Balanced MAT expansion is all about striking the right chords

Building resilient and transformational civic institutions requires expanding MATs to avoid an opportunistic ‘popcorn’ approach

Building resilient and transformational civic institutions requires expanding MATs to avoid an opportunistic ‘popcorn’ approach

21 Jan 2024, 5:00

With budget pressures weighing down hard on schools, an increase in pupils with SEND and a recruitment crisis, we are all operating in a challenging context. For those of us running schools and trusts in such turbulent, uncertain times and often in spite of policy, developing and implementing a viable growth plan is crucial to long-term sustainability.  

To increase their resilience, as the CST/Edurio research suggests, smaller organisations are likely to aim for ‘safety in numbers’. This will mean a sharp focus for many on growing the number of schools in their networks.  

But the success of such a strategy is hugely dependent on achieving the right balance between provisions rather than linear growth alone. And in our experience, building an autonomous, high-trust and accountable culture is fundamental. 

Our growth journey over the past ten years has been a slow expansion of our network of schools. As a unique college-sponsored MAT providing many progression pathways, we took on our first school in 2014 (a failing LA-run AP), and our tenth academy (an outstanding mainstream primary school) has just come on board.  

This contrast of provision types is reflective of our mixed-economy approach, growing a diverse profile of schools including AP, SEMH, ASD and PLMD alongside mainstream primary.  

Some of our schools joined us with academy orders, while others were good or outstanding. Each is now rated good or better except one, which is awaiting its first Ofsted visit since conversion.  

We also took on a music service which was at risk of closure. Two years on, Bexley Music is thriving, offering people of all ages the chance to benefit from music education. This success is the result of dedicated staff, plus a genuine synergy in terms of the Trust’s aims and values.  

While some schools help build capacity, others take it

While some incoming schools will help build capacity, others will take it. In that sense, being a MAT CEO isn’t unlike being a conductor of one of our many orchestras: not making too much noise ourselves but ensuring equilibrium between all the parts to generate as much power as effectively as possible. And much like growing an ensemble into an orchestra, MAT growth needs to be planned and designed rather than opportunistic. 

We faced a dilemma as to whether to take a ‘popcorn approach’ (ie. going for opportunities as they arose) or to stick to the things we were doing well and finding more opportunities to do these things.  We went for the latter, recognising that a range of different provisions – both capacity givers and capacity takers – can be a real strength and ensuring we properly assessed risk and opportunity in every new expansion. 

Guiding that decision, in the end, is your sense of authenticity. No person or organisation can be all things to all people – and not every school to come along will be the right fit. We ask leaders of prospective schools to visit our current ones to gain a transparent and honest view from our heads, and we ask them to take the same critical view about whether we share the same values, aims and ambitions.

Relationships with local authorities and DfE are also key. Little will matter more than proving yourself a trustworthy partner who is committed to working collaboratively for the system as a whole.  

Our focus is now on developing hubs of different provision types across specific geographical areas. This is not just about expanding but raising standards and diversifying educational choice through collaboration. It is also about growing roots that will weather any storm, and spreading our expertise as well as the risk.

With so many external challenges, the sector needs a more sustainable approach to mergers, delivering economies of scale to smaller trusts to positively impact the quality of education being delivered. 

Diversification of an offer rather than simple expansion will help develop partnerships and expand reach. This is working for us and supporting our mission to build a truly transformational civic institution in our local communities. And this, I believe, must be the ultimate aim of every trust.

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