRODUCTION

At the end of May 2014 the Department for Education (DfE) sent to all academy sponsors the results of research it had undertaken on the characteristics of effective academy sponsors. The report took the form of a PowerPoint presentation  entitled ‘What does a high performing academy sponsor look like?’. The presentation is important – and certainly not before time.

One of the early acts of the Coalition government between 2010 and 2012 was to oversee a rapid expansion of the number of academies sponsored by chains. At the same time it abolished the system, introduced at in the dying days of the Labour administration, for accrediting sponsors. The process for becoming a sponsor became very murky. And, as explained in both the report I co-wrote for the National College*  and in the report of the Academies Commission** the process for allocating academies to sponsors was also less than transparent!

Not surprisingly the explosion in the size of some chains – particularly those which yielded to the temptation to accept all the schools pressed on them by the DfE – has resulted in a huge number of problems. Some chains developed with little if any geographical coherence, with no business model for how they were going to run the chain and, crucially, insufficient understanding, expertise and capacity for improving the schools they were taking on. There was also little if any thought by central government of how the performance of academy chains was to be overseen. The result was that while well-grounded chains that grew carefully on the whole managed the risks of expansion well, others increased in size so fast that they inevitably got into difficulties. The problems of EACT and AET have been well-advertised but the ‘stop’ notices on the expansion of 14 other chains (down from 25 some months earlier) shows that the quality assurance issue was part of a much wider phenomenon.

The government did not have just have problems with sponsors responsible for multiple academies. It was also faced with the embarrassment that some long-standing – and often stand-alone – sponsors were struggling to make any measurable impact in terms of school improvement. In fact ten years after they opened Ofsted was placing a number of the first academies in ‘special measures ‘ or judging them to be in need of ‘significant improvement’.

A change of strategy

The appointment of Lord Nash as Academies Minister and the arrival of Theodore Agnew as a non-executive director and chair of the Academies Board in the DfE resulted in a radical change of approach. Prospective sponsors now have to complete an application form (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academy-sponsor-application-form) that is ironically much more detailed and onerous than that developed by the outgoing Labour government. For their application to be successful sponsors have to show in detail:

  • strong planning, including, where necessary, realistic regional growth plans;
  • evidence of achieving lasting educational improvement;
  • evidence of financial expertise; and
  • clear governance structures and lines of accountability.

The new DfE regime has become very proactive in monitoring the performance of academy chains, issuing ‘pre-warning’ notices, removing academies from sponsors and ‘forcing’ changes in both their geographical clustering and membership of their boards. At the same time the Education Funding Agency has been intervening more rigorously in chains and academies where there is evidence of financial malpractice. The creation of a network of Regional Schools Commissioners is intended to give greater coherence and consistency to the oversight of academies and chains.

The government’s strategy has very deliberately switched from encouraging the creation of a few large chains to spawning a much greater number of smaller ones. As of May 2014 there were 615 approved academy sponsors and over 840 MATs.

The DfE’s PowerPoint on high performing academy sponsors was, therefore, a logical next step in moving away from a laissez-faire to a more managed approach to academy chain development. However, although the DfE’s presentation accompanied a newsletter sent to all sponsors and in that sense is in the public domain, it has not been made more generally available on the Government’s website. However, in the interests of openness and debate I am providing access to the presentation which you can download by going to the following link http://www.tagmydoc.com/dl/lQRYN/gn6o.

A flawed approach

The DfE’s slides contain some interesting material but they also include a number of flaws. The DfE has based its recommendation on three sources: quantitative analysis of 88 sponsors with three or more schools in their chain as at December 2012; DfE intelligence that has attempted to identify trends in performance; and in-depth discussions with staff from 12 ‘higher-performing chains’.

However, there are problems with this approach. The definition of ‘higher-performing’ is based on a basket of measures but the relative weighting for different aspects in the basket is unclear. The basked of measures is also limited – it does not, for example, examine how well chains are closing gaps in attainment between Pupil Premium and other pupils. What would help here is if the DfE were to consult with academy sponsors and the public and  publish performance metrics for chains.

There is also a ‘fool’s gold’ attempt to correlate certain aspects of chain academic performance with improved educational outcomes – whereas in reality it is very hard to single out a particular aspect of how a chain operates and correlate that with specific improvements. This results in a presentation that provides advice on some issues – that arose from discussion with the ‘higher performing’ sponsors – but is ‘undermined’ by not having any data to substantiate it. So, for example, the DfE recommends geographical clustering of a chain’s academies but cannot find any empirical evidence for it in terms of student attainment.

A further problem with the data is that some academies have only been in the chain for one or two years (and some cases less than 12 months) and drawing conclusions based on this evidence is somewhat suspect – given that we know that it takes time for the impact of federations and academy chains to feed through into improvements in attainment.

The DfE’s failure to reference or draw on broader research findings – either on academy chains on or groups of Charter schools – is also striking.

And finally the area where the DfE’s presentation should be strongest – namely approaches towards improving teaching and learning – is in fact its weakest.

An alternative approach

Despite these criticisms the DfE’s advice is worth reading and contains some good headline lessons for chains. But there is also an overwhelming case for further discussion and debate on developing effective academy groups. In the interests of promoting this cause I am going to develop and progressively add to this blog page over the autumn and write about the characteristics of effective academy chains. Many of the principles and lessons are also broadly applicable to other forms of school partnerships – such as teaching school alliances.

My ideas and thinking are based on my work with chains, federations and other school partnerships and material drawn from other research studies – both here and in the US. I am not going to try and claim a link between the principles I advocate and correlated improvements in attainment. Rather the logic of my case will be that the practices of those federations, hard school partnerships and chains that have shown over a sustained period of time that they are effective, provide key pointers that others would do well to consider.

In the next chapter I post I will explain and outline my framework for  thinking about the sound organisation of chains.

* See http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/14536/1/the-growth-of-academy-chains%5B1%5D.pdf.

** See http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/learning,-cognition-and-creativity/education/policy-and-research/academies-commission

Effective academy chains – applying a conceptual framework

The National College for School Leadership (as it then was) asked me to research and write about academy chains on two occasions. Each time it was a stipulation of the brief that I had to examine and draw lessons for the academy sector from what chains in the commercial sector were doing. That requirement led to some fascinating conversations with corporate executives responsible for running well-known high street brands.

Some would see this as confirming their worst nightmares: namely that academisation is nothing more than a Trojan Horse – if, post Birmingham, we can still that term – for the marketisation of education. I interpreted things differently. Just as thinking on school improvement has learnt from the likes of Jim Collins’ business thinking on going from ‘Good to great’ and from the performance management metrics and insights that accompanied UK Sport’s preparations for the London Olympics, so academy chains can learn from the way that commercial organisations approach the running of multiple outlets.

Indeed in my first thinkpiece* for the National College in 2010 I included seven defining aspects of commercial chains as identified by George Ashford who had worked a for a range of chains. They are worth repeating because several of them still have considerable salience today – not least principle 7!

  1. A brand is a combination of two things: a) values – what an organisation stands for, and b) delivery what it achieves
  2. Getting real ownership of a brand in each outlet is essential and needs to be addressed as a priority
  3. The biggest challenge is ensuring quality in every outlet – one or two poorly performing outlets can soon damage the reputation of the brand
  4. The key to achieving this is high-quality leadership and management in each outlet and across the chain, coupled with consistency of implementation of the fundamentals in each outlet
  5. 80 per cent of what each outlet needs to do is based on standard operating procedures (we know these procedures work so why invent something new?). All outlets need to accept and implement the 80 per cent. That leaves 20 per cent for creativity, inspiration and contextualisation. Problems arise when those in charge of outlets try to amend the 80 per cent instead of focusing on the 20 per cent.
  6. Chains need a well-defined set of performance measures for evaluation and a clear process for ‘exiting’ poor performers.
  7. Increasing the scale of the chain needs to be handled very carefully. Many come unstuck by over-expanding. Increased size gives you flexibility and increases income but you must not compromise on quality and capacity to lead

Two years later in my second report for the National College** I included, on the basis of the data, interviews and case studies that I and the Isos team had conducted, a conceptual diagram that reflected many of the Ashford principles to suggest the characteristics of an effective academy chain – see below.

Chains 2012

The model proposed in 2012 essentially remains valid. But since then I have refined the model in the light of my further work with teaching schools and academy chains. All schools partnerships need to be rooted in collective sense of values and mission: in short a shared moral purpose. This is base camp one that provides the basis for the trust and relationships that are essential for any joint endeavour. It is hazardous to continue with collaborative working without having established this.

But beyond that there are two different types of factors – ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ – that academy chains and others partnerships to work on if they are to develop soundly and achieve sustainable progress and success. The metaphor I use to explain these ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ dimensions is that of the human body. Organisations need both a skeleton (strong structures that underpin how they work together) and physiology (dynamic systems that pump learning around their organisation). In the graphic below the shared moral purpose is represented by having a clear vision and strategy at the heart of the academy chain. The points of the diamond relate to the hard structural elements a chain needs to put in place. And the sides of the rectangle describe the dynamic flowing practices a chain needs to embed if it is to realise the full benefit of each academy being part of a larger whole.

All too often school partnerships – be they federations, teaching school alliances, academy chains or other forms of collaboration – are strong on some aspects of the model but weak on others. An academy chain, for example, may have strong governance, good executive leadership and effective performance management but be doing little to develop a shared understanding of teaching and learning or using the collective capacity of its academies to support and develop each other. Conversely a teaching school alliance may going great guns in getting teachers coaching each other, working together on student- or subject-based action research projects and developing and sharing leaders and outstanding practitioners; but it may be poor in terms of developing strategically, managing its collective resources and holding schools within the partnership to account.

Chains 2012

This blog will develop by discussing what it means to apply in a mature way each factor listed on this conceptual model. So the next contribution will centre what it means to have a clear vision and strategy.

*Hill, R. 2012, Chain reactions: a think piece on the development of chains of schools in the English school system, National College, Nottingham

** See http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/14536/1/the-growth-of-academy-chains%5B1%5D.pdf

Using vision and strategy to shape an academy chain

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the following sorts of statements:

  •  “We are forming a multi-academy trust (MAT) because we don’t want to be taken over by one of the big predatory chains.”
  • “If we don’t join an academy group we will be forced to join another chain.”
  • “The local authority says it cannot provide us with support any more so we need to find a chain to join.”
  •  “We are a successful school and the school down the road is struggling so it makes sense for us to sponsor them.”
  •  “The diocese is forming a multi-academy trust and we have got to join it.”
  •  “We decided to take on this school into our trust because we were concerned that the DfE brokers would not offer any further academies if we turned this one down.”

These statements at one level are all perfectly logical reactions to how the school system in England has been developing. But if what are essentially negative factors are the primary drivers in forming or growing academy chains they are unlikely to provide a strong foundation for building successful organisations. The bedrock of an academy chain should be common purpose and shared values.

All organisations – be they individual schools, academy chains or commercial organisations – need a strong driving vision of what they want to achieve and a coherent strategy for realising their ambitions. It’s a basic principle and obvious starting point but one which too many chains have overlooked or undertaken superficially. Here I look at some of the fundamentals of what it means to root a chain in a core mission and purpose.

Developing a shared vision

Basing the operation of an academy around a vision sounds grandiose and pretentious – and not all that practical. But the most effective academy chains have a clear sense of what they are trying to achieve: of the shared values that are driving their organisation and how these affect their everyday working.

A chain may, for example, be driven by a sense of social justice: frustration and anger that the education system has for generations failed children in areas of deprivation who most need support and a determination to provide them with the life chances that other young people receive. Such a chain may emphasise mastery of core skills, constantly reinforce expectations of what pupils can achieve – and perhaps – change the pattern of post-16 schooling to encourage progress into further and higher education.

Some chains have a strong commitment to their locality at the heart of their mission: a desire to work with the local community and other agencies to make education part of a larger regeneration initiative. Sometimes linked to that there’s a focus on a holistic view of education and welfare and development of the whole child. Such chains would nurture and draw on strong partnerships with community groups, children’s health services, specialist third-sector agencies and employers.

Others are seized by a pedagogical vision of wanting to apply a particular approach to teaching and learning – whether that is mastery of core subjects, the development of a creative curriculum, an emphasis on soft skills or the entitlement to a broader educational experience. They particularly invest in developing pedagogical programmes, an extra-curricular offer and the professional development of their staff.

For faith-based chains their ethos and purpose will often come from or be influenced by their religious tradition and values – though in my experience it is not always clear how this relates to a model for school improvement.

Some chains see their model of education as being very much an enterprise undertaken in partnership with parents, whereas others see themselves more as rescuing their pupils from the domestic and social context in which they are being brought up. The former may seek to involve parents in learning programmes, while the latter may prioritise attendance and strict behaviour codes.

Some MATs espouse an all-though concept of schooling. Those led by secondary schools tend to believe that if only they can get their hands on children earlier they will be able to address the deficiencies in learning that they perceive in their Year 7 intakes. MATs led by primary schools that want an all-though solution argue that they should continue beyond Year 6 the model of education that has been so effective for pupils since their early years. They want the opportunity to continue the development of young people as independent learners before, as they see it, they disappear into the secondary void and, relatively speaking, regress.

For some chains – particularly for UCTs but other schools as well – their vision of education is linked to the wider world of work and the skills young people need to be effective in the labor market.

Some chains have a much more limited and utilitarian approach to being part of a chain – the individual academies essentially are keen on retaining as much autonomy as possible but want a mechanism for organising support costs and services. Such chains are likely to be organised as umbrella trusts.

It’s clear, therefore, that the purpose of an academy trust has practical implications for how it is run.

Turning the vision into a strategy

Having a vision is vital: it potentially provides the unifying purpose and mission that will provide an academy trust with purpose, direction and energy. And it’s worth taking time to debate and thrash out the vision – and from time to time revisit it. But as in all organisations if a vision is to make a difference it has to be translated into a strategy for achieving the change that it aspires to. So key questions for academy chains are:

  • Is the vision really shared – or is it just the passion of the leaders who formed the MAT and currently in charge? Is, for example, the vision embedded in the purposes of the trust and have Members of the trust been selected and empowered to act as champions and guardians of the vision?
  • Is the vision grounded in reality? Some sponsors for good altruistic reasons believe they can be saviours of the school system though they themselves may have no or little experience of running schools. We need people who will dream dreams and bring their entrepreneurial skills and innovative approaches to the education system but they need to use leaders who are grounded in understanding school improvement and can help turn their vision into a practical plan.
  • Is the Board of Directors/Trustees clear what would constitute success in one year, three years and five years time – and what needs to be put in place if those milestones are to be achieved?
  • How well have the vision and priorities been communicated and shared with staff, parents and pupils? Are there specific policies or initiatives that will particularly help to encapsulate or signal what the chain is trying to achieve? Are directors, governors and leaders providing opportunities for different stakeholder to help shape the direction of the chain through, for example, surveys, forums and celebration events? Is progress in achieving the vision – including setbacks – honestly shared and reported?
  • Does the chain allow space for individual academies to put their own stamp and gloss on what the vision means for their particular school community and context? Ofsted is unlikely to be impressed if a chair of governors or a principal just says that the ethos and priorities for their academy are as set out in the MAT’s vision statement.
  • Do chains have the capacity to implement those elements of their strategies that involve discontinuous leaps – i.e. moves into what are fundamentally new areas of operation? For example, just because a chain has been successful in supporting or running another secondary school does not mean it will necessarily have the skills to be an effective primary sponsor. Starting an academy hub in a new geographical area, opening a sixth form and promoting a free school or UTC would be other examples of discontinuous leaps. It might be right to make the leap but several academy chains have underestimated the scale of the challenge of moving into a new area of activity and under-resourced the effort needed to make it a success.

There is one other key consideration in turning a vision into reality – namely is the proposed or projected rate of growth of the chain sustainable? But that is a separate issue in its own right and the subject of my next post on this page!

Managing the expansion of academy chains

Those chains that have gone for growth and expanded the most rapidly have been the ones to struggle. The quantity of academies has seemingly trumped the quality of school improvement. In three years some chains went from having ten or a dozen academies in their chain to having 30, 40 or, in one case 70. Not surprisingly they have run into problems. The Department for Education (DfE) is issuing edicts telling chains they have to up their game (particularly in those academies where the chain has failed to make an impact), while Ofsted is inspecting chains with the highest concentration of underperforming academies.

A predictable and predicted scenario

What makes the situation worse is that the problems were not only predictable but were predicted. In the 2012 report on academy chains commissioned by the National College, that I and a group of colleagues from Isos researched, we very clearly identified both the advantages and the risks of academy expansion (see table below).

The advantages of expanding academy chains  The risks of expanding academy chains
Extends the chain’s impact in terms of raising standards of education for more young people

Creates a broader base for developing leaders

Increases the scope for sharing learning, subject specialisms, school improvement expertise and CPD

Provides more opportunities for staff deployment and promotion within the chain

Increases economies of scale in the running of central services and provides greater purchasing power

Opens up new opportunities to build new primary/secondary curriculum and transition model

Enables central costs to be shared across a larger number of schools

Provides a bigger platform for supporting innovation

Provides a stronger brand to attract parents and applications for admission

Too many new schools are taken on at one time and there is insufficient leadership capacity to manage the challenge

The chain reacts to having more academies by becoming more bureaucratic and a more rules-based organisation

Diseconomies of scale start to emerge – for example, communication becomes much harder and it is difficult to keep everyone informed and involved across all the academies in the chain

The core infrastructure (central services) becomes overstretched

Existing schools in the chain start to slip back as energies are focused on new joiners

The growth in the number of academies makes the chain impersonal, eg key senior and middle leaders and staff don’t really know each other

Source: Hill et al, (2012), The growth of academy chains: implications for leaders and leadership, National College for School Leadership

Lessons from US Charter school chains

We also highlighted the experience of Chartered Management Organisations (CMOs – the equivalent of academy chains in the United States) that were being much more cautious in their growth strategies. In the US CMOs considered that opening three to five new schools a year constituted aggressive growth. On average, CMOs with four or more schools were opening no more than one new school a year for the first six years. After seven years of operation, the average pace picked up to approximately two new schools a year. After 10 years they had on average 13 schools in their chain. The rate of growth was slower for smaller CMO chains.

Some academy chains in England – the Cabot Learning Federation and the Outwood academies – have broadly followed that path. Similarly Harris and ARK, although they have grown to having 27 academies each, have done so over a decade or more.

Unregulated growth

The DfE largely ignored the National College report because it was more concerned with expanding the number of sponsored academies. For nearly three years years after it came to power the government continued to throw schools at the largest sponsors with little assessment of a chain’s capacity to take on schools with demanding and entrenched school improvement challenges. In addition the ‘award’ of schools to chains was, to say the least, an opaque process. One of the common complaints we heard during research for our 2102 study was from chains committed to making a fundamental difference to the schools they took on. They were aggrieved: they felt that they were being penalized when presenting comprehensive plans for dealing with the root cause of a school’s weakness. Governors and local authorities were opting for softer options from chains that were flavor of the month and the DfE was acquiescing in the process.

The most mature chains were wise and confident enough to grow at their own pace and in accordance with their own strategy. They took active steps to manage the risks – and were prepared to say ‘No’ to the Departmental brokers if they felt that a particular academy was not right for their chain.

The chains that went for an aggressive expansion strategy also share the blame for the problems they are now wrestling with. They ignored, as did Michael Gove, the need to create or use geographical clusters as the basis of their expansion. They failed to practise thorough due diligence in terms of bottoming the scale of the liability and challenge of the schools they were taking over.

A change of tack

The appointment of Lord Nash as academies ministers and the introduction of new advisers in the DfE brought a change of tack. Interestingly the application of lessons from the corporate sector has been at the root of their revised approach. Restrictions have been placed on the further growth of some chains. There is now a much thorough assessment of a chain’s resources and capacity to improve a school before it is allowed to acquire it. There is a much greater emphasis on chains having geographical coherence and strong governance. Grants have been provided to small chains to help them build up their capacity.

