Pause for strategy review key to MAT development says new report

New research says that MAT leaders must continually pause to review strategy and operating model and adapt or face potential break point

A new report by education charity Ambition School Leadership, which examined leadership, vision, strategy and operations of multi-academy trusts (MATs), has identified break points that are particularly relevant to CEOs of small and medium-size MATs.

Researchers engaged with over 40 MAT CEOs, through case studies and interviews, and surveyed the staff from 22 trusts, so as to better understand the the strategic choices taken by leaders, how this affects the way their trusts operate and how changes in the scale, geography and school performance of a MAT can create break points that mean a trust has to change its approach.

The report defines a break point as ‘a point of non-incremental change where a MAT has to break with a previous strategic or operational approach and make a shift’ and identifies these with the changes in geography, policy context and the type or performance of schools in the MAT, as well as in the scale of the MAT, as contributors to these break points.

Ambition’s report ultimately found that the highest performing MATs have a coherent approach which aligns their vision and mission, their school improvement strategy and operating model.

Also highlighted was that the highest-performing MATs focus on aligning their schools around a common model of school improvement; ‘In the MATs where we see this happening a common approach is usually developed around curriculum, assessment and teacher training and development,’ the report concluded.

Finally, it stressed the importance of a MAT’s continual review of its strategy and operating model and adapt it in advance of potential break points. ‘This is essential to achieve sustainable growth and sustained performance in the outcomes that matter most: transforming the life chances of children, especially our most disadvantaged,’ it said.

A summary of the report highlighted the following

Break points from scaling

Accountability and oversight: When working with a small number of schools, CEOs may feel able to retain oversight through frequent communication and direct monitoring. However, MATs reach a scale of operation where they have to develop tighter monitoring systems and, for example, recruit new education leads to the executive team, in order to retain oversight as the numbers of pupils and size of accountability grows.

Governance: It is never too soon to clarify governance structures. However, governance is never fixed, it must evolve with the growth of the trust. For example, MATs that initially opted for representation of all local governing bodies on the main board have typically found this is impractical at scale. Trustees also need to have the interests of all schools in the MAT at heart, not just their original school. All MATs, even the smallest, need to expand the professional expertise and skills mix on their boards to reflect the scale of the MAT and the accompanying accountability.

Achieving alignment: If a MAT has a culture of collaborative convergence, leaders have to decide the approach to take when a new school joins. Will they re-open those areas to debate, leave the school to continue with its previous approach or expect it to align without input? What are the risks of each approach? This choice becomes particularly challenging when the new school is high-performing.

Communications: MATs operating at a smaller scale can often achieve consistent communication and build a shared identity by bringing together staff from all the schools for trust-wide activities. As the MAT grows, the challenge for the CEO is to keep messages consistent and frequent even if they don’t see staff that often. As numbers grow too large for staff to meet as a single group, trust leaders have to identify alternative strategies for sustaining cohesion.

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The role of the CEO: As the MAT grows, CEOs naturally need to consider where they have expertise, where they can add greatest value and where they should therefore spend their time. Similarly, CEOs should think about their executive team and their capacity and capability, including how to recruit for expertise that complements their own. CEOs will need to adapt their role in school improvement as the trust grows. Many step away from ‘on the ground’ roles by appointing leaders with the capacity to directly support school improvement, but will remain closely engaged with this core function by playing a quality assurance, challenge and support role.

Break points from geography

Curriculum: Some MATs believe curriculum needs to reflect the local context. They can feel that a common curriculum becomes inappropriate if they take on schools in very different localities. Other MATs strive for a common curriculum. For them, the challenge is operational: how to develop that curriculum collaboratively across geographies, as described below.

Collaboration: MATs may aspire to improve practice within the trust by bringing all their leaders and teachers together to collaborate. However, moving into new geographies makes this more challenging as it increases the time and expense involved. MATs, therefore, have to review how they create collaborative groups within their structure, and many use cluster-based models to facilitate more regular, local collaboration.

Central operations: Although MATs may initially focus on centralising back office functions to a single location, some then find it necessary to regionalise their operations as their geographic spread increases.

Break points from performance

Pushing for excellence: MATs operating a highly-aligned model can find that high-performing schools face a ‘glass ceiling’ where they want to break away from that model to innovate and drive further improvement.

Tackling underperformance: MATs operating a highly-autonomous model can find schools with low performance face a ‘glass floor’ where a more directive approach is needed and standards and ways of doing things have to be imposed until performance improves. MATs rely on a clear scheme of delegation to empower them to take a more directive approach with under-performing schools and on effective change management to bring schools into alignment when they have become used to a looser model.

In Cluster 2 MATs, which focus on alignment, underperformance can still require targeted school improvement resources to be deployed to provide additional capacity.

Earned autonomy: Some MATs talk about schools having ‘earned autonomy’ – where a school’s high-performance means it no longer has to stick to the MAT’s school improvement approach. For Cluster 2 MATs that pursue alignment, schools gain ‘earned autonomy’ when they perform well enough to step away from a common approach and to innovate. For Cluster 1 MATs that pursue autonomy, the notion of ‘earned autonomy’ can be a way to justify why lower performers are not given the freedom to pursue their own approach – you earn autonomy once your results are high enough. Some CEOs also use this approach to encourage higher performing schools to join their MAT.

Access the full report here.

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