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What motivates multi-academy trusts (MATs) to grow?

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What makes MATs want to grow? How do school leaders and trustees consider the needs of the school communities they serve when considering expansion? 

Open University academic Jacqueline Baxter thought these questions needed answers. So, she asked 30 trustees in six MATs and 10 national leaders of governance, and she got some fascinating answers that she presented to the BELMAS academic leadership conference this summer. 

She discovered several different motivations for MATs to expand:

1. Opportunity

These included the ability to open free schools. Examples included the benefits of opening a free school focused on both autism and ADHD, or turning an empty caretakers’ house into a safe space for children who needed to learn life skills. “We have a moral obligation to get it right and make sure they’ve got the right bits of paper or the right life skills to enjoy the rest of their life,” explained one trustee.

This moral clarity wasn’t always convincing to outsiders. “They’re not looking to do joint things with other MATs; they just have a silo approach,” said a national leader of governance.

However, Jacqueline found early signs that MAT collaborations might compensate for a lack of special school provision in some areas, adding: “One MAT was looking not only to develop their focus on special schools but also to take on mainstream schools, so pupils that become able to participate in mainstream education, may do so in a relatively seamless transition. These types of aspirational innovations are well worth monitoring because their models could provide useful blueprints for other MATs, and as long as they are successful, they provide a much-needed element within the education system.”

She found “considerable evidence” that schools and MATs were only just realising what was now possible. “We believe, for practical purposes, if we can get children from two and keep them in a MAT school then it is within our destiny to give them the best possible education…. Lots of kids are arriving pre-school, and they are so far back in terms of development that to get them where you would expect them to be is a hell of a push,” said a chair of trustees.

2. Resources 

Some MATs are working together - but if one had a competitive advantage, it might only share information under certain conditions, such as being recognised as the lead in any partnership. “There is a policy-made tension within the system – on the one hand, it encourages collaboration, but on the other, it promotes competition. If this is to occur within the system then there needs to be an investigation on the effects of competition between MATs,” says Jacqueline.

3. Values and mission

These were particularly strong drivers for expansion in faith or special school MATs, and regional schools commissioners were keen to broker schools to them – which one chair described as “flattering.”

These values were clearly stated on their websites and in strategic plans.

One MAT, passionate about community service, sent staff to local meetings to discover how it could serve their challenging locality, and it was clear that its schools had the same independence as they would have under the LA except for when it came to replacing a head teacher – where it was “absolutely crucial” that the leader shared the sponsor’s values.

National leaders of governance thought MATs with an effective value system were far more focused on their goals and communities.

4. Pressures and risks

Pressures are internal and external, and they include the accountability regime and tension between the pressure to grow and the pressure to perform. This, says Jacqueline, leads to an additional pressure for good MATs to take on and succeed with failing schools.

This often pushed them to expand before they were ready, and it meant schools joining MATs were often harshly treated. “One MAT chair of trustees described the process of taking on poor schools in poor areas… ‘We had to lose the head, and the deputy stepped down [….], and it feels very brutal.’”

Another CEO described how impoverished some new joiners were, explaining that if they failed to meet a 5% reserve after three years, “we then ask them ‘how high are your staffing costs?’”

Jacqueline found “a concerning lack of evidence” that MATs expanding primarily because of accountability or competition paid much attention to the communities they were taking on, which in the longer term, might harm cohesion within the trust and its governance structure.

Strategic plans suggesting MATs would support nearby schools or help to shape the MAT landscape are also contradicted by trusts’ unwillingness to share and cooperate.

5. Feelings

Jacqueline noted the words often used by her interviewees: ‘predatory’ and ‘opportunistic’ frequently occurred to describe other MATs, particularly by members of trust boards.  

She said: “The emphasis on the market, the need to be competitive, extended even to those MATs whose values were at the very forefront of their expansion projects. A strong sense of ‘grow or be swallowed up’ permeated a number of the narratives, and it came across as a key area of concern.” 

BELMAS is an educational leadership research association open to school and college leaders at all levels as well as academics. It encourages members to generate and share ideas and good practice. BELMAS is an independent voice supporting quality education from effective leadership and management. Find out more at belmas.org.uk.

Susan Young

Susan Young is a journalist who has been specialising in education for more than 20 years. She was news editor and an assistant editor on the TES, where she created and edited a section for school leaders, and has also worked for the Observer and the Express.

As a freelancer, Susan writes for and works with a range of educational organisations, including the British Educational Leadership Management and Administration Society (BELMAS) and English UK.

She's interested in most things in education, from politics to practicality, but particularly loves hearing from professionals about the initiatives they're putting in place in their schools to make things better. Do get in touch.

First published 18 September 2018