Free article: MAT expansion: Don’t let school improvement become a casualty

Published: Tuesday, 20 September 2016

How can an expanding multi-academy trust ensure that school improvement doesn’t become a casualty of change? Colin McLean of Best Practice Network looks at the issue and offers some guidance.


  • Schools becoming academies are most likely to join or set up a multi-academy trust (MAT) rather than go it alone.
  • MATs will need to ensure that school improvement is not compromised as they expand with more schools.
  • MATs should have a clear reason for growth, building on an existing philosophy and then looking to bring in schools that complement that philosophy.
  • Guidance on running MATs effectively is now available from a range of sources, but trusts need tools to help them assess their progress and manage their improvement effectively.

Although, back in the spring, the government dramatically stepped back from demanding that all schools become academies it is still very much focused on helping all schools make that move.

The future of MATs

There has been no change to the education white paper’s ‘direction of travel’ that all schools should be on their way to academisation by 2020. Neither has there been any shift in crucial policy areas to encourage academisation, such as enticing good and outstanding schools with the promise of autonomy and forcing failing schools to convert. These are strong indicators that more and more schools will have to consider this option.

If research indicating that the majority of these new academies won’t be going it alone or setting up new multi-academy trusts (MATs) is correct, then existing MATs – the vast majority of them with a handful of schools – will have to consider how they will manage their expansion to take on new academies.

The most important challenge they will have to face is how to accommodate this growth without compromising the success of their existing and new schools. They will need to ensure that their schools are successful by managing school improvement in a coherent and efficient manner across the trust.

In his recent national roadshow, National Schools Commissioner Sir David Carter announced plans for MAT growth audits, a sustainable peer-to-peer review model. A key element of the audit will be a focus on school improvement strategies and impact.

Managing the growth of a MAT

To be effectively managed, this change and growth process has to be underpinned by solid structures and systems that allow collaboration and school-to-school support, while protecting the distinctive nature and autonomy of individual schools.

So, how can MATs go about this? Management tools that give leaders a view across a trust’s schools are becoming available to help them, but before these are brought in it is useful for MAT leaders to step back and ask some fundamental questions before they start expanding. They can then consider what ingredients they need in the structure that will underpin the expansion.

The central questions are:

  • Do you have a good understanding of how all your schools are doing before you grow?
  • What will be the impact of growth on your current schools?
  • Are your existing schools strong and healthy enough? Do they have good governance, solid leadership, financial security, established and effective risk management processes, strong vision and improvement planning and enough leaders to cope with supporting and working with the new schools in the trust without disadvantaging their ‘home’ schools?

MAT leaders should look closely at the ethos and vision of the existing schools in the MAT. It makes sense to work with new schools that share that approach. It is about having a clear reason for growth: building on the existing philosophy and looking to bring in schools that complement that philosophy. It should not be about grasping onto a weak school nearby.

It is an approach that has been central to the expansion of Olympus Academy Trust in Gloucestershire. The trust consists of two primary schools and two secondary schools, but expansion plans should see it doubling in size by 2017.

CEO Dave Baker says that the trust has had to agree a growth strategy to clarify its priorities. This means that when schools approach the trust in the future, with a view to joining the MAT, they know what sort of schools will complement the others. Matching up ethos and values is vitally important, as is getting a balance between schools that need support and those that have the capacity to help deliver that support. He advises that schools should not rush into joining a MAT. They should adopt an approach that is right for their school and their school’s ethos, and they need to determine whether they have the capacity to run their own MAT or join an existing one.


Self-reflection is a useful starter exercise, but it is also vital to have a deeper, formalised self-evaluation approach that can be used as part of an improvement model for your MAT.

Best Practice Network has developed a self-evaluation diagnostic toolkit for multi-academy trusts. It gives MATs and the schools within them a means of assessing progress in all the key performance areas against DfE and Ofsted requirements. Any areas of improvement identified through this exercise can then be focused on through supported peer review and subsequently through improvement activity, such as school-to-school support, coaching and mentoring, and leadership and staff development.

As part of this self-evaluation approach Best Practice Network is using the DfE’s publication Characteristics of successful multi-academy trusts. The tool provides MATs, their boards and senior leaders with a grid setting out the nine characteristics of successful MATs, developed by National Schools Commissioner David Carter when he was southwest regional schools commissioner.

The characteristics include: a well-communicated strategic vision and plan; a clear accountability framework for the performance of the trust, which all staff understand; clear quality assurance systems in place to improve consistency and performance; and clear governance at trust board and local governing body level.

Each characteristic comes with descriptions that set out what it should look like in four stages of maturity: beginning, developing, embedding and leading.

Used in tandem with other evaluation tools, including the Ofsted framework and pupil premium, governance and safeguarding reviews, MATs can gain a highly detailed picture of their progress and areas for improvement.

Multi-academy trusts are set to grow in the coming years, but leaders need to be careful that school improvement doesn’t become a casualty of expansion. By asking fundamental questions about expansion, and putting in place systems that will help them manage the change effectively over the longer term, MATs can ensure that school improvement remains at the very centre of everything that they do.

Further information


Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network (, a national provider of leadership development programmes, qualifications and support for schools, including a new trust improvement model. Details are available at

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