Effective strategies and systems for MAT growth

There is a real challenge facing Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) in understanding where to go with growth targets set in the Schools White Paper. But a new report shares practical strategies for growth, lessons learned on the way, and key advice to schools on assessing their options on which MAT they should join

Around 12 months ago, the government’s Opportunity for All policy paper proposed reforms to the education system focused on providing an excellent teacher for every child, delivering high standards of curriculum, behaviour and attendance, targeted support for every child that needs it, and a stronger and fairer school system.
The case for a fully trust-led system was made and, as part of this, a requirement was set for all schools to be part of a MAT and for trusts to grow to at least 10 schools or 7,500 pupils by 2030. In terms of the sector’s ability to meet the seven-year timeframe, and also with reports that the ‘deadline’ has been relaxed if not dropped altogether, this desired outcome of the White Paper is currently shrouded in uncertainty.
At the time of writing, however, this is still the broad political direction of travel. So, having convened a range of perspectives from MAT leaders on the growth challenges facing trusts and document how their approaches are working in practice, a new report may help to inform and support discussion around a trust-led system.
The 2030 MAT Growth Challenge: Effective Strategies and Systems report, which was published recently, includes the perspectives of those who have already hit the ‘magic’ number of schools/number of pupils set out in the White Paper and smaller MATs who are starting their growth journey. It demonstrates practical strategies for growth, lessons learned on the way, and key advice to schools on assessing their options on which MAT they should join.
Here are five key themes from the report:

1.Unintended consequences of 2030 target

Whilst our MAT Growth Survey found that 50 per cent of MATs are targeting growth by one or two schools over the next 12-18 months, a further 33 per cent are seeking between three and five new schools and 8.5 per cent are aiming for five or more schools, movement appears slower than expected in the 12 months following the White Paper.
One trust leader highlighted how schools are seeing 2030 as the end point only. Now there is a sense that they feel they have lots of time to get there, and are not taking action. But also that schools are better off seeing who is out there now, who is the best fit, and taking control of their destinies and futures. It could only take a school to be given an RI grading by Ofsted and then the decision about which MAT to join could be largely out of their hands.
The survey also reported that nearly a third of MATs are considering a merger with another trust over the next 12-18 months. Another report contributor spoke about how smaller MATs will be reflecting on whether they have gone as far as they could or should, and whether they can be stronger in a bigger organisation.
For many trusts, though, the White Paper has not changed anything significantly in terms of their vision and purpose, and indeed it has brought a welcome endorsement (and reassurance) of current organisational strategy.

2. Sensitivities around centralisation/pooling

The White Paper outlines how “strong trusts” achieve economies of scale, sharing resources, centralising functions, and ensuring robust financial governance, in order to build resilience and save time and money to reinvest into education.
In The MAT Growth Survey, 94 per cent of respondents said that centralising more of their operations and/or funding could make them more effective organisations. And among those trusts that already GAG pool, 71 per cent say their approach to pooling or centralisation has been either a positive or neutral factor for schools looking to join them.
Our position is not to argue for or against centralising functions or GAG pooling in terms of ‘this is the thing everybody should do’. We are not here to point out the right way of doing things. In fact, there is no right answer, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
However, as identified by the follow-on interviews with trust leaders, there are some very opposing views on these and other issues (although the principle of sharing resources as part of the MAT ‘family’ was agreed upon). The common factor is degrees of ambition to centralise always lie with a trust’s organisational strategy. Interestingly, we also featured one trust which had expanded rapidly over a short period of time and, and whilst it is supportive of each school having its own unique identity and ethos, on reflection they said a more structured centralised approach would have been more beneficial.

3. Top slice: varying percentages, varying returns

Away from GAG pooling, the majority of MATs (67.5 per cent) have a four to six per cent top slice/central charge and a further 14.5 per cent charge seven to nine per cent. The standard across the sector is typically five per cent, as per DfE modelling.
A leading finance expert spoke about how the sector seems to be hung up on the top-slice percentage when it is ultimately just a means of funding the central services that trusts provide to their schools. “Many MATs say they calculate the level of funding based on the actual cost of the services they provide, but in practice there is little variance. If you are offering school improvement as well as finance, HR and premises in your centralised package, the percentage is likely to be higher than the typical five per cent,” she said.
One MAT CEO highlighted how their two schools’ contribution is bigger than five per cent, but the percentage will reduce as the trust grows due to economies of scale. Another pointed out that a seven per cent central levy trust may have significantly more support on offer and it would be wise to assess which model most benefits the school, not just which one is going to cost the most.
Times are changing though – and we also featured a MAT which removed the principle of top slice as part of its ‘One Trust’ ethos, which “means making decisions which support the family: together we are stronger, rather than 19 islands”.

4. Attracting more schools

Both in the short, medium and long-term, trusts are under more pressure than ever before to adopt smarter MAT finance, and consider the impact of their chosen operating model on their attractiveness to other schools as they seek to grow.
Our MAT Growth Survey found that 90 per cent of MATs are “confident” that their trust is set up to deliver directives to onboard more schools as required. However, whilst leaders are clear that organisational strategy (and clarity of purpose) will eventually support further growth, for many there is also strength is saying ‘no’ to schools, whether that is due to size, geography or a sense that certain schools would be better placed elsewhere. It is recognised by some that the make-up of the existing portfolio of schools in a MAT can make attracting schools of a different phase and type particularly challenging.

Trusts highlighted many examples of how they have supported schools to maintain or improve Ofsted ratings and developed areas of education trust-wide, as well as achieving significant successes operationally. These come through back-office support in areas as finance, estates and HR. One MAT leader said that through GAG pooling they have been able to free up £1.5 million for curriculum and pastoral support.
There is recognition that growing the organisation internally in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, as one trust CEO put it “getting better, not necessarily bigger, and ensuring value for money for the public purse”, is needed.

5. Tips on which trust to join

MAT leaders provided some really sound guidance for schools that are assessing their options around which trust they should join in the coming years.
Firstly, a general theme was the need to take your time and do not rush into anything. Schools should reflect on why they want to join one initially. It was also suggested that one of the ways to see if a MAT is the right one is to look at a ‘try before you buy’ model – possibly work with them as a partner at SLT level before committing to join the trust in an official capacity.
Secondly, explore vision, values and culture (and speak to others about the ‘lived’ experience). Consider how joining any MAT will create choice for parents and carers, and only make a choice that is good enough for ‘my child’ or those of children from families you care about. Other advice was being clear what is within their responsibilities after they join, for example, by scrutinising the MAT’s scheme of delegation.
Thirdly, to ask the right questions. These may include: Which trust’s ethos and community aligns to your own? Which MAT will improve opportunities for children and staff? What are the central services and how will these be delivered? What is the financial state of the trust? Is there enough money to develop and improve the estates? How will governance work?

Will Jordan is co-founder of IMP Software, which commissioned The 2030 MAT Growth Challenge: Effective Strategies and Systems.