Karen Wespieser investigates the extent to which the most successful MATs are improving outcomes for children and closing gaps for the most disadvantaged

Good research takes time – particularly systems research. There is no point in looking at brand new systems because all you will capture is at best a baseline, and at worst a snapshot of the preceding system.

In an ideal world, a small part of the system is changed: researchers evaluate it, feeding results showing effective or promising practices into an improvement loop, and then spread the word on what works. But policymaking rarely works like this, and when the life chances of young people are at stake sometimes you can’t afford to wait that long to make changes.

So researchers do what they can. We are now getting to a point where a sufficient number of schools have been in multi-academy trusts for a significant amount of time for us to start tentatively drawing research-based conclusions.

Pupil performance

Defining MAT success by pupil performance alone is tricky. That’s because the number of academies in MATs is regularly changing as new academies are taken on or those that aren’t making satisfactory improvement are rebrokered. We only have two years of performance data for the new accountability measures, which is insufficient to make a robust judgment.

Teacher career paths

NFER has done a lot of analysis on teacher career paths and found that staff movement between schools in the same MAT is more than 10 times more common than movement between two unconnected schools which are a similar geographical distance apart. This suggests that MATs have internal teacher labour markets that are different to the general teacher labour market in the local area.

Furthermore, when teachers and senior leaders move to a different school in the MAT, they are more likely to move to one with a more disadvantaged intake – unlike teachers more generally. This suggests that the strategic approach MAT leaders can take towards workforce management provides an effective mechanism for deploying staff to schools that struggle with staff recruitment and retention.

This is promising stuff! But there is little evidence to date that MATs are better able to retain teachers in the system.

Collaboration

David Carter, the national schools commissioner, often speaks of schools as “givers and receivers” of support, and sees MATs as important to foster this.

A Department for Education survey of 326 MATs and 542 single-academy trusts (SATs) found that academies strongly understand the benefits of collaboration. But there are some methodological caveats – in particular, that the survey asked MATs to respond on behalf of their academies, so the reasons given for conversion, for example, are not necessarily first-hand responses.

However, collaboration doesn’t have to just be about MATs. Indeed there is a greater evidence base for what works in collaboration.

Evaluations of interventions such as the DfE’s ‘gaining ground strategy’ have found that school-to-school partnership working is most effective when: schools have similar characteristics, are within reasonable travelling distance, and have staff time and commitment from both parties and partnerships at different levels of seniority.

Financial efficiencies

Research has shown that local authority schools spend slightly more per pupil on running expenses than either SATs or MATs, but that MAT schools spend more on teaching staff, supply staff and support staff. Surveys show that the majority of MATs, especially those that are larger, can provide examples of significant savings including payroll, catering, and grounds maintenance.

However, the use of procurement frameworks by MATs is not yet widespread and NFER analysis of DfE data suggests that the larger the trust, the more likely it is to be in a deficit position.

While it is interesting to look at MATs in terms of staffing, systems and efficiency, at the end of the day their impact on pupil performance is still paramount.

More research is needed! All of us – researchers, teachers and MAT leaders – should rise to the challenge and be much more intellectually curious about the world of multi-academy trusts.

Karen Wespieser is head of impact at the National Foundation of Educational Research