There are lots of ways MATs can improve their schools, writes James Toop, but there’s one common factor needed to underpin it all

School improvement can only occur with great leadership. This is especially true when we are talking about groups of schools like multi-academy trusts, but the more I learn about the MATs that are turning around schools and changing children’s lives, the more I’m convinced it can summarised by one word: “coherence”.

As the head of a leadership development charity I am lucky to meet a lot of school leaders. The MAT CEOs I talk to often ask me where they can find the answers to running an effective academy trust. The answer, of course, always begins with, “Well, it’s complicated…”

But after spending a year with colleagues researching high-performing MATs, I now believe that great leadership is about coherence. Coherence starts with one thing: a shared mission to transform the life chances and outcomes of children. It’s non-negotiable for me that every MAT and school has a clear mission – and the very best are so specific that they guide strategic choices about the schools and communities they will work with.

Achieving a coherent school improvement strategy in a MAT is difficult

So just as the best schools translate their missions and values into a strong school culture and a focus teaching and learning, the best MATs translate their mission into a clear school improvement strategy across all their schools that in turn informs its staff structure and operations. This is MAT coherence.

It means doing the hard work of truly clarifying the purpose of an organisation and making some hard strategic choices about how it achieves this purpose. Done well, this is the foundation of a powerful coherence which delivers results.

One example of this is a trust in the east of England. Its mission is to remove the barriers to success that affect many of the white working-class children in the area.

The trust began life as one secondary headteacher applying her school’s successful model of improvement to another and turning it around. The leadership then realised that to achieve their mission they needed to reach pupils earlier, recruiting local feeder primary schools to create a community of all-through education.

This change resulted in a MAT with a hub model, and the next time they decided to grow, the trust repeated this to create another local hub of secondaries and their feeder primaries.

These significant strategic changes meant the trust needed to change how it operated. The head realised she needed to change her role with this increase in scale – moving away from headship and redefining herself as CEO with different responsibilities. Education directors and finance and HR teams were recruited to help manage the new large organisation.

As the strategy evolved the MAT’s structure and operations were thoughtfully changed to remain coherent, creating a new way of working that would continue the original mission on a larger scale.

Achieving a coherent school improvement strategy in a MAT is difficult. They are complex organisations, often across different geographies, with different schools at different levels of performance that joined the trust at different times.

But coherence is important because without it MATs risk failing to live up to their potential as drivers of school improvement. Looking around the sector, we can all see examples of MATs where an inability to evolve in the face of change or challenge has led to compromised outcomes for the children in their care.

It should be the goal of every school leader to provide teachers with the optimum conditions to teach children, develop their practice and progress in or master their roles. A MAT with a coherent mission, strategy and operating model is much more likely to do this. The CEO may not be in the classroom – but it’s their job to create the conditions where every child in every one of their schools is learning.

This has been part of a substantial research project and what we’ve learned is being shared via our new report and our CEO development programmes. I’m especially looking forward to having some more concrete answers the next time a leader asks for advice on running a great MAT, though it will still begin with, “Well, it’s complicated…”

James Toop is CEO of Ambition School Leadership

‘Building Trusts: MAT leadership and coherence of vision, strategy and operations’ is available here. It will also be used to inform the Executive Educators development programme.