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Talking MATs: the challenges in MAT governance

We like sharing real stories at NGA: it is after all one of the best ways we communicate, and education is all about learning and applying the lessons of others. The way MATs have developed in recent years has been truly fascinating to watch. The system was never really planned out and trusts have evolved over time, sometimes in a rather messy or complicated fashion. But the problem is that the vast majority of these narratives remain untold, leaving new trusts to repeat mistakes made by others. There have been a number of MAT case studies focusing on good practice, but we haven’t seen many brave enough to publicise mistakes.   

NGA recognised the need to share MATs’ individual stories which is reflected in our new case studies series. The Evolve Trust, the Spring Partnership Trust and the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust have all now laid bare the challenges they faced in order to help other MATs on their own journeys. This insight doesn’t attempt to narrow down findings to a set of generalisations or come up with a step-by-step guide to success, simply to lift the lid on what is going on in an evolving sector.

It is good to talk but doing so is not always as easy as it sounds: being honest about the ups and downs you’ve experienced is a bold move but a powerful one. When we started our Community MATs network in 2016, it became clear that trustees value the chance to discuss shared experiences and challenges. At this week’s network meeting in London, the challenge of getting communication right within MATs was a prominent topic once again. The complexities of the MAT system are taking their toll on communication lines, which in some trusts are being stretched to the point of breaking. Sometimes this is simply because trusts are not responding to their changing contexts and over time communication channels that were relied on have become less relevant and effective.  

Having the same people sit on different layers of the structure can seem like a convenient way of addressing this issue, but we know this can result in a ‘my school’ mentality developing. This can then become a barrier to creating a shared organisational identity. The separation debate is therefore no longer being limited to just members and trustees but increasingly trustees and local committee members. Both the DfE and NGA take the position that these should be different individuals.  

There are of course lots of other ways MATs communicate through their structures; the trusts we have been speaking to all reviewed their methods of communication as they developed. While many placed trustees on local academy committees in the early days, most have recognised that this is not sustainable in the long term.

One of the things that add to these pressures is considering the growth of a trust. This is an important issue, as in many of the cases where things have gone wrong, trusts have expanded too quickly. A related learning point across all of the case studies is ensuring that the MAT adapts as it grows – this means having a growth strategy that works for your trust in the long term, not just in the early days. For many this has involved a consolidation period, either because they have proactively decided this would be wise, or have had to react to prevent things from spiralling out of controlAll the MATs we have profiled so far have changed significantly over time which brings many challenges and can mean making the difficult decision to turn down schools the regional schools commissioners ask them to take on.

Becoming resilient to external pressures and only growing in line with the values and vision developed by trustees and executive leaders are lessons many trusts have learned the hard way.

Thinking about growth in a different way, our case studies revealed the importance of factoring in risk when taking on schools. One trust found that, while having rigorous due diligence is important, issues can and do continue to unfold once a school is incorporated into a trust and some “tolerance for uncertainty” can be valuable. Trust boards need to factor this in and be brave enough to intervene when need arises.

We hope many other trusts will come forward with their own stories. Our three case study MATs are leading the way, with two more being published shortly; the courage and generosity they have shown in providing such rich and insightful reflections will be of immense value to others involved in the governance of groups of schools and – ultimately – contribute to securing an excellent education for every child.

Thank you Clare Collins, Head of Consultancy, National Governance Association for providing us with this insightful blog.

If you’d like to hear more from Clare, she will be speaking at the upcoming Academies and School Leaders Conference on 28th February 2019 in Manchester.

Join us by securing your place here using code ACAD19 to get a complimentary place.

Alternatively, find out more information about our upcoming events here

Follow the conversation on 28th February using #academiesevent


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