Another sensible policy shift has seen the encouragement of a whole plethora of new sponsors – particularly amongst outstanding schools. In other words growing chains through having more of them – rather than creating mega chains. In January 2014 the DfE’s approved academy sponsor list had 558 names on it – most of them schools. Whether the Department is being as rigorous as it should be in assessing and approving sponsors is another matter.

Top tips

Many of these fledgling chains are now looking to grow for the reasons set out in the chart above. But as they seek to do so we need to avoid a repeat of the problems that some of their big brothers have encountered. Here are my top tips for measured academy growth:

  • Be clear about the vision and the core and values of the chain
  • Develop a medium-term business strategy that balances the desire to achieve economy of scale with the capacity to absorb schools into the chain
  • Ensure there is a clear understanding of how to undertake school improvement that is shared across the chain
  • Prioritise the development of teaching and learning across academies in the chain and empower staff and students to lead this – in other words attend to what Jim Collins calls ‘the primary flywheel’ of the chain’s core business
  • Maintain a clear geographical focus and work through clusters of academies of no more than four or five overseen by an executive leader
  • Deploy emerging and senior leaders (and other staff with specific expertise) across academies in order to grow a broad leadership talent pool
  • Recruit high calibre governors – both as directors/trustees of the chain and on local governing bodies
  • Encourage good and outstanding schools that share the chain’s values to join in order to boost the critical mass of school improvement expertise within the chain
  • Track performance closely and intervene early where there are problems
  • Agree the relationship between the corporate centre of the chain and individual academies on the operation of policies and the delivery of back office functions, systems and services
  • Conduct a thorough due diligence exercise before sponsoring or taking on another school
    Consider appointing an organisational coach to help the chain mature

What does it mean to be the CEO of a multi-academy trust?

As the role of CEO of a multi-academy trust (MAT) evolves, I believe it is essential to recognise that the position will vary greatly between MATs, depending on the MAT’s size, structure, phase of expansion, and the challenges it faces.

Over the past 10 to 15 years the schools system has grown used to the idea of executive heads and principals. Although the titles and roles mean different things in different school contexts, there is now a much greater acceptance of the idea of a group of schools working together under the guidance of an executive leader.

Indeed, in many areas it is recognised that an executive head working leading and overseeing two to four heads of schools is an excellent way of nurturing leadership talent and addressing the problem of recruiting sufficient heads under a traditional model.

However, just as we are getting used to this concept we have to come to terms with a new feature in the education landscape: the presence of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) running multi-academy trusts (MATs).

Many will be suspicious of, or even cynical about, this trend and see it as an excuse for inflating salaries or moving to a more corporate model for managing and leading schools. But there are now over 500 MATs consisting of two or more academies, and they are continuing to grow.

Around a further 100 MATs are responsible for six or more academies. The evolution of the CEO role does, therefore, reflect the reality of the demands involved in overseeing a multi-academy trust – if the CEO role is properly understood.

The Future Leaders Trust is now running the Executive Educators programme for MAT CEOs, and as part of that I developed a presentation that reflects on what it means to be CEO of a MAT. You can see it here http://www.tagmydoc.com/dl/1Rzfc/h0s6

I bring together and describe the various functions of CEOs under 10 headings:

  1. Thinker and strategist
  2. Guardian of the flame
  3. Instructional leader
  4. Leadership developer
  5. Orchestrator of partnership depth
  6. Quality assurer
  7. Business developer
  8. Communicator within the MAT
  9. Ambassador for the MAT
  10. Corporate executive

Some of the roles will be self-explanatory and some will require viewing the content of the presentation to make clear the concepts I am driving at.

My crucial argument, however, is that the CEO role will vary between MATs. An individual CEO is very unlikely to undertake all of these roles. Their focus and sphere of activity will depend on such factors as:

  • The size of the trust and, for example, whether and how it works through cluster and/or regional leaders within the MAT;
  • The size and skills of the central MAT team and whether, for example, it has a director of teaching and learning, a director of standards or a chief operating officer – or whether the trust is at the stage of being run by one person and his dog, so to speak;
  • How CEOs distribute leadership to others to complement their own skills and expertise;
  • The nature of the challenges facing the trust – are the immediate challenges around school improvement and organising the basics of a group of schools working together, or they are about maturing a partnership and expanding its scope?

It’s also clear that the role of a MAT CEO will evolve over time as it moves through the phases of initiation, consolidation, expansion and maturing (phases that do not always follow sequentially!).

We are learning all the time about how to ensure that MATs deliver on their potential to help accelerate the rate of school improvement. The Executive Educators programme is delivering an unexpected bonus in this regard. Not only is it supporting the development of fledgling CEOs but, through organising visits to MATs and promoting sharing of learning between them, it is beginning – not before time – to provide a mechanism for multi-academy trusts to share their learning with each other.

One of my criticisms of the MAT movement has been that it has been slow to pool its collective learning. My sense is that this was already starting to change as MATs realised that collaboration and competitive advantage were not mutually exclusive; but Executive Educators should put a rocket booster under this effort. Long may it continue!

Maximising economies of scale from integrating back office services

Right from the outset those involved in multi-academy trusts (MATs) realised there was a big opportunity to use economies of scale to deliver efficiencies through integrating back office services and jointly procuring functions. This agenda is becoming ever more significant as we move into a period when education funding in real terms will be going down rather than up.

But turning potential into reality is far from straightforward and is a particular challenge for start-up and fledgling MATs. There are no quick fixes but there are some lessons we can learn from those MATs that have gone through the growing pains. As regular readers of this blog will know I like lists of 10 and so here are 10 principles for developing an effective business management support function within a MAT.

