Mergers will define the next phase of MAT growth but too many obstacles still stand in the way, writes one CEO

The current crisis has brought into sharp relief the value a larger school trust can bring to its network of schools – technical expertise to support remote learning, a stronger central team, greater scope for staff to support across schools and more. Even in our relatively small trust of 10 primary schools, I have seen the benefits at close quarters.

Our trust is ambitious to grow but the options are limited. Schools converting to become academies has slowed, the number of forced academy orders is down. It is not enough from which to base a viable growth strategy.

Although, it is not clear cut what might be the ‘ideal’ size for a MAT. The consensus appears to be that with 12 to 20 schools, a trust becomes robust enough to withstand the economic, political and structural challenges they might face. Even with 10 schools, I would certainly put our Trust in that category. However, with 20 or more schools, it is argued a trust becomes ‘economically successful’. This is certainly important, but should only be seen as a contextual facilitator that allows a trust to achieve its core mission – namely to add value to each school and ultimately the education and life chances of each child in our care.

At present, there are currently 775 school trusts with two to five schools, and 1,502 single academy trusts. The maths simply doesn’t work for these to all grow to 12 to 20 schools independently. A new approach is needed and I think mergers need to be a key part.

Mergers are likely to become a key vehicle for growth

A recent report by PrimarySite, Sustainable Growth in Multi Academy Trusts, suggests mergers are likely to become a key vehicle for growth and that smaller MATs may well merge together or join larger MATs. Worryingly, it appears that although many believe mergers are likely, very few MATs are giving it serious consideration. The report found that although MAT leaders expected mergers to happen they weren’t focusing their own growth strategy on merging with other trusts.

It appears that for many, merging is a last resort rather than a planned strategy.  Many involved in the research suggested mergers would only take place if a MAT CEO was leaving or due to financial pressure. This approach seems overly passive to me.

In education we are driven by wanting to ensure children and young people achieve their full potential. As trust leaders we need to ask ourselves whether the size of our MAT is enhancing or curtailing the opportunities we can offer to learners. However, I don’t think responsibility rests with the CEOs of trusts. This is because mergers always mean changes to the top team – you can’t have two CEOs. Instead, it is the Board that needs to be alive to the possibility of a merger and have tests in place to understand when it might be a sensible option.

There is a dearth of guidance about what might happen if a smaller trust wishes to merge with a larger one. We need to open up a wider debate about when merging makes sense and what it involves. Could RSCs play a central role in brokering mergers? Absolutely. The DfE needs to provide clearer direction if they want MATs to grow sustainably.

We need to shift the perception of mergers and re-cast them in a positive light. The PrimarySite research shows that many MAT leaders are expecting mergers but find the prospect unattractive. Do we need to create a new language that reflects the value of a small trust merging with a larger one? Yes, but in the end, it is voluntary to merge with another trust, and it is vital that the benefits to learners should drive the decision. Going forward, successful mergers will choose the spirit of partnership over the hostile takeover; embrace commonalities and shared ethos over division and vested interests, and focus with ever greater clarity on delivering a compelling vision for their trust to the benefit of every child and member of staff in the communities they serve.

 

Andrew Moorhouse was a member of the steering group for PrimarySite’s research report Sustainable Growth in Multi Academy Trusts.