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MATs: Governance, Self-Review and School Improvement

Ofsted has been very vocal recently about the disjointed nature of MATs, both in terms of their leadership and management, and in terms of the way they are held to account. Ofsted’s key issue is that the MAT as a legal entity is responsible for the governance of its schools and yet Ofsted currently only has a mandate to inspect individual member schools, not the MAT itself. In many MATs and their academies, the governance model (and therefore its accountability structure) has become confused and ineffective.

However, the issue is much larger than this and its resolution will determine the shape and nature of MATs going forward and indeed whether this new quasi “middle tier” has the impact the Department of Education desires.

In too many MATs, the army of volunteer “trustees” have not yet fully grasped the responsibilities they have and the activities they need to undertake to ensure that their responsibilities are appropriately met. Too often the executive arm of a MAT, led by the CEO, is focused on the need for individual academies to perform and to manage this within their budget, so that they fail to ensure clear governance and accountability structures are in place. This leads to inefficiency but more importantly can lead to poorly led groups of schools with poor performance and poor financial control.

Two key points need to be clear to all involved in MATS:

1. The board of trustees of a MAT are accountable to the Secretary of State for Education (via the RD) for the governance of the MAT and the academies within it. The CEO/executive head is usually the “Accounting Officer” accountable through the board of trustees for the MAT.

Statutorily, the board of trustees is accountable for:

  • Ensuring clarity of vision, ethos and strategic direction
  • Holding the CEO to account for the educational performance of the organisation and its pupils, and the performance management of staff
  • Overseeing the financial performance of the organisation and making sure its money is well spent

2. The heads of academies and any other MAT executive employees usually report through the CEO, who is accountable for the activities of the schools.

Therefore, if lines of responsibility are to be kept clear there is little scope for “local” governing bodies or association to set strategy or to hold the heads of academy to account. Their role remains important but needs to be focused on local scrutiny on behalf of the board of trustees for the implementation of MAT strategies and policies, and on community specific issues relating to their academy – student recruitment, localisation of policies and curriculum.

Despite many MATs promising schools that nothing much will change if they become part of a trust, this is not true. In fact in terms of accountability and governance, everything changes. Although the best MATs will remain conscious of the need for localised solutions they nonetheless need to think as one organisation, as at the end of the day they are the legal entity not the academies that are their constituents.

In some ways this is the simple part, because as MATs follow this to the logical conclusion they need to find a way for the accountable body (Board of Trustees) to know their organisation such that strategies can be put in place to improve their schools and the outcomes for all their students.

Self-review and improvement planning at MAT level will need to sit with the CEO through their centralised resources and through the heads in each academy. By this we mean not only self-review in the areas of education (policies, curriculum, teaching and learning, student development and welfare, outcomes), but more widely to cover finance, premises, staff recruitment, retention and training as well as key risks the organisation may face.

As in a single school the process of self-review and development is a continuous cycle, and therefore in most MATs a structure of sub-committees of the board should scrutinise updates from the executive and any proposed changes to policies or strategies. There might be committees for Education, People, Finance, Risk and Audit. In addition, most good MATs will see the benefit of extending this committee structure into local governing bodies who can act as the board’s local scrutiny ability.

For all this to work MATs must consider the systems and processes they need to gather information centrally and to ensure the board is kept informed. Perhaps, more importantly, these systems and processes need to ensure the MAT’s vision, strategy and approaches to all matters are consistently reinforced and enacted throughout the trust (again tailored as necessary for local circumstance). They must improve the speed of communication and decision making.

From an education perspective this means MATs need to:

  • Have self-review documentation to show the position of the MAT in terms of curriculum, teaching and learning and outcomes, which is not just the aggregation of the individual academies. It needs to demonstrate overarching MAT strategies and their impact.
  • Ensure the monitoring of the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum through teaching and learning is MAT wide and consistent, so that strengths and weaknesses can be identified and MAT resources as well as “in-school” resources can be properly targeted for improvement and to maximise impact.
  • Drive staff development and retention, by a consistent approach to performance management that identifies development opportunities for staff across the academies in the MAT, building a sense of being in a single MAT rather than an isolated school.
  • Ensure MAT development planning sits alongside individual Academy Development Plans, making efficient use of the MATs resources and leveraging the benefits of the group.

MATs that do not grasp this agenda early will come under increased pressure from the RSC and Ofsted, and more importantly will not improve the outcomes for their students, whilst finding it increasingly difficult to manage within their means.

Lessons Learned

For a number of years now we have been working with MATs and other groups of schools to address these challenges. In response to their needs we have developed “Lessons Learned”, an online system with a series of customisable modules that support MATs and their schools.

The modules:

  • Identify strengths and development areas from monitoring by each school and department
  • Provide a structure for consistent and effective staff development and performance management
  • Support self-evaluation and planning at subject, schools and MAT level

Our Group View module provides an overview of what’s happening in each school and at an aggregated MAT level, without the need to chase reports or increase headteacher workloads. It also allows meeting notes to be prepared and tracked for governance purposes.

Our fantastic support team can help you design, implement and maintain a common framework across your schools, whilst the flexibility of the system allows you to retain autonomy where it’s needed.

The online system provides instant access to reports for sharing internally and with external parties such as Ofsted. Individual schools benefit too, with a range of reports at individual, department and whole school level which can be shared with their local governing body.

To find out more about Lessons Learned, visit our dedicated website here:

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