  1. Appoint a chief operating office (COO) as soon as possible in the life of the MAT – many MATs comprising just two or three academies try to get by with central co-ordination and support provided by just an executive principal or CEO and a lead bursar from one of the academies who may released for a couple of days a week. These fledgling MATs are reluctant to impose too much of a topslice on schools when they can provide little for them in the way of services. But it is only by investing in the skills of a COO or high calibre business manager that they will have the resource to chart a route map to integrating key functions and realising economies of scale.
  1. Make the integration of business planning and financial management an early priority – budgets may be allocated to individual academies but it will be much easier for MATs to control and audit spending, compare costs, adopt a three year rolling budget, consider their growth strategy and plan capital projects if they are using the same systems and processes – ideally overseen by a management accountant.
  1. Focus on freeing up principals to concentrate on leading teaching and learning – heads and principals in the best MATs testify to feeling liberated from having to spend large chunks of their time managing a lot of day-to-day administrative, personnel and property issues. They can get on with their core business of improving rates of progress and attainment.
  1. Be transparent and use a business case approach to decide which services to deliver at the centre, which in clusters and which at academy level. The outcome will depend on the nature of the service (there may be a very different solution for caretaking and cleaning than for ICT support) length of inherited contracts, the compatibility of existing systems, the size of the MAT and the cost and quality of the service being received.
  1. Involve academies in decisions – some academies will have built up expertise in different areas or have particular needs or sensitivities that need to be addressed when moving to, merging or centrally procuring a service. It’s important that academies don’t feel ‘done to’ but part of solutions.
  1. Be prepared to insist on some non-negotiables – that may seem at variance with the previous point but on issues such as arrangements for collecting assessment data and ICT systems and networks the benefits of standardisation will all in likelihood be overwhelming. Consultation and discussion will ideally establish the legitimacy for any mandate, with the non-negotiables then becoming a requirement for new academies joining the MAT.
  1. Use the market – even if MATs decide to develop their own expertise and staff to provide payroll, HR services and other services, they should test the market from time to time to assess whether they are securing value for money – or could have the service delivered in a different more cost effective way. As the Education Funding Agency’s Financial Handbook emphasises MATs are responsible for ensuring economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the use of public funds – the three key elements of value for money.
  1. Listen and act on feedback – MATs must learn the lessons from those LEAs that over the years provided costly unresponsive services to schools. In one of the MATs I work with the COO and Estates Manager are out talking to the principals of the academies once a fortnight. And they have just conducted a satisfaction survey that has been administered independently so that the MAT Board knows how each of its academies feels about the quality and costs of centrally provided services.
  1. Benchmark costs – MATs can compare the spend per pupil both in their different academies in such areas as catering, HR, legal services, ICT, estates management (including grounds maintenance, cleaning and catering), office/business administration and energy. These indicators would be more powerful if the Education Funding Agency were to produce a series benchmark or median costs that provide a frame of reference for MATs to compare their cost base with other MATs.
  1. Avoid conflicts of interest – MATs must observe the Education Funding Agency’s rules on declaring interests and ‘trading with connected parties’.

Of course, support functions account for only a minority of a MAT’s overall budget. There are also big opportunities to maximise economies of scale in other areas – such as organisation and spending on education welfare and special needs. MATs can also begin to think about sharing senior leadership teams and or faculty leaders for science and maths across academies. Action on these fronts could both improve services and standards and yield substantial savings. This type of creative thinking will be needed if MATs are to rise to the financial challenges that the Chancellor’s Spending Review is likely to throw up.

Inspection of academy chains 

E-ACT – the first focused inspection

In early 2014 Ofsted started to undertake what it referred to as ‘focused’ inspection of academies in multi-academy trust (MATs). The first academy group to be subject to this new regime was E-ACT and the action was triggered by Ofsted’s ‘wider concerns about the performance of academies in the Trust’, which were becoming evident from the inspection of individual academies.

The focused inspection covered 16 of the E-ACT academies and included questions about the quality and impact of support provided by E-ACT to its academies. The inspections outcome letter[i] included a list of serious weaknesses but contained little analysis of the problems within the MAT.

Three more MATs inspected

The next MAT to get the Ofsted treatment a few months later was AET – and for this second batch of inspections Ofsted adjusted its approach. As well as inspecting 12 AET academies it also conducted a telephone survey of 19 academies ‘to determine whether the Trust provided sufficient support and challenge’. This time the outcomes letter[ii] was slightly fuller – summarising weaknesses that were evident in academy schools and listing criticisms from academy leaders of how the trust was undertaking its school improvement role. Ofsted found very little to commend.

The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT) became the third MAT to get the Ofsted treatment in summer 2014. Ofsted tweaked its methodology further. As well as inspecting six primary academies and talking by phone to 12 other academy leaders, the lead inspector also took ‘into account the most recent letters from Ofsted’s monitoring visits to inadequate academies within your Trust.’

The outcome and the reporting of this inspection were more nuanced[iii]. Although Ofsted identified significant weakness in the schools inspected, it also singled out eight strengths of the organisation before going on to list a number of areas for development. Ofsted used the same approach when it inspected and reported on the Schools Partnership Trust in autumn 2014[iv]. This outcomes letter was significant for being clearer about the criteria used by Ofsted to assess the effectiveness of MATs – it listed six questions:

  • How well does the trust understand the context, strengths and weaknesses of their academies?
  • How well does the trust hold their academies to account?
  • What structures are in place to do this?
  • How is the improvement journey monitored?
  • How does the trust challenge and support their academies?
  • What evidence is there of the impact of the trust?

Consequences

The aftermath of these focused inspections was most dramatic for E-ACT and was instrumental in the MAT being told by the Department for Education to hand over a third of its schools to other sponsors. A number of AET schools have also either been closed or transferred to other sponsors and TKAT paused its growth after a very period of rapid expansion.

There was one other more political consequence. The focused inspections were shining a light on the performance of MATs that was, to say the least, awkward in a pre-election period. After an apparent stand-off between Ofsted and the government Nicky Morgan and Sir Michael Wilshaw reached an understanding on the way forward in January 2015. The Secretary of State agreed that Ofsted could update its inspection model for MATs[v] and assess but not give a judgement of their performance. The primary focus was to remain on inspecting individual academies, with focused inspections only accounting for a ‘small proportion of inspection activity’. Better performing MATs, as well as those causing concern, were also to be included in the revised arrangements.

The letter from Nicky Morgan also altered the framework of the focused inspection process. In addition to inspecting a sample of academies and surveying principals a third step was added to the process. Ofsted would now use its findings as the basis for ‘a professional dialogue with the MAT which focuses in particular on the effectiveness of governance arrangements and school improvement activity’.

How is focused inspection now working?

Since the agreement between Ofsted and the Secretary of State the inspectorate had, as at the end of October 2015, published the outcomes of focused inspections of five MATs (though in four of the five cases there was a significant delay of three months or more between the MAT being notified of the outcomes and the letter being put in the public domain):

  • Oasis Academy multi-academy trust – June 2015[vi]
  • Collaborative Academies Trust – July 2015[vii]
  • Wakefield City Academies Trust – July 2015[viii]
  • CfBT mullti-academy trust – September 2015[ix]
  • Education Fellowship – October 2015[x]

Five key points emerge from the operation of the revised process.

  1. One of the MATs – Wakefield City Academies Trust – broadly fulfils the Secretary of State’s remit to include better performing MATs, though Ofsted also provides the trust with recommendations for further action.
  1. The process for inspecting MATs seems to be clearly established. The report for the Wakefield City Academies Trusts summarises the approach:

Five of the trust’s academies were inspected in the week prior to this on-site visit. Of these, four were under section 5 of the Education Act 2005, and one, a monitoring inspection, was under section 8 of the same Act. Discussions were held with academy leaders and governors during these inspections. Telephone discussions were also held at the same time with leaders of five other academies within the trust. During this follow-up visit to WCAT, discussions were held with the chief executive officer, senior and operational staff from the trust, headteachers, the chair of the board and partners. Inspectors also scrutinised a range of relevant documentation.’

