Its been quite interesting since the Education White Paper was published, watching the discussions about academies and the plan to force all schools to convert either to a stand-alone academy or join a Multi-Academy Trust.
Possibly the most worrying bit is that much of the commentary appears to be based on a lack of understanding of what a MAT is and how they operate. So what follows isn’t intended to be an argument for or against academies or MAT, just a summary of what it means for a school to be in MAT and some examples of MAT structures I’ve seen in the wild.
What happens when a school joins a MAT is quite simple. In fact it’s so simple that people usually assume what they are reading is incorrect. Essentially, when a school joins a MAT it ceases to exist as a separate entity. Only the MAT has legal status. The MAT gets the income for the school from DfE (via the Education Funding Agency), the MAT employs the staff, the MAT is responsible for the buildings and the land. The governance arrangements are decided by the MAT. These can range from keeping the existing governance in place all the way to removing local boards of governors entirely.
Unless the DfE decides otherwise, going into a MAT a one way trip. As the school legally ceases to exist, it can’t ask to come out of the MAT. The DfE will only move a school from one MAT to another (re-broker) if the school is failing in that MAT.
The mistaken view is that a MAT is a group of stand-alone academies that have agreed to work together. There is a structure that does work in that way – it is called an Umbrella Trust. This form of arrangement allows both academies and non-academies to operate jointly, for example in the procurement of services, without ceding ‘control’ of their own school. Specifically each school maintains its own governance and its own income.
The really big thing with a MAT is that the funding all goes to the centre, and it is the trustees of the MAT (or their operational team) who are responsible for ensuring that the right amount of funds goes to the right school. A key point here is that the reserves of the schools are pooled and their use is determined by the MAT.
The other big mistake to make when trying to understand MATs is to assume that they are all the same and that they all operate in the same way. This is not the case. There are a number of key types (and the naming of these types is mine, so don’t go looking for them on the DfE website):
Trad MATs. Examples of these are Harris, ARK, E-ACT, AET and so on. These are MATs that began life under the original academies programme, when academy sponsors were expected to actually provide some financial input to the schools they were given (and I use that word for ease and not in any pejorative sense). Remember back when the academy programme started the sponsors were expected to put £2m on the table, in cash or kind. This didn’t always happen as it should but this was the way (allow with enhanced central funding) that the failing schools who were part of the programme were able to develop the capacity to improve.
So these MATs have grown in size and influence. Sometimes, as with AET and E-ACT for example, this growth has not been without issue. These MATs have well developed central services, both educational and operational, and provide the min-LA model that seems familiar to outsiders.
Primary Package MATs. During the last parliament when the government made its big push to convert as many schools to academies as it could it made a special offer. For groups of three or more primaries that formed a trust they would provide a grant of £100k plus £10k for every additional school up to a total of eight. So £150k for an eight school MAT. This was the Primary Academy Chain Development Grant and it was taken up by a number of groups. This is where the bulk of the primary academies outside of the Trad Mats reside.
Sometimes these MATs have grown and have been able to take on some of the features of the Trad MATs in providing central services. More often than not, however, because of their size (the joint budget of 5-8 primaries is often not that dissimilar to that of one secondary) there is a capacity issue in developing such capabilities.
Single Sponsor MATs. There are many convertor academies (the Outstanding rated schools who converted early in the last parliament) who have taken on (ie been asked to by the DfE) a local(-ish) struggling school. There was a grant for this, around £75k plus other resources depending on the situation. These are true MATs but are more akin to a take-over than a merger. The ‘sponsor” is providing support and expertise to the other school. Many of these relationships work well and I have seen them succeed. These are the MATs I would most like to see expanding.
Wanabee MATs. If you look at the DfE list of approved ‘sponsors’ you will see that it numbers over 800 organisations (from memory I wrote over 600, as it was when i last looked at it – changing rapidly). Not all of these actually have any schools to ‘sponsor’. Also, some of them are not even schools. There was a point in time where you could fill in a form, and as long as you could prove you had an outstanding-rated school who would work with you, the DfE would approve you as a sponsor. Those days are thankfully gone, but I remain to be convinced that they have pruned the list.
So there are many MATs that actually are ‘M’ in name only. I have seen such MATs where there is one school, which has a head and the MAT has a CEO (i.e. the ex-head). Make of that what you will.
Family MATs. I have seen a few ‘Family of Schools” MATs, secondary and local feeders but not as many as I would have expected. This is possibly because the FoS model is not as widespread as people might think. A sub-set of this group are the converter academies who have then gone on to become all-thru academies.
Pick’n’mix MATS. Two or more of the above. So I have seen Single Sponsor MATs who have then gone on to make one or more of the schools all-thru.
I make no comment on what can or can’t be done in any of these organisations. All I will say is that I’ve not met anyone involved in any of them whose focus hasn’t been improving the education of the young people they serve. Much like any school really. I’m sure they’ll make mistakes (much like any school), but they will be that, mistakes.
My issue with the rush to 100% academisation is that the multiplicity of structures is being created without sufficient data as to what works best and for who. In part this problem has been caused by the ridiculous degree of secrecy that the DfE has insisted the programme is shrouded in.
This is damaging for two reasons.
Firstly it inhibits system learning. How can people make rational decisions about which structures will work best in their context if they do not have access to information that they can trust about the success or other wise of those structure where they have been tried elsewhere.
Secondly, secrecy encourages myth-making and conspiracy theories. The greatest disinfectant is transparency. I have no ax to grind for or against academies, but even I am often led to ask “What are the DfE hiding and why” when I see some of the decisions they have taken over transparency. When the answer to information requests is to cite ‘commercial confidentiality” this is red-rag to a bull.
This leads to the certainty that whilst it is likely that most will succeed (and often improve the education of the young people they serve) many will fail. An added issue is that because of the secrecy we will not be able to learn all we could from the failure. In this context failure means having to have schools re-brokered. For many this is seen as the strength of the academy system. My view is that having to build in such a possibility shows that the system is not as perfect as some would claim.
We need much more openness. And we desperately need some independently produced case studies of the success and, perhaps more importantly, the failures so we can learn how to do things better.
And now I have to go and sit in a dark room to calm down about the whole parent governors thing.