The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

What does it take to lead an effective MAT?

MATs are still new, complex and evolving in the education sector, which means leaders can often find themselves reacting to what is happening around them; or compromising their decisions as they bring in new schools or respond to change.

In Ambition School Leadership’s research, Building Trusts: MAT leadership and coherence of vison, strategy and operations, we found the most effective MATs were highly coherent, and that coherence is driven by leadership.

This research is the largest study of its kind to date and we have worked with over 40 CEOs and surveyed staff from 22 MATs.

Our motivation was simple.  MATs have the transformative power to deliver school improvement at scale in some of our most disadvantaged communities.  If we can better comprehend what those MATs do, then we can codify those practices and pass them on, so our leaders keep getting better and more children from disadvantaged backgrounds get the education they deserve.

So, what did we find? Put simply, there are three strands to leading an effective MAT, and all three are shaped by a MAT’s leadership, including the CEO, executives and trustees.

  1. Strategic coherence

By this, we mean a unified purpose, vision and mission and vision which guides a MAT’s school improvement model and, in turn, its operating model.

Leaders of high-performing MATs had clear vision and mission statements which are specific and guide strategic choices.  We were inspired by Dixons Academy Trust, which has successfully implemented Impetus-PEFs Driving Impact Approach. Leaders could answer which types of schools and geographies they wanted to target, and which pupil outcomes defined success for them.

Getting the school improvement model right is the big question in MATs.  The best MATs were clear about how their school improvement strategy improved desired pupil outcomes faster by being part of the MAT than they would have done as a single school.

They were clear on how much autonomy the MAT gives to individual schools and how much the MAT wants to align or standardise.  The best MATs have a clear strategy for school improvement which guides their choices, especially around areas like curriculum, assessment and teaching.

Operational choices should enable you to deliver your school improvement strategy.  Often the driver for MAT growth or formation is financial or operational efficiency.  This is important, especially in the current financial climate, but it needs to be the enabler of strategy, not the driver.  Many MATs are prioritising back office standardisation over tackling the critical question of school improvement model.

  1. Cultural coherence

That is, ensuring that your strategy is understood, embraced, and followed at every level of the organisation.

Some leaders fear that cultural coherence, or alignment, will create a culture of the centre dictating to schools, disempowering headteachers.  But our research found that many MAT CEOs are using it as a vehicle to drive a positive, shared culture, by encouraging collaboration, collective decision making on critical issues and leveraging expertise – where it resides in one school – to share with the rest of the MAT.

  1. Managing break points in your strategy

Finally, your strategy must be future-proof, resilient and able to adapt to the ‘breakpoints’ MATs go through on their evolution.

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.

Even the best MAT strategies need reviewing as the MAT goes through a non-incremental change.  The best MATs do not consider their strategy and operating models to be fixed.  They constantly adapt and change in response to scale, geography and performance.  For example, can oversight of schools by executive principals still work when the MAT grows?  If you have high school-level autonomy, what do you do when headline performance drops and do you have the capacity to intervene?

More work needs to be done to understand more about what makes highest-performing MATs tick – but this research is a start at answering that question.

We believe effective MATs achieve a ‘MAT effect’ where the sum of the MAT far outweighs its individual parts, and, as a result, they deliver.

And this means they deliver on the promise of transforming the life chances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds at scale in our system.  Ultimately, educational excellence and equity is why we’re all here.  Let’s continue the good work.

The findings of the ‘Building Trusts’ research have informed Ambition School Leadership’s Executive Educators development programme for MAT CEOs and executive leaders. Find out more about the programme on their website.