Governance: Avoiding the pitfalls of joining and forming MATs

Renewed interest in joining and forming MATs has seen a resurgence of old pitfalls, writes Emma Knights. These tips can help you avoid them

Renewed interest in joining and forming MATs has seen a resurgence of old pitfalls, writes Emma Knights. These tips can help you avoid them

27 Nov 2022, 5:00

Last term, with BrowneJacobson and ASCL, the National Governance Association updated its guidance for schools considering joining or forming MATs in light of the government’s schools white paper. But the NGA has been in the business of advising schools on this matter for a long time. Welcomed by then-minister for the schools system, Lord Nash, the first edition of the guidance was launched in 2015 in the House of Commons, when most other commentators were still supporting the official DfE line of converting single schools into single-academy trusts (SATs). 

A couple of years before that, discussing academisation on stage at the Academies Show, the panel was asked whether a small primary should convert as a SAT. I caused a stir as the only panellist to suggest forming a MAT instead, which remains the only time I’ve been booed in my time at NGA.

Taking to the stage again at last week’s Schools and Academies Show reminded me of those years. I am concerned that some governing boards are in danger of repeating mistakes that have not been officially documented.

To that end, these key points have stood the test of time for making a well-informed decision.

Do not rush

There are no shortcuts. Begin by understanding what you are trying to achieve for your pupils, what matters to you and your community. It is vital that the board, whether a maintained school or a SAT, has access to all the information it needs to determine the school’s future. The government’s aspiration of 2030 gives time to consider this and consider it properly.

Meet with potential partners

First and foremost make sure the trust’s ethos, values and culture echo yours. Establishing a trusting relationship can take a while and it is a prerequisite for success. Be honest, and demand honesty in return.

Remind yourself of the Framework for Ethical Leadership as you begin the process. If it feels like a partnership that might work, adding value to the pupils in all schools, then talk about the detail of what being part of that particular trust means.

Existing MATs who are part of these conversations need to be completely clear about their expectations too, especially what is non-negotiable. In the early days it was easier for governing bodies and leaders to help shape practice, but now it is much more likely you will be joining an established trust.

In any case, due diligence must be conducted into any potential partner.

Speak early on to your DfE regional office

Don’t invest a lot of time, energy and commitment on an option the department is unlikely to support.

A frequent question (addressed in the guidance) is “will we be allowed to form a new MAT?” This varies from place to place. Overall the DfE vision is not for lots more small trusts, but some parts of the country don’t have a lot of options. If that is what you want to do, you will need to make your case well.

Beware of plans to grow too quickly

Some trusts fell over because their plans were unrealistic. Some didn’t have the capacity and infrastructure to support a rapidly increasing number of  schools. Others invested in central capacity and didn’t find the schools to join them.

The business of the school must continue

There are other draws on leadership and governing board capacity – never more so than now. Most won’t think this even needs to be said, but we have seen leadership teams distracted by structural change.

Do what governing boards are set up to do

Interrogate the information, ask for evidence, consult stakeholders and have courageous conversations. Get past the sound bites. Do not make assumptions, and choose carefully who you listen to. Some seemingly authoritative voices do not always understand the legal changes and can generalise terribly when in fact there is a whole array of practice in the sector.

With these in mind, governing boards will be able to steer a course that avoids the pitfalls of joining or forming a MAT – and better lead their schools to reaping the benefits of doing so.

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