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Growth of Multi-Academy Trusts: do we need to put the brakes on?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 March 2017

Melanie Ehren
Yesterday, the House of Commons Education Committee issued its report on Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) with the key headline of: MPs concerned about performance, accountability and expansion of multi-academy trusts’.
The report issues a number of recommendations, all of which are aimed at supporting  further growth in the number of academies and Multi-Academy Trusts. As the report states (p.6) ‘the Government expects that in five to six a years a “tipping point” will be reached where most schools have converted and joined a MAT’. Given the current numbers of academies in MATs, this would see a total of 15,767 state-funded schools convert to academy status and become part of a MAT over the next couple of years. Another 1,618 academies that are currently operating on a stand-alone basis would also need to become part of a MAT*. The numbers are impressive and given the difficulties in too rapid expansion of existing MATs, it is no surprise that the Education Committee is calling on the Government to ‘only promote expansion of MATs that prioritizes performance’.
But how should we prioritise expansion on the basis of performance? What are high performing MATs and what does sustainable growth look like?
The government currently uses a ‘health check’ to help decide which MATs can expand.The health check includes five areas: standards and track record, people and leadership, governance capacity, financial sustainability and management of risk. Particularly MATs with a large number of schools with good or outstanding Ofsted grades and performance data, and who have clear governance structures and financial control in place are allowed to grow. An experienced CEO, a finance director, a board member and a member of the trust will be ‘inspected’ by a Regional Schools Commissioner to identify ‘where there may be potential issues that need to be addressed before that trust is ready to go to the next stage of development’ (p.28).
The Education Committee supports the health check approach, but also criticizes the lack of research underlying it, suggesting further work in this area to inform a more evidence-based approach. In my view, an evidence-based health or growth check needs to incorporate two distinct frameworks: one which describes the performance of a MAT, and one which looks at their growth trajectory.
High performing MATs
Research indicates that effective school networks have specific structural features, as well as effective relations between individuals and schools in the network. These include clear procedures for decision-making, geographical proximity and high levels of trust between people in the network. Provan and Kenis also explain how effective networks have an optimum make up in structure and relations, for example where large Trusts need to have stronger central coordination to be effective, compared to small Trusts, and where there is also a greater need for central coordination when schools within the Trust don’t trust each other. Including these three elements in external accountability frameworks enhances our understanding of how the functioning of networks can be improved to more effectively fulfil their purpose. The research also suggests that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to understand high performance of MATs, but that a much more nuanced approach is needed, looking at an ‘optimum fit’ of size, geographical location, governance structure and relations and collaboration between schools.
Sustainable growth of MATs
As MATs grow over time, so will the ‘optimum fit’ change: adding new schools will affect the portfolio of schools and assessing whether a MAT should grow raises a range of questions, such as:

  • do new schools share the vision and mission of the MAT?
  • do they have similar systems (e.g. around curriculum, assessment, time tabling) in place?
  • are they geographically close to other schools in the MAT, but not too close to compete over students?
  • what will they contribute to the MAT?
  • or how much of the resources will they draw from the MAT?

A number of studies have explained how networks have a natural life cycle which generally consists of four stages of development:

  1. Formation: building relations, establishing norms, negotiating and setting values and direction, non-brokered governance
  2. Development and growth: building on and leveraging relationships, addition of new partners, securing legitimacy, mobilizing actors to translate common ground into shared vision, introducing more brokered forms of governance
  3. Stability and routinization: reduction of costs of continued interaction by basing collaborative actions on shared strategic vision and embedding coordination and collaboration in local norms, building relationships of trust, collaboration embedded in local norms, brokered coordination of collaboration in the network (lead organization or NAO) and supporting infrastructure
  4. Extension or phase out: imposition of sanctions for not contributing to the whole, strengthening position of the network, recognition of the worth of the network and potential outreach to other partners through incidental collaboration on parallel projects. Or: phasing out of the network when collaboration brakes down and partners exit the network.

Any health check and assessment of growth needs to understand the specific phase a MAT is in and how adding new schools to the Trust would affect that process. As Trusts that have done well so far have expanded slowly in a relatively limited geographical region, the ambition to have all schools in a Multi-Academy Trust by 2022 needs to be treated with caution.
* In November 2016 there were 21,525 state-funded schools in England of which 1,618 were stand-alone academies and 4,140 schools were in MATs.

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