MAT’s – how have we arrived here and what next?

I started talking about the building blocks of the academy programme in 2013 as the number of conversions continued to grow. By then, we’d had three years of schools looking over the fence and liking what they saw. Conversion numbers grew, the programme gained strength and and the sector gained credence – not in all parts of education of course but credence and a voice nonetheless. The advent of The Academies Act 2010 had allowed Outstanding schools, initially, to move away from a Local Authority because the school knew it’s own beating heart better than anyone. In 2015, my building blocks grew in number and made the wall stronger. A Tory majority allowed the government – and DfE – to ramp up conversions and increased the confidence in DfE minds that a ‘fully academised system’ was possible.
2016 saw the then Secretary of State for Education’s White Paper position things that all schools would be part of a Multi Academy Trust in 5 years. Because academies are an emotive subject, the fallout was robust. What some saw as a U-turn when the DfE dialled back on the ‘legislation’, others saw as a Z-turn. Legislation or other pressures wouldn’t force schools to academies, but a fully academised system was still the end goal. Another route had to be found. One that was more palatable but still had the desired end result – all schools in MAT’s. In other words, the direction of travel was still for all schools to be in MAT’s so nothing in reality had changed.
Skip forward to the 2017 General Election. Regardless of the ups and downs of that election, it was still a Tory government – albeit a ‘confidence and supply’ one with still a desired fully academised system on the books. All the while, conversions still happened, Trusts grew and more pupils were being educated in academies.
Two things happened in 2019 that added to the building blocks I had started talking about 6 years previously. The first was that more than 50% of children in England were being educated in the academy sector. The second was that Boris won a General Election with a majority of 80, a majority not seen for nearly 20 years. This majority allowed the DfE to dust off plans for moving forward with the fully academised system that had been the goal for nearly a decade. A global pandemic placed this on hold understandably. The last Local Elections did nothing to suggest the 80 majority blue wall would be dismantled anytime soon.
This year, we have seen the academy agenda ramp up – especially increasing the number of conversions, increasing the size of MAT’s and – dare I say it – placing the future of Single Academy Trusts into focus. Gavin Williamson, Baroness Berridge, Dominic Herrington and now Nadhim Zahawi have all spoken at length on the matter this year. As a Trust Member and Chair of Trustees of a SAT that has succeeded and ticked all boxes since we converted on 1 January 2011, I am acutely aware of the direction of travel and understand what both sides of the argument are here. Words like financial viability, collaboration, family of schools are now daily phrases in the academy sector. 
There is a new White Paper coming and it is a safe bet at least two things will be coming out – the benefits to Maintained schools of being part of a MAT and encouraging discussions between SAT’s and MAT’s and MAT’s and MAT’s around the benefits of merging to create something bigger than the sum of the parts.
Though we have seen where Trusts have not done things well, and it is fair to say that these things are not the sole domain of academies but Maintained schools too, most of us who govern or work in the sector know the benefits of being an academy and working collaboratively.
So, there are three options facing MAT’s at this time. Strangely, or not strangely when you really consider it, these are the same three options facing SAT’s and the same three facing Maintained schools. If Trusts and schools do only one thing with this piece, it should be consider these options as a Board or GB to allow you to make a better and informed decision about the future of your Trust / school. People who have attended my governance training will recognise when I say that better decision making improves the outcomes for children.
Option 1 – do nothing. People ask me this all the time ‘ do we really need to do anything of things are going well?’ My full answer is too long for this article but contact me if you want to find out more. My caveat to this option is ‘have a Plan B’. Just in case something comes along to force a decision. Being able to decide your future is far better than having it decided for you.
Option 2 – join an existing MAT. My caveat here is to do your Due Diligence wisely. Know who you are joining. Know they have your school/s at heart as much as the schools already in the Trust. There should be no ‘my school’ in successful MAT’s. They are all my schools, all my children, all my staff and all my parents. 
Option 3 – grow your Trust ( create your own for Maintained schools ). My caveat here is choose your partners wisely, conduct robust Due Diligence and agree how you will be creating something bigger than the sum of the parts. What does Trust Growth actually look like when it’s done well!
Option 4 – and yes, yes, I know I said three but this is the pseudo option of Mr. Williamson’s Try Before You Buy! This discussion is for another day! It’s kicking the can down the road and we could have a great discussion just on this one alone!
Explaining all of these options properly usually takes far longer than reading this article but I hope they give you at least a flavour of what they are.

As long as you’ve really considered where you are, where you need/want to be and what the journey looks like to get there, in reality, whatever option you choose is right for you. At least have the conversation. Understanding the landscape and being honest with yourselves will help your deliