If we join a multi-academy trust, will we lose our individual identity?

Christine says: There are those that say joining a multi-academy trust (MAT) is like getting married without the possibility of divorce for at least 125 years. Most of us wouldn’t get married if it meant subsuming our personality to another. And the same applies to schools thinking of joining a MAT. You need to take your time and do your homework to find the best match to suit your values.

Like any relationship there will be compromises, but that shouldn’t be the individual identity of your school. While it can be seen as a one-way street (the MAT will do due diligence to see if your school is able to join), it’s not: you should have your own planning and due diligence process.

So here’s my step-by-step guide to finding the right partner:

Step 1 Map your local area to find out which schools are already academies and whether they are standalones or already part of a MAT. What do you know about these schools? What sort of reputation do they have? Where local schools are part of a large MAT, where is the central team based? If more than 90 minutes’ drive away, what local arrangements are in place for emergency support?

Step 2 Check out the website for each academy trust. What are their published values and how do they deliver them? What do they stand for? Do they have a uniform policy? What sort of curriculum do they teach? Are staff valued? Are there high expectations for all pupils? You should be able to identify those MATs that most closely match your ethos.

Step 3 Draw up a short list of “candidates”. Contact each and tell them that you are looking for a MAT to join. Ask to see their “scheme of delegation”. Be very wary of any MAT that doesn’t have a scheme or is in the process of rewriting it! Read it thoroughly. Ask yourself “is this full of jargon or legalese?” (if the latter, it’s probably been drawn up by a solicitor and not the people who are going to operate it day-to-day).

It should have an introduction that sets out the principles underpinning delegation. Some trusts will work on the basis of maximum delegation to schools unless certain conditions prevail and then delegation will be withdrawn. Others will talk about earned autonomy so the more competent you are as a school, the more delegation you will get. Others will be up front about doing all the support functions at the central base, leaving you to get on with teaching and supporting pupils.

One key test is to check how headteachers are appointed. Bearing in mind that a MAT will be accountable for the appointment, there are many ways local governors or advisory bodies are included in selection. You have to feel comfortable about that and ask yourself, “Does the rhetoric about protecting individuality on the website match the reality of the scheme of delegation”?

Step 4 Once you have a shortlist of trusts that match your ethos, you need to score them in two crucial ways. The first is on standards. How do the schools in the MAT perform? Is the lead school outstanding? Read the last Ofsted report and look at the areas for improvement. Are schools improving year on year? Second, look at staff development. What will my staff get out of joining this trust? Is there access to in-school teacher training that my best teaching assistants can take advantage of? What arrangements are in place to develop middle leaders? How are non-teaching staff developed?

Complete these steps and you should find you’re left with at least one good match that’s not going to require you to lose your character. And because you’ve done your homework, you’re in a good position to make a good deal for your pupils, staff and community.

On the other hand doesn’t this make you think: why don’t I start up my own MAT? Go back to Step 1 and map in all the maintained schools in your local area to find your ideal partner. It could be a marriage made in heaven!

Christine is a straight-talking former DfE Academy and Free School policy adviser with a reputation for putting children’s educational needs first. She now runs her own consultancy business CBECS and is Best Practice Network’s Lead Academy Consultant.

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