  1. The format of the outcome letters follows a standardised format – there are four main headings: evidence, context, summary of findings and recommendations. The ‘summary of findings’ is the form of narrative text and builds on the questions used in the Schools Partnership Trust inspection and typically covers the following areas:
  • strategy – how the MAT has developed including commenting on its rate of expansion;
  • performance – an overview of attendance, attainment and the progress of pupils (including disadvantaged pupils) within the trust’s academies;
  • quality assurance – how well does the MAT know the performance and the strengths and weakness of its academies;
  • the robustness of the procedures for challenging individual academies and identifying the support they need;
  • the coherence and adequacy of the model for providing school improvement support – whether through MAT specialist staff, external consultants, academies in the group, other schools or a mix of these approaches;
  • impact of support provided by the MAT;
  • strength of leadership in the trust’s academies;
  • quality and effectiveness of governance and the role of the trust board; and
  • the operation of key policies – particularly in relation to safeguarding.
  1. There is no formal follow up or monitoring of the recommendations by Ofsted – as can be the case with inspection of individual schools. However, the inspection outcome can still have a powerful impact – both on the reputation of the MAT and in providing a clear steer to regional school commissioners in their ‘performance management’ of MATs.
  1. The Ofsted process by itself is not sufficient to meet the challenge of assessing the performance of MATs or holding them to account. There are now over 840 MATs and only nine have been subject to any form of Ofsted review. Clearly there is a need for a set of performance metrics that enables us to judge over time the added value that is being added by MATs – given that we know there are broad spectrum of performance across the MAT sector. At present it is being left to the Sutton Trust to provide any sort of public reporting on the relative performance of different trusts. The government should stop trying to duck this issue. Just before the general election in 2015 the Department for Education published a ‘statistical working paper’ on measuring the performance of schools within academy chains and local authorities[xi]. The proposals it contained weren’t perfect but they did provide a basis for developing a transparent system for holding MATs to account. The government seems to have quietly buried the document. It’s time to resurrect it, not least because such an approach could provide a rational basis for Ofsted to risk assess and identify those MATs on which it should focus its inspection effort.

[i]http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20141124154759/http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/other-publications/e/E-ACT%20Multi-Academy%20Trust%20inspection%20outcome%20letter.pdf[

ii]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/379240/Academies_20Enterprise_20Trust_20_28AET_29_20inspection_20outcome_20letter.pdf

[iii]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/379158/Kemnal_20Academies_20Trust_20_28TKAT_29_20inspection_20outcome_20letter.pdf

[iv]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/379234/School_20Partnership_20Trust_20Academies_20_28SPTA_29_20inspection_20outcome_20letter.pdf

[v]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/397810/Nicky_Morgan_letter_to_Ofsted.pdf

[vi]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/437883/Focused_inspection_outcome_letter_of_Oasis_multi-academy_trust.pdf

[vii]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/443415/Focused_inspection_outcome_letter_Collaborative_Academies_Trust.pdf

[viii]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/443884/Focused_inspection_outcome_letter_Wakefield_Academies_Trust.pdf

[ix]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/460062/Focused_inspection_outcome_letter_CfBT_Schools_Trust.pdf

[x]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/467346/Focused_inspection_outcome_letter_education_fellowship_trust.pdf

[xi]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/415659/SFR09_2015.pdf

School improvement in multi-academy trusts

There are big variations in performance between academy chains – both independent research and DfE analysis confirm this. So what is it that the most consistently high performing MATs are doing that makes them successful? It’s not often that the Minister of State on State for Education features in this blog, but in a speech in November 2015 Nick Gibb gave this rationale as to what was distinctive about the best MATs.

“The highest performing academy chains in this country have a clear vision and a distinct model of teaching. I would encourage all new academy chains not to see themselves only in terms of being effective administrators, or competent managers. They should also be bound by a philosophical and pedagogical vision.“

The Minister is right. The best chains have thought about, evolved and systemised their approach to school improvement. That is not to say that a rigid take-it-or-leave-it approach is adopted or imposed in all academies within a MAT but that there are distinctive features about what they do.

  1. They know their academies well quantitatively. Their core purpose means that these MATs adopt a culture of high expectations and, using FFT Aspire or other benchmarks, set demanding targets. They monitor progress and performance not just in tests and exams but also in real time at key points across the year. To do this they evolve or adopt a standard core data set that can be presented in varying degrees of depth according to the audience. So teachers and year leaders are able to use the data as a formative assessment tool, while board members have access to a dashboard that provides a graphic overview overview of how each academy is performing. The best data dashboards also track performance in areas such as attendance (of staff and pupils), exclusions, child protection, special needs, applications for admissions, number of classes covered by a temporary or cover teachers and financial management. Knowing academies well also entails having a clear and consistent performance management framework for academies, leaders and staff.
  2. They know their academies well qualitativelyIt’s not just a question of a MAT knowing the metrics but also understanding how progress is or is not being made. So the best MATs commission or conduct external/peer reviews for each academy. This often involves senior leaders from one or more academy using a formal model to scrutinise another. Some MATs involve a HMI or Ofsted inspector in this process. Other drivers of deep knowledge across a MAT include staff from different academies working together to moderate assessment and to agree an understanding of what a year’s progress looks like; senior and middle leaders developing a shared approach to lesson observations; conducting joint learning walks; and academies jointly investigating issues of common concern. 
  3. They adapt strategies to an academy’s context. The best MATs understand where each academy is on its school improvement journey and have pinpointed precisely the issues that need to be addressed if it is to make progress – whether these relate to a school’s culture and expectations of pupils, leadership, governance, attendance, behaviour, teaching and learning, assessment or variability in performance. MAT leaders ensure that resources are mobilised to tackle these weaknesses. However, it’s more than being adept at managing a deficit model of school improvement. Good MAT leadership is also able to adapt interventions to maintain momentum as an academy improves and can refresh or renew strategies as the chain develops. Peter Matthews has written perceptively on this topic in his study of primary school leadership[1].
  4. They deploy expertise strategically. Effective MATs achieve a win-win by broadening the leadership experience of their best and emerging leaders by deploying them to support academies that have particular problems or challenges. The deployment may only be for part of the week and/or for a limited time – a term or an academic year – though sometimes a temporary assignment evolves into becoming permanent. A sensible MAT will also identify, log and encourage academies to share the expertise of staff across the chain. Increasingly we are also beginning to see MATs appointing faculty or subject leaders with responsibility spanning two or three academies in a cluster. Not only does this make the best use of subject experts but it can help to retain able staff that might otherwise decide to move on.
  5. They coach improvement in teaching and learning. Improving the quality of teaching and learning is integral to improving the performance of pupils and students. Some MATs, like some teaching school alliances, adopt a common model for coaching improvement in classroom performance. The coaching model varies with some chains using coaching pairs or triads, some a model based on providing real time feedback, while the approach of others is based round Iris or other video technology. A systematic approach to coaching includes thorough training for those acting as coaches, the engagement of all staff – including leaders – in the process, and building the discipline into work with teacher trainees and NQTs.
  6. They use inquiry-based learning as the flywheel to accelerate improvement. This is the flip side of the coaching coin. It is seeing great teaching as being more than the refinement of professional practice – important though that is – and viewing teachers as learners. It is staff learning with and from each other (both within and across academies) about what makes an impact in terms student learning and progress. Professional development is defined not just by attendance on training events. Instead inquiry-based learning firmly links professional development to classroom impact through such means as lesson study, action research, joint curriculum and lesson planning and teacher/student learning commissions. MATs that are smart in harnessing this approach make sure they focus efforts on addressing academies’ defined improvement priorities. 
  7. They empower their middle leaders. MATs miss a trick if they limit the practice of distributed leadership to senior leaders. The best MATs know that they gain real energy and momentum when they empower middle leaders to work together on curriculum, pedagogy or pastoral issues. That drives change and improvement right into the heart of academies within a MAT. So middle leaders might be tasked with tackling an identified improvement priority – such as closing gaps in attainment. Or they might be asked to lead and inquiry-based learning project. Or, as part of a shared middle leadership development programme, they might be given a joint assignment to investigate a key MAT-wide challenge and make some recommendations.
  8. They evolve and apply some non-negotiables. Most MATs insist on some degree of operational consistency in areas such as financial, business and data systems, school policies and HR. Moreover if a MAT takes over a failing school it may also implement certain basic teaching and learning systems as part of a recovery strategy. However, as a MAT gets the flywheel of shared school improvement spinning, non-negotiables will move into a different dimension. They will start to apply to areas such as curriculum, pedagogy and the fundamentals of school turn-around. This process will not so much be a question of a MAT imposing certain ways of teaching and learning, as scaling up what has proved effective and successful. Co-construction between teachers and leaders across academies is key.
  9. They work with and learn from other schools. MATs appreciate that they need the stimulus and learning that comes from engaging with schools and practice outside their MAT. They are open to learning from other organisations. So they encourage their academies to look outwards as well as inwards for improvement support.
  10. They know their impact. High performing MATs will be able to demonstrate the impact they are making on improving academies within the chain – one of the key issues Ofsted looks for when it ‘inspects’ MATs. But in addition they will assess and understand the impact of specific interventions and initiatives. They will track the impact of programmes on staff capability, classroom practice and student engagement/learning. They will evaluate the health and organisational maturity of the MAT itself using, perhaps, one of the MAT frameworks or checklists developed by Future Leaders or the Regional School Commissioners.

A comprehensive school improvement programme on the scale described needs leading – or to use a term that perhaps better expresses the role – orchestrating. MATs require a director of teaching and learning (or a similar post) to commission, foster and join up these different strands of school improvement activity. MATs also need to work out which school improvement activities are best organised and led at MAT, cluster or academy level.

There are two other considerations to factor in. First, over the 10 elements of the school improvement approach MATs need to balance activity that is essentially hierarchical in nature – for example, quality assurance, accountability and leadership arrangements – with actions that will promote networking such as inquiry-based learning, peer reviews, shared coaching and development programmes and learning walks. Too much of the former and you end up with a compliance culture and too much of the latter risks promoting useful activity that has little or no impact,

Finally, in interviews and discussion with leaders and CEOs of MATs they exhibit a number of shared characteristics in their pursuit of school improvement:

They are respectful of the identity and character of individual academies and of a school’s strengths, as well as understanding where it needs to make improvement.

They are resourceful in that they do whatever it takes and mobilise the support needed to bring about improvement.

They are responsive to the context of each academy and its particular needs and adapt their strategies as circumstances change.

They are relentless in their pursuit of improvement and adopt a ‘no excuses’ approach – believing that every child can achieve.

They are resilient in persevering with improvement despite challenges and setbacks.

[1] See chapters 5 and 6 of Matthews et al, Freedom to lead: a study of outstanding primary school leadership in England, National College for Teaching and Leadership, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/363794/RR374A_-_Outstanding_primaries_final_report.pdf

Effective governance of multi-academy trusts 

Poor governance in some multi-academy trusts (MATs) is at risk of undermining public confidence in the move towards greater academisation. Some trust boards have failed to exercise proper due diligence and allowed their trust to grow at an utterly unsustainable rate. In others, board members have failed to declare conflicts of interest and awarded contracts inappropriately. The Education Funding Agency has had cause to issue over 40 Financial Notices to Improve. There are concerns that the salaries of some CEOs are excessive. And some MATs have struggled with the relationship between the trust board and the governing bodies of individual academies.

But it would be wrong to write off the value of the new governance models being developed by MATs. They are:

  • bringing a welcome and long overdue refresh to school governance, separating out strategic from operational oversight of schools;
  • introducing new people, skills and perspectives into the governance of the school sector;
  • freeing governing bodies and heads from spending a disproportionate amount of time on policy, management and business issues and enabling them to focus more on standards and improving teaching and learning;
  • streamlining the operation of school governance and reducing the need for so many committees; and
  • helping to embed the use of smart data in exercising accountability.

The task, therefore, is to increase the legitimacy of MATs through strengthening the design and operation of their governance. Here are 12 building blocks for effective MAT governance.

  1. Take the role of trust members seriously. Too many trusts see the role of trust members, which the legal framework requires them to have, as a mere formality. They do not think about seriously about the role, how many members they might have or who might best fill the role. The Academies Financial Handbook 2015 rightly emphasises the need for there to be some distinction between those serving as members and those acting as trustees/directors (though it also provides for there to be some overlap in membership). Members, like shareholders, only have limited functions: they appoint and, in a last resort, can sack directors and they approve the annual report and accounts. Members can also amend a trust’s articles of association and may do so to support stronger governance arrangements. A good MAT will use its members to act as the guardian of the mission and values of the MAT and will think carefully about the right people to select. Good MATs will encourage members to be involved in the life of the trust’s academies and to know the MAT well, so that they can discharge their legal obligations on an informed basis.
  2. Rethink the governance model. Some MATs have made the mistake of trying to transfer both the governance arrangements and the personnel for maintained schools into a MAT context. That doesn’t work because MATs operate on the basis of layered governance with strategic governance, accountability and oversight being exercised by the MAT board and local governing bodies (LGBs), or academy councils (ACs), having a narrower and more local remit. This in turn leads to many MATs operating with fewer committees – reinforced by many of the business and operational functions being exercised centrally based on policies and procedures approved by the board. A MAT board might typically operate with a resources committee and a standards committee. Another reason for rethinking the model is that traditional school governance is built round a broadly representative mandate, while in MATs the emphasis is on boards having the right blend of skills and expertise to discharge their roles as company directors as well as charity trustees. Most MATs have also taken the opportunity to move to much smaller and manageable numbers with MAT boards comprising typically 7-11 directors with the number on LGBs/ACs also being in single figures. Whether the local body is called a LGB or an AC is less important than establishing its role and remit. However, some MATs prefer the term ‘academy council’ because it encapsulates and reinforces to schools and parents the transition to a different model.
  3. Get the right people round the table. Securing high calibre directors for the MAT board with the right range of backgrounds and expertise brings a huge amount of value and knowhow to a MAT and can help to accelerate its development. Some trusts use headhunters or Academy Ambassadors to help them find a good blend of directors. Another key role is the chair of the LGB/AC. Ideally this will be someone with a strong link to the academy with strong people and analytical skills who understands how the role sits within the MAT’s broader accountability structure.
  4. Involve stakeholders. Educational Excellence Everywhere made clear the government’s intention to remove the requirement for MAT boards to include parental representation as an automatic right (parents are not barred from serving on governing boards but, argues the government should be appointed for their expertise). However, if MATs are to build legitimacy and win the confidence of local people they need to engage and involve parents, staff and local people in the work of the MAT. The government has said it will introduce a requirement to listen to the needs and views of parents and Lord Nash, the academies’ minister, has signalled an expectation for academies to set up parents’ councils. Some MATs have already established such bodies – and/or they include parent, staff and community representative on LGBs/ACs.
  5. Be clear about what is being decided at what level – and whether to differentiate the model for different academies. With governance and decision-making being distributed between members, the MAT board, senior leaders within the MAT and LGBs/ACs it is essential that everyone is clear about who is responsible and accountable for what. The MAT board is the body accountable to the Secretary of State for the performance of all academies in the trust and for meeting the legal obligation of being a registered company. But it will delegate some of its responsibilities. So, for example, the board will have overall responsibility for the finances of all academies but will usually delegate to LGBs/ACs and principals the responsibility for managing the budget for their school. Similarly the board will track the education and organisational performance of all academies but will usually leave detailed scrutiny and challenge to LGBs/ACs and/or the central MAT leadership team. However, where an academy has serious financial weaknesses or is in an Ofsted category the MAT board may well decide to withhold delegation and manage the academy more centrally – until the problems in performance have been addressed. So the arrangements for delegation may not always be uniform across the trust.
  6. Formalise the model of delegation and governance. Some see the layered governance model inherent in MATs as being complex and confusing but as long as arrangements are clearly communicated and set down it need not cause a problem. The best MATs may compile a spreadsheet of functions and indicate whether the role or power is to be exercised by an academy principal, a local governing body/academy council, a member of the MAT senior leadership team or the MAT board. Other MATs may produce a governance handbook which is reviewed and updated regularly – this will explain not only the delegation arrangements but also describe the respective governance roles of members, directors and those serving on LGBs/ACs and how they are to be carried out.
  7. Future proof the governance model. When they are first established some MATs want to be inclusive and so agree for the chair of each LGB/AC to have a place on the main board. That may work for a while (though it is not guaranteed to provide the MAT board with the right blend of skills) but will be problem if and when the MAT grows to encompass seven, eight or more schools. The MAT would end up with an impossibly unwieldy board. Some MATs have allowed for this and only have a chair from each local cluster of academies within the MAT. Some reserve a fixed number of places for local chairs and fill the places on a rotating basis. Other MATs have dispensed with having local chairs on the main board altogether and use other channels for LGBs/ACs to influence the direction of the MAT.
  8. Build in strong channels of communication between LGBs/ACs and the trust board. Whatever the arrangements for academies to be represented on or linked to the MAT board it’s vital that there is regular and effective two-way contact and communication between boards and LGBs/ACs. This can be achieved through the chair and vice-chair of the board meeting with the chairs of LGBs/ACs three or four times a year. The board can meet at different academies or have a programme of visits and stocktakes to individual or clusters of academies. MAT newsletters, short email bulletins, intranets and shared training sessions can all help to oil the communication wheels.
  9. Use smart data to inform accountability. The school system in England is data rich. MATs have the tasks of developing standardised data systems for all schools in the MAT so that information is only entered once but can be captured and analysed at a different levels and in different ways within academies and across the organisation. Both MAT boards and LGBs/ACs will find data dashboards indispensable in understanding in depth, without being swamped by detail, what is happening in real-time within academies and across the MAT – but the form of the dashboard will vary. MAT boards will need a dashboard that presents and compares information for all academies and benchmarks it against similar schools and MATs. LGB/ACs will need data that focuses more on their particular academy. The data dashboard should of course cover educational performance and progress against targets but should also include numbers of pupils, admissions applications, pupil and staff attendance, health and safety, safeguarding, behaviour and disciplinary events (including exclusions); staff performance and budget monitoring information.
  10. Avoid conflicts of interest. Directors serving on MAT boards need to be clear about their legal duties as company directors under the Companies Act 2006 in particular the need to have regard to “the desirability of the company maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct” and to declare interests in proposed transactions and contracts. CEOs need to be familiar with their duties as the designated accounting officer for the organisation. MATs should keep a clear register of interests, establish a transparent procurement framework and, when a MAT reaches a certain size, consider creating an internal audit function.
  11. Invest in the development of strong governance. This starts with ensuring the MAT has a secretary or clerk to the main board who is well-trained and equipped to undertake the role. It includes organising joint training and development of both directors and those serving on LGB/ACs. It could also include a practice that some MATs are starting to adopt – namely having an annual review or health check of the organisation’s procedures, operation and fitness for purpose. Investing in strong governance will also involve succession planning, particularly in respect of those directors or LGB/AC chairs that undertaking key roles in the trust. Identifying parents, community leaders or local business executives who have skills to contribute and an interest in education is the obvious starting point.
  12. Practise thorough due diligence and risk management. Due diligence is mostly understood in terms of a process for checking on all the potential implications of a new school joining the trust. That is necessary and should be done thoroughly. But due diligence is also about creating the right culture of risk management within the MAT. MATs are more likely to develop strongly and sustainably if they have adopted a strategic plan that reflects their mission, builds on their strengths, faces up to their weaknesses, builds capacity and sets success measures linked to interim milestones that will help to track progress. Such a strategy may well include plans for the MAT to grow in terms of the number of academies, but growth will be rooted in preparation and planning rather than undertaken as an ad hoc opportunistic enterprise. A risk register, describing the arrangements for managing the the main operational risks facing the MAT, should also be a standard agenda item for  board meetings.

2 thoughts on “Academy chains

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s