Is bigger necessarily better? I pose the question in the context of the growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs). The underlying assumption within the sector is that scaling up MATs and supporting them to expand is both a good and necessary objective. Certainly the Department for Education is putting a lot of resource into supporting the growth of small, medium-sized and even the largest MATs.
This makes sense at a number of levels. A larger MAT of, say, 15 rather than five academies brings economies of scale in terms of procurement, organisation of back office functions, being able to afford a good blend of central professional experts, developing and deploying leadership talent and having a bigger pool of expertise to share across schools. At the ASCL conference last year Sir David Carter set out the fairly compelling financial logic for developing MATs of between 10-15 schools.
However, what is less clear is whether there are some diseconomies of scale – particularly with regard to improving teaching and learning? That is, after all, the core purpose and business of a MAT and must ultimately be the test of their effectiveness. Is there a correlation between size and impact? If there are some diseconomies of scale at what point do they kick in – and why?
We just don’t know the answer to these questions. We do know that overall MAT performance at key stage 2, in terms of pupil progress, is broadly in line with all schools nationally. At key stage 4 the picture is not yet quite so positive – though the profile of historically poorly performing schools taken on by sponsored MATs partly explains this. But we don’t know why some MATs are performing more effectively than others. Without that knowledge or research base it is not surprising that we do not have an overarching framework for guiding the overall shape and development of the MAT sector.
Compulsory academisation has, with the exception of failing schools, been put on the back burner but the drift towards greater and possibly universal academisation of all schools in England continues. But over the next decade are we looking to see the creation of 2,000 MATs with an average of around 10 schools in each MAT? Or is the preferred model of 1,000 MATs with an average of 20 schools per MAT? Or do we envisage 500 MATs each having around 40 academies?
We have a direction of travel (encouraging schools to become academies and supporting MATs to grow) but without any roadmap and without the data necessary to create the map. To change the metaphor we have set sail for a brave new world without any charts and without knowing what lies just over the horizon.
This is an urgent issue. As the chart below shows 81% per cent of academies are in academy trusts that have 10 or fewer academies in them. And there are potentially hundreds if not thousands of new fledgling MATs still to arrive on the scene. Their current size is almost certainly not sustainable in the medium term but what scale of operation should they be considering?
Number of academy trusts by size of trust, December 2016
I do not believe there is one optimum size for all MATs – the size of a MAT will depend on the mission, geography, size of schools, organisational structure and school improvement model of the MAT. But we do need to know whether school improvement is best confined to working across groups of 15-20 schools, or whether can it be scaled up sustainably and successfully over larger group of schools and, if so, what are the preconditions for doing this. A few of the biggest MATs can be considered as high performers as measured both by Ofsted judgements and progress in test and exam results. However, other larger MATs have struggled to bring improvement across the board – though in both cases there are significant variations within as well as between MATs. In some cases growth has been sanctioned but at present the jury is out on whether this is working as a significant of their academies have yet to be inspected and/or there are an insufficient number of years over which to assess performance. So it is by no means a given that larger does necessarily equal better.
I would suggest we need to adopt a three-fold strategy.
First, we need to look we can learn from other education jurisdictions about the operation of tight formalised learning networks. Chartered Management Organisations in the US and School Boards in the Netherlands provide an obvious starting point. Take KIPP Charter Schools as an example. KIPP has grown to comprising 200 schools across the US but uses a federal structure of 31 regions (an average of six to seven schools per region) to operate these schools. KIPP regions are governed by a local board of directors, led by an executive director or superintendent and often partner with neighboring schools and community-based organisations. The role of the KIPP Foundation nationally is to train and develop outstanding educators to lead KIPP schools, provide tools, resources and training for teaching and learning and to promote innovation. Another CMO, Aspire Public Schools, has 40 schools – but focused in just two states: 36 in California and four in Tennessee. The average size of school in both these CMOs is just 400 students.
Second, we need an informed evidenced-based commentary what is happening on the ground within MATs as they expand. We need to understand the different scenarios and models that MATs are using to grow, examine their approaches to school improvement and track and assess their impact in terms of improvements in performance. Correlations may be hard to establish but a process for capturing, refining and sharing learning in a disciplined and systematic way is what is called for.
The MAT ‘health checks’ that are being developed by the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, are a helpful move in this direction. The five domains of the proposed framework (school improvement, governance, people and leadership, financial sustainability and risk management) could potentially provide a sound focus for MATs as they plan to take their organisation to scale. And because it is envisaged that the ‘health checks’ will use a peer review approach they should help to move knowledge around the system. Alongside that, however ,the DfE should as matter of urgency initiate some longitudinal research that tracks and evaluates school improvement models and their relative effectiveness, efficiency and impact. The secretary of state, so it is said, likes evidence-based policy. Well here is a prime case where evidence is urgently needed to inform policy.
Third, we need to change the terms of the debate about the growth of MATs. Many of those reading this blog will be familiar with the graphic that David Hargreaves (see below) developed for explaining the challenge facing teaching school alliances as they developed their partnerships. He plotted time on one axis and partnership depth on another. He suggested that many partnerships started off informally and initially might undertake only relatively superficial collaborative work – such as joint insets. However, as the partnership deepened so it became more formalised.
I have adapted that graphic to be relevant to a MAT context (see below) – retaining the horizontal ‘depth’ axis but replacing the vertical ‘time’ axis with ‘number of academies in a MAT’. I worry that despite the debacle of unchecked growth between 2010 and 2012 too many MATs see growth just in terms of expansion to the neglect of depth. Growth should be about both dimensions.
A mature MAT will prioritise going deeper in terms of facilitating its teachers and leaders to work together ever more closely to improve teaching and learning. They will be testing and understanding how to scale up their school improvement model – that does not mean imposition of standards and systems from the centre (though it may make sense to standardise some approaches) but consolidating knowledge and implementing practice based on collaborative classroom activity that is regularly assessed for its impact. The test of expansion should be whether it adds value to the MAT. Will opening more schools make the MAT stronger and/or more successful at fulfilling its mission? As a study on Chartered Management Organisations puts it:
‘A good practice is to ask yourself and your team, “What are you trying to accomplish and to what extent does that require additional campuses?”’
My hypothesis (to be developed in a later blog) is that the key to combining growth with depth is clustering. Clusters provide the vehicle for deep collaboration focused on teachers and classroom practice, using Hattie-style approaches within and across schools in the cluster to accelerate pupil progress by empowering teachers to plan, develop, observe and coach each other and by assessing the impact on pupils’ learning. A MAT complements this by providing the challenge, professional capital, knowledge and expertise that comes from being part of a larger group. The central team of the MAT evolve to focus on setting a strategic context and clear teaching and learning priorities, facilitating cluster activity, providing research know-how and tools, supplying impact data, helping move knowledge around (through, for example, user-friendly apps and online networks), scaling up what works, holding people and academies to account and ensuring consistency on key fundamentals.
Some MATs might achieve this by working within the parameter of 10-15 academies, as proposed by Sir David Carter. Other MATs may grow larger but should, I suggest, have to demonstrate that they understand how to do practice school improvement at scale and have an effective model for combining cluster and whole MAT activity before they are permitted to grow any further. Some MATs might stay small (below the Carter threshold) and focus on local school improvement while buying support services from another MAT or supplier.
MATs are not ends in themselves. Their purpose must be to improve pupil outcomes, wellbeing and life chances. That entails putting teacher development and improved teaching and learning centre stage. So let’s find out, examine and understand what the best MATs are doing to achieve this and make this the basis for sustainable growth.