New research says academy leaders must prepare for nine key ‘break points’

May 10, 2018

CEOs of multi-academy trusts (MATs) must prepare their organisations to change in nine key ways if they want to realise their potential to transform children's lives, according to new research from national education charity Ambition School Leadership.

The new report, ‘Building Trusts: MAT leadership and coherence of vision, strategy and operations’, gives a detailed look at the inner workings of multi-academy trusts. It identifies the 'break points' where small or medium-sized trusts must make changes as they develop or face undermining their ability to improve schools sustainably.

These so-called ‘break points’ relate to a range of issues as trusts develop, such as expanding into new locations or when a trust with high-performing schools takes on a school that needs significant improvement. Researchers worked with more than 40 MAT CEOs and surveyed staff from 22 trusts.

Break points can pose significant challenges if the CEO does not have a coherent plan that brings together vision, strategy and operations and adapts as the MAT evolves.

Ambition School Leadership CEO James Toop said: “This is the first time anyone has comprehensively examined the inner workings of multi-academy trusts. We know that the best MATs have great leaders who ensure schools achieve better outcomes by working together rather than independently. But our research suggests that what works well for a trust with two or three schools won’t necessarily work for a trust with ten or more.

"CEOs have to develop a coherent vision, strategy and operational model which they evolve as their MAT develops. We will be using these findings in our Executive Educator programme for MAT CEOs, and the research will help executive leaders and trustees in a small or medium academy trust to ensure their schools flourish and achieve the best outcomes for children.”

Loic Menzies, director of education thinktank LKMco and lead author of the new report said: “MATs are a relatively new addition to the educational landscape and as such there is a dearth of evidence available for MAT leaders wanting to maximise their impact.

“Our cutting-edge research shows that there is more than one way to run a MAT. It provides CEOs and trustees with detailed insights which will help them make complex decisions regarding how to provide the best possible education for their pupils.”

The research was commissioned by Ambition and conducted by education think tank LKMco.

The breakpoints

Researchers found that as multi-academy trusts grow there is a point where an approach stops working efficiently and a new approach is needed to deal with the trust’s future context and needs.  The nine breakpoints are:

Break points from increased scale

  • Accountability and oversight: the CEO cannot line manage all the schools and the MAT needs new personnel and monitoring systems in order to retain oversight
  • Governance: the skills, expertise and membership of the board must evolve to keep pace with scale, demands and challenges of the trust
  • Alignment: CEOs must decide if new schools which join adopt the MAT-wide approach or retain autonomy, a choice which CEOs can find most challenging when outstanding schools want to join
  • Communications: the trust is too large to meet as a single group, so CEOs have to identify new processes and systems to keep staff informed and feeling part of the MAT
  • The role of the CEO: the CEO moves from executive head of all schools to CEO, taking on a more strategic and outward-facing role, often appointing another leader to oversee school improvement

 Break points from geography

  • Curriculum: Some MATs believe curriculum needs to reflect local context.  If they do, that curriculum needs to adapt if they open a new geographic hub or region
  • Central operations: centralised back office functions may need to regionalise as the MAT expands to new clusters, hubs or region
  • Collaboration: initial face to face collaboration structures need to adopt technology, change frequency or evolve as MATs move to new geographies

 Break points from performance

  • School performance: MATs may give more autonomy to high performing schools to innovate or take a more directive approach with schools which start to underperform

A copy of the report will be available to download here from Wednesday 18 April.