Five things to ponder when thinking about joining or creating a Multi-Academy Trust

The government has always had an ambition for the growth of the multi-academy sector. Back in 2010, when the approach was legislated through the Academies Act, I worked for a national good governance charity and remember many meetings with Department for Education colleagues and other system leaders about the need to ensure that getting governance right in new establishments was equally as important as focusing on the operational aspects of running schools.  Back in 2016, the government stated that all schools would have converted or be in the process of conversion by 2022, but this was relaxed; and now, following the schools' white paper earlier this year, we all know that this is now 2030.

I have spoken to lots of maintained schools as they consider when is the right time to think about the move to a MAT.  Many have already thought about it and have begun finding a trust that fits their vision and ethos.  Those schools with strong working partnerships are exploring what it means and the steps needed to create a new MAT successfully.  Of course, local authorities are considering how they could set up their own.

For years, I have been working with groups of schools to create their governance structures as they began their journey to becoming a MAT; this proactive approach reaps the benefits, in my view.  I have also reviewed the structures of existing trusts to help all parts of the trust understand its role and improve governance, effectiveness, and communication flow.

Each trust I have worked with has been very different, as you would expect, but I feel five things are essential to creating successful MATs with strong governance and clarity of vision and ways of working.

A clear vision

Whilst each school within a MAT is different, and this should not be lost, what is essential is that there is a clear focus on what the trust will be about.  Not having a clear view of the vision will lead to schools having a different understanding, which could cause challenges further down the line.

  • For schools looking to join a MAT, you need to be clear on what your school vision is and how this chimes with any prospective trust that you are looking at. 
  • For groups of schools looking to set up a MAT, it's good to carry out a visioning exercise with ALL parties to ensure that you are all clear on the new trust, its vision and its ambition.
  • For existing MATs, ensure that your vision reflects what you are about and that you haven't drifted away from your core purpose.

We worked with Create Learning Trust ahead of their launch as a trust to fully involve all governors and schools working together to ensure that Create Learning was a success from the start.  All governors and directors worked hard before academisation, ensuring they could hit the road running come transfer day with a connected vision, a workable structure, and a shared commitment to making it work.  Read their story here.

Creating your Governance Jigsaw©?

There is more to creating a MAT structure and connecting up governance than can be drawn out in any structure chart. There's a big cultural shift and a recognition that all boards in a MAT have a role; they just look at things through a different lens. 

I like to look at it as a Governance Jigsaw© defining the role of each piece and helping to create a unified picture.  Whether you are an existing trust or seeking to join or create a new one, it’s good to review your Governance Jigsaw© and understand the bigger picture.

In 2019, we supported Holy Family Catholic MAT to review its governance structure, seeking to improve communication and flow with and between all boards.  Here’s a video of Andy Moor, the CEO, about why he worked with us and the impact on the organisation.

Local Boards add real value - value them!

I have always believed in the value and pivotal role of local governing boards in multi-academy settings and their role in providing a rich picture of their local schools.

Whilst others, until more recently, have downplayed the role of local governance, I have continued to champion and strengthen local boards and the impact of local governors. A MAT is only as strong as the sum of its whole governance. 

Holy Cross Catholic Multi Academy Company asked us to review their governance, and they were specifically interested in valuing local boards.  You can read here about the impact of our work, which was described as exceeding expectations and successfully helping all boards see that they are part of one organisation, melting any perceived barriers. 

Language is everything

As well as supporting trusts to develop, I have also been involved as a governor during the creation of a MAT and, more recently, the merger of two MATs; and as a Governance Professional when boards are looking to join MATs.

One of the barriers that crop up is language and misunderstanding.  I distinctly remember when working to establish a MAT, there was a rush by governors to become a trustee/director as they saw that was where the power and accountability sat.  Whilst that may be true for accountability as they are ultimately accountable, as I described earlier, all have a role.  Creating the right language that shows what the MAT is about, clearly understanding what each part will do, and consistently adopting and modelling this language are vital. Any slight change or deviation can be a huge barrier.

I'm a great believer in appreciative conversations and how to reflect on the good and make this more commonplace, a useful exercise for developing new organisations.

Adopting a learning approach to governance from the outset

Schools are learning organisations, so why shouldn’t their governance be?  A practice close to my heart, as nothing stands still in this day and age as we know.  What was deemed the right structure or approach at a given time might not be right now.  This is certainly the case in some trusts that I have worked with.  Creating a trust is very different from running a trust. Therefore, building in regular reflection by governors, trustees and leaders can ensure that the organisation stays ahead of the curve.

In 2021, I formalised and launched Shaping Governance® in Multi Academy Settings. My approach is different, as I not only look at the trust board and its connections with local boards; I go further and support all governors and directors to improve whilst also strengthening the governance framework. 

Last month, I completed the latest review with The Romero Catholic Academy.  Romero is a mature multi-academy company (MAC) with a clear vision, a strong central support team, and good links with local boards.  The board's appetite to adopt a learning approach and constantly improve led it to Shaping Governance.  The MAC has found the programme extremely helpful in ensuring that the MAC continues to grow and improve and is now working to implement the recommendations.

In summary

Whilst I have written this as five things to ponder for those in or considering joining MATs, they all point to one keyword - clarity!  Ensuring everyone is clear at every step in your journey will help you transition smoothly through conversion and beyond.

Please get in touch if you want to chat about your own governance ‘ponderings’ or find out more about our approach.


Posted in Shaping Governance.