The new landscape for MATs: our approach

CEO Mark Greatrex shares his vision for what multi-academy trusts (MATs) should look like. Mark was interviewed by Arbor about how, here at BPET, we create a cohesive trust. Read Arbor’s report in full (part 3).

“These are interesting times for MATs. All but the largest are faced with the challenge of growth.

Growing our trust has always been an integral part of our vision at Bellevue Place — and we are certainly not alone in that. At the same time, I believe that all but the largest academy trusts need to be a lot bigger than they currently are, and a lot bigger than they are aiming to be. If our goal as trusts is ultimately to replace the role of Local Authorities, then most MATs should be seeking to support anywhere between 60 and 400 schools. This might seem like a bold aim but, as a collective, we’ve got to think very differently about what MATs should and will look like; replication of the Local Authority function is just the starting point.

Shared aim of providing the best for local children

Local Authorities do many things well, such as governance support, planning for school places, safeguarding duty or simply advocating and representing localised sentiment. In my view, we should be aiming to better that communal aspect of procuring and provide the best outcomes for children, be this in hubs of schools or large, localised trusts. MATs have an advantage in that they are professionalising recruitment, budget control, safeguarding, educational aspiration, and innovation. There’s more room for career development and truly harnessing the untapped expertise of those who have hit the glass ceiling as headteachers and aspire to extend their impact even further.

As the majority of trusts are small, we’re yet to fully realise the benefits that widespread academisation can offer. MATs have huge strength in their drive for educational excellence which, coupled with agility, is where their record is unrivalled. It’s an exciting prospect that as we get bigger, and as other trusts do the same, we can offer this communal support educational improvement, and more opportunities for children and staff. At the moment, these are spread too thinly.

Years ago, I visited the rural primary school which I attended as a child and, whilst there, recommended that they join forces with the other rural schools in the area, as there were about 400 pupils across six schools. The sticking point comes when six schools realise that, for this to work fully, there can only be one Headteacher. While there are always other top jobs, self-preservation can play a role in blocking the opportunities of coming together, be this on a small scale or in a merger/acquisition between two big and well-established MATs. If we were all solely driven by the improvement of education provision for children, then this wouldn’t be an issue, but to believe otherwise is naive and an unrealistic view of human nature.

More collaboration, more movement, and less protectionism

Having said that, I would personally advocate for more fluidity in the MAT landscape — more collaboration, more movement, and less protectionism. I mean this in terms of roles and internal school structures, but also for when trusts hold on to schools, even when it is clear that it isn’t the right fit. I hope to see a future where if a school has been in a MAT for three or four years with no evident improvement, the central team and trustees should put their hands up and say ‘perhaps you’d be a better fit within X trust.’ In the current landscape, trusts only relinquish control when told to do so, because the culture of our system is not yet mature enough to acknowledge either failure or stagnation.

We must remember that a school joining a trust is not an end, but a beginning. Whilst I advocate for bigger MATs, trusts should not grow for growth’s sake or grow as fast as they can, because it is the schools who will suffer. Trusts must be held accountable for the improvements promised. The American charter model reflects this idea fairly well, where every five years, they have to argue why they are still strong enough to continue supporting the school, to renew their charter to run the school. There’s no shame in acknowledging that something hasn’t worked out, and encouraging fluidity between MATs should support this inter-trust culture.

Larger MATs will be able to explore their full potential for the benefits of the pupils

In this same vein, I think an increased number of mergers is an absolute must. At the moment, all trusts seem to be growing or aiming to grow by a steady handful of schools at a time, but real change will happen when we start to embrace mergers, as this is where we can truly take advantage of the benefits that MATs have to offer. I do believe we’ll get to a point of about 450 MATs, which is a significant change from 2500+ at the moment.

It comes back to my earlier point of self-preservation and being steadfast in vision and values; after building up an identity, this is an understandable blocker for many MATs. We also have to be clear on the MAT structures of support, being the best for the MAT role and not trying to replicate school structure at MAT level.

But I am always looking at the end goal, and firmly believe that merging creates better opportunities for children, which is our collective aim. If the culture is ultimately educational improvement, then every MAT (in theory) should have the same metrics of success. Self-reflection and honesty, where a MAT has perhaps lost their way, could therefore be truly beneficial. There is no shame in merging, changing and resetting direction if the outcomes for learners need to be improved. Mergers or letting schools move to another trust seem to be thought of as an admission that the initial plan has not succeeded, but this is not the way they should be viewed. These aren’t a divergence from the original goals or a failure, rather an opportunity to do the right thing for learners.

The last element of the ‘self-preservation’ perspective comes down to people and autonomy. As trust leaders, we have to be certain that we are offering real opportunities to those the MAT serves — be that learners, staff, or the wider community. What does the school look like and how does it meet these disparate needs?

Meeting the locals needs, within the support of a bigger structure

Kew-GardensOf course, schools are worried about their autonomy in joining a MAT — and this is a big issue. Our approach at Bellevue Place is to pitch things differently. We want schools to have their own brand. We want our schools to be high-performing, meeting the needs of the community they serve, whatever that looks like. This percolates down to the curriculum and the way it is taught. We want schools to have a unique selling point in how they develop, organise and offer high quality education provision. We want school staff to have ownership of their roles, be that the headteacher, class teacher, cleaner, office manager, TAs… our role as a trust is to drive forward and create an environment where we can inspire high achievement, with effective monitoring, challenge and support. But ownership must be at local level in order to get real high-quality provision — because the individuals at each school know the local context best.

My hope is that MATs evolve to offer the autonomy which is currently enjoyed quite significantly in the Local Authority sector. Trusts which prioritise their overarching brand, rather than helping schools to nurture and cultivate their own, have good intentions, but miss what the school means to its local community. It depersonalises it, risking a barrier between community and school. We don’t want to be monolithic: we want to have our eyes opened to things we haven’t thought about, and then devolve the autonomy to drive it. Believing that a trust name or logo deployed throughout a school will stimulate improvement is an illusion; real change is strategic and collaborative, driven by professionals empowered in each school.

For me, the brand of a trust is irretrievably intertwined with the strength of the provision it offers. When seen through this lens, mergers, giving schools autonomy, or being held properly accountable for the success of schools are not frightening buzzwords; rather, they are methods for creating a fluid MAT landscape that can offer children across the country a real opportunity to succeed.