Trusts: Mind how you grow

Multi-Academy Trusts, or MATs, are now a familiar feature of the school landscape. By summer 2015 there were 846 across England, compared to under 400 in March 2011.

Joining a MAT a legal entity, with a corporate governing body usually led by a chief executive governing all schools in the chain – can give schools a number of benefits. These include, opportunities for collaborative school improvement, fresh professional opportunities and access to development for staff, financial efficiency by sharing support services and improving staff retention by providing staff with greater potential for career growth.

The benefits are clear but building a Trust is the tricky bit. Growing a Trust school by school, expanding by reacting to requests, is one thing but ultimately you need to be clear on why you are growing. Is it just about expansion or something else? That’s where a growth strategy, underpinned by a plan and the right structure, comes in.

So what are the key things to remember when finding the approach that works for your Trust?

Don’t forget your vision and values – they should underpin all your long term planning. What are you about and what are you trying to achieve? Your Trust should be a vehicle for improvement in all types of schools so it is important to have a mix of good and outstanding schools as well as schools that require support.

Get a strategic plan, underpinned with your vision and values. This will affect your growth plan and how you structure leadership and management and governance. 

Have a delivery plan with short, middle and long term objectives. What’s your final destination and how do you want to get there? Create governance and senior leadership structures that can scale up and help to achieve your end goal. Things will change on the way so think about the big picture and then plan.

Skill up - To achieve the above your SLT has to have the skills to do it effectively. It’s not the same as running a school and different leadership and strategic skills are required. You might have an outstanding executive head of two schools, but they will probably need different skills to be the chief executive of a Trust of 10.

Look outside as well as within but don’t get obsessed by what everyone else is doing. Decide what you want to achieve and look for practice and approaches that suit you and apply them to your circumstances and needs. Strategic partnerships and advisers can help you move forward more quickly with more stability.

Continually review and challenge - but make sure you have the skills on the Trust board to provide this challenge. Also make sure that the board is strategic – if you have lots of local governing body representatives you can get dragged into individual school issues - and that’s not what you’re about.

Get the balance right with structures. As a Trust grows it becomes increasingly important to have centralised systems, processes and structures. You won’t get the financial efficiencies you will need without it. A Trust board and chief exec can’t get effective reporting in place if there aren’t some common systems and processes. This is where you start to look at other sectors with experience managing multiple complex organisations. There are thousands of variations and examples out there to look at – but pretty much all of them are based on the central functions model. They usually include IT, HR (including CPD and talent management), finance, business development and marketing supporting teachers and allow leaders to concentrate on being the best they can be. It’s up to each Trust to find the balance between central functions and local school autonomy. 

If you don’t get the balance right you could be become too bureaucratic and end up with the reputation as a Trust that imposes too much direction on its schools. Will good or outstanding schools find that attractive? Then again, if you don’t have the systems and processes in place and allow every school to do their own thing, you won’t get the benefit of financial efficiencies and managing and reporting across the schools will become more complex as you grow. Most importantly, you may limit the ability of the schools to collaborate and support each other.

We’re still in a learning phase when it comes to setting up the most appropriate Trust structures, but there is a growing body of help and advice available. The Department for Education’s Characteristics of successful multi-academy Trusts is a good starting point and will help your Trust assess where it is in its development journey.

If you’re wrestling with any of these issues, Best Practice Network’s specialist team of academy advisers can provide the support you require. Please contact Phil Haslett to find out more.

Phil Haslett is Best Practice Network’s business development director and a director for the Olympus Academy Trust in South Gloucestershire.

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