Why academy trusts matter – and why we need a tinder for MATs

The model enables great trustees and leaders to make an impact across a whole group of schools, writes Mark Lehain

The model enables great trustees and leaders to make an impact across a whole group of schools, writes Mark Lehain

30 Jun 2023, 5:00

The case for multi-academy trusts is practical and pragmatic, not political, says Mark Lehain. They are, he says, simply the best way to run and improve schools.

Education is an important and beautiful thing in its own right. It’s also the closest thing we’ve got to a silver bullet if your aim is for people to be happier, healthier, richer or live longer.

It’s why having children in brilliant schools from day one is so vital – for them, their families and society as a whole.

MATs are getting better all the time at what they do

Add to this how tough things are in the classroom, I am more convinced than ever that schools collaborating within a great multi-academy trust (MAT) is one of the most effective things we can do to help pupils and teachers.

I explore the reasons for this in a new Centre for Policy Studies report released today, Passing the Test: The future of the academies programme.

We’ve already come a long way towards a MAT-led system: just under half of the country’s state schools are already an academy or becoming one, and well over 85 per cent of these are already in a MAT.

And while we’re all familiar with the horror stories of when things go wrong, MAT successes keep building, and the case for them as the best way to run and improve schools grows ever stronger in a variety of ways.

Research suggests they are better at helping “stuck” schools get “unstuck”. They seem to be better at recruitment and retention of staff too, particularly in terms of getting more experienced staff into schools with more disadvantaged pupils.

‘MATs lead to better outcomes for kids’

It all leads to better outcomes for kids. For example, if all pupils did as well in their key stage 23 SATs as pupils in the 75th percentile of MATs, national outcomes would have been eight percentage points higher, and ten points higher for disadvantaged pupils.

At the performance of the 90th percentile it would have been 14 points and 19 points higher!

These things are possible because the MAT model enables great trustees and leaders to make an impact across a whole group of schools, not just one.

They can pool leadership, money, expertise and resources, and get it into the right place at the right time. They seem to have better financial management, which allows for more frontline investment and greater resilience.

And we know that MATs are getting better all the time at what they do, as good practice is spread and embedded, and new lessons learned.

The case for MATs is practical and pragmatic, not political. It’s why there are more than 4,000 Church of England and Catholic maintained schools due to convert and join trusts over the next few years About 1,000 others will follow in their wake.

The question is how we help make the process as easy as possible for those making the move.

‘DfE should fund Domesday Book for schools’

Some things are pretty technical. For example, the government should fund a national “Domesday Book” across the maintained sector, so there is a clear record of assets and liabilities in place at each school ready for when a school joins a trust.

It needs to legislate to address the land ownership issues that face many church schools when they become academies. And it should support the sector to develop and publish interoperability standards for information and data, to make changing IT systems easier.

Others are about helping schools and trusts explore possible relationships. Trusts should publish a standard set of information about how they operate, so that schools can easily assess who they’d consider working with (or not.)

This could form the basis of a “Tinder for trusts”, as part of an independent MATchmaking service to help school-to-MAT and MAT-to-MAT hookups. Left-swipe for a standardised curriculum, right-swipe for more in-school support!

Regardless of the political weather, we are heading towards a system where MATs will be the key drivers of school improvement. We just need politicians and officials to trust teachers and leaders, and give them what they need to make it happen.

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  1. “Research suggests they are better at helping “stuck” schools get “unstuck”.”
    Just saying this often, as does not make it true. Research actually suggests that whether a school is a maintained school in a well performing LA or an academy in a well performing MAT makes very little difference. The importance is the intervention when performance drops. Indeed, there is some evidence that in many cases schools can be restored to reasonable performance more quickly within the maintained sector than when required to become an academy.
    I am neither for or against academies or maintained schools. But I am for honesty in reporting research findings, and against letting dogma get in the way of educational improvement.

  2. Mathew Taylor

    What a lot of nonsense. Anyone who says MATs are not a political tool clearly doesn’t understand them. The education system should have a joined-up social function that serves society and local communities. Schools should not be companies. It’s the people in the schools that make them successful not any corporate model.

  3. History guy

    Absolute rubbish, i work in a MAT. Things have never been worse, they are founded and run by venal individuals who seek only to increase their pension pot, not interested in the students. Vastly inflated CEO salaries, should be spent on the kids

  4. George Hollis

    Market forces applied to education are doomed from the start. Political motivation is the key reason for the unstoppable academy blight on our education system. Our children deserve better! What proportion of Trust CEOs interest lies in their interest in a rounded & relevant education for every child ? Big business motivates this emerging breed of ruthless senior leaders / managers in education today, applauded & encouraged by this kind of bias &:political research. The whole notion of children as commodities is immoral. The gap between winners & losers, (our vulnerable learners), in all sectors of education continues to grow.

  5. Richard James

    It is always disappointing when someone writing an article aimed at a large group of educated individuals feels that the words “research suggests” allows them to give credence to whatever nonsense they are spouting. I’ve yet to see a MAT work in an effective way. When it comes to funding I have seen more money being taken from schools and less support being given. Schools struggle when they lack funding and oversight. MATs offer no solutions to either of these issues.