Multi-academy trusts used to be an afterthought for software developers, but no longer, explains Joshua Perry

School software has been around for a long time. The market has blossomed and evolved over more than three decades, with the release of the ever-popular SIMS Management Information System (MIS) in 1984 a particularly pivotal moment.

Software for multi-academy trusts, on the other hand, has been surprisingly slow to emerge. A few suppliers have dabbled with features like multi-school administration, or MAT-wide analytics, but the resultant modules have felt like prototypes, which they often are, rather than integral elements.

Indeed for a time a limited product was the best-case scenario for a MAT. Many suppliers just ignored the additional needs of MATs entirely, or even displayed something approaching hostility.

Standalone schools may be hard to acquire, but once you have their business, they are a profitable mixture of slowness to change, price insensitivity, and a lack of bargaining power. MATs, in contrast, are a threat to existing business models.

While the role of LAs in software procurement has declined in recent years, in MATs it’s an increasing area of focus

Of course, MATs are a fairly recent phenomenon.

In early 2011, there were under 400 MATs and fewer than 1,000 academies in total. Six years on, there are over 1,400 MATs containing in excess of 5,300 schools. They’ve grown from under five per cent of the market to over 25 per cent in less than the time it takes a child to complete a primary education.

As a result, things are changing. In the MIS sector for example, 44 per cent of the 860 schools which switched system last year were academies, meaning they represent an outsized chunk of the addressable market. Big MIS procurement contracts are also turning heads: the Bath and Wells MAT adopted Scholarpack across all its primary academies, Harris Federation has switched to Bromcom, and AET has moved to Advanced Learning.

So why the change? Well, aside from MATs being a growing part of the sector, five factors are at work:

MAT-focused suppliers are popping up. Specialist MAT products aren’t new: for example, PS Financials has been offering MAT accounting software for years, but the last year has brought a bunch of new entrants to the specialist market. Data analysis is a particular growth area: suppliers like Groupcall, Novatia, Arbor and Assembly (where I work) all now have MAT-first analytics offerings.

MATs have procurement managers. While the role of LAs in software procurement has declined in recent years, in MATs it’s an increasing area of focus. Many have turnovers of £50 million or more, and professional procurement can drive seven-figure cost savings in such environments. The role of procurement manager at MATs is increasingly common.

EU regulations oblige MATs to procure properly.

If you’re making software worth £181,302 or more, you need to comply with the EU’s OJEU procurement regulations. This compels you to advertise your procurement publicly, and adhere to strict guidelines on how you manage the process, creating a more level playing field.

MAT central teams expect to be partners as well as customers. If a single school asks for a new feature, it will struggle to be heard. If a MAT asks for additional functionality, and it’s willing to work with the supplier to test it, there’s a good chance it’ll get built.

MATs are cost-effective commissioning entities.

Suppliers are waking up to the fact that a central contract with one commissioning body for 10 schools is far more cost-effective than 10 contracts with 10 individual schools. Now, not all software can (or should) be purchased by a central team, but even where buying decisions are taken at school level, vendors are realising that if they offer an opt-in deal at discounted prices, the MAT may in turn do some of the heavy lifting to secure sales on their behalf.

So if you’re looking for EdTech innovation, keep an eye on what MATs are up to. Increasingly, this is a MAT’s world.

Joshua Perry is Director of Assembly, a non-profit schools data platform incubated by Ark Ventures and the NEON Foundation