9th May 2023
One year ago, the landmark Schools White Paper set England on course for an entirely Trust-led school system by the end of the decade. Despite key parts of the paper being watered-down, the direction of travel remains towards ‘academisation’. The march towards MATs (multi-academy trusts) and the radical shake-up it will entail, has the potential to be a real game-changer for schools, parents, and pupils alike. From pooling scarce resources to sharing expertise and insights, the benefits of MATs are, on the face of it, easy to envisage. The common challenge facing all MAT and school leaders is how can they translate those benefits into improved attainment, better schooling experiences for all children and enhancing the fabric of their schools.
To grow and thrive, MATs must attract more schools into their communities. There’s little value, however, in simply bringing schools together under new structures unless they are delivering meaningful outcomes for pupils, parents, staff and indeed, the wider community. To really make the grade, MAT leaders must first be able to understand and unlock the ‘Trust Dividend’.
No two MATs are the same. Geographic, demographic, and socio-economic factors throw up unique challenges and opportunities which means there is no common ‘playbook’ for MAT leaders to follow. So how, then, do they unlock the ‘Trust Dividend’? To answer this question, we recently brought together a group of educational leaders, representing a diverse group of MATs across the country. We wanted to understand this issue from the ground up, exploring some of the common ‘building blocks’ which could help MATs to grow, to meet and indeed to exceed their potential. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be examining each of these building blocks in detail. Today, however, I’d like to introduce five in particular.
1. Centralise and streamline
School leaders and teachers are facing an ever-mounting administrative and reporting burden, ranging from pupil performance to environmental performance. In the face of a changing regulatory landscape, this burden is unlikely to ease anytime soon. By centralising and streamlining resource-intensive – yet fundamentally important – functions such as finance, people management, estate/asset management and catering at MAT level, schools can save time and money which can be reinvested in the classroom. This pooling of resources must, however, be rooted in a clear MAT-level strategy which supports better learning outcomes, directs oversight and accountability, and allows for agility. This was a clear view shared by our group of educational leaders.
Getting these things right and underpinning them with the right suite of systems and processes will serve as a critical pull-factor for schools looking to join a trust. For MAT leaders, it will also make it easier and faster to onboard new schools, with minimal hassle or disruption for either staff or pupils.
2. Reinforce financial resilience
With the cost-of-living crisis placing a huge burden on schools (not to mention pupils, parents and staff), financial resilience, was, unsurprisingly, a growing concern for our MAT leaders.
While pooling resources and sharing administrative burdens will go some way towards reducing overall costs, MAT leaders who diversify their sources of income will guarantee financial resilience in the years ahead. There are many such examples, ranging from renting out facilities during non-school hours, to afterschool clubs to apprenticeships. Some MATs generate revenues from training new teachers, also easing their recruitment problems. While schools are not commercial enterprises, there are lots of good practices which could be easily adopted at MAT level, helping them to reinforce their financial resilience in the face of whatever future challenges they may face.
3. Become a magnet for teaching talent
Crucial to the long-term success of any growing MAT is being able to continuously attract and retain teaching talent. This is very much front of mind for MAT leaders right now, given there is a chronic shortage of teachers in key STEM subjects like physics and maths. And all of this of course at a time when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made plain the Government’s determination to boost student numbers in these key subjects.
MAT leaders cannot control every factor influencing a teacher’s decision to join or leave. There are, however, levers which they can pull, including putting in place the right systems and processes to support the professional development and wellbeing of their staff, helping them evolve, move, and grow within the Trust. As with any organisation, teachers are more likely to be on top of their game in an environment which makes them feel valued, heard and supported.
4. Copy one another’s homework
Data is crucial to unlocking the Trust Dividend. Schools sit on a rich seam of data, ranging from pupil performance to choices in the lunch queue, to estates data on building efficiency. That data, used effectively, can generate insights to drive better, smarter decision-making on anything ranging from staff wellbeing to making school buildings greener.
To do this however, it is vital for MATs to have a consistent approach where it comes to the collecting, managing and sharing data. The insights generated by one MAT can and should be openly shared across the community, enabling others to adopt similar approaches and deliver the best for pupils. There are already powerful examples of innovative thinking in MATs across the country, delivering great outcomes for students. By doubling-down on data, we can create a ‘marketplace of ideas’ across the MAT community.
5. Seeing the Greener Big Picture
With today’s younger generation more environmentally conscious than any other in history, schools can - and should - be at the vanguard of climate action. As a focal point for their local community, schools are also ideally placed to influence and encourage good practices from energy saving to fighting food waste.
Our group of MAT leaders were keenly conscious of this opportunity, with some committing to setting ambitious – and meaningful - Net Zero targets for their trust. By deploying proven technologies such as LED lightbulbs to help save on energy for instance, MATs can enjoy short, as well as long-term benefits, including real savings which can be invested back into the classroom. Sustainability, seen in the round therefore, can deliver real benefits for MATs.
Working with thousands of educational institutions both in the UK and around the world, we’ve seen many brilliant innovations which are making a real difference to the lives of young people. Social value is a part of our coding as a company and we’re determined to help amplify innovative practices where we see them, so they can benefit the lives of millions more young people.
If you’ve encountered a unique or innovative idea which you think could benefit other schools, I’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts and let’s start a conversation!
Stewart Mcluskey, Divisional Managing Director (Education) at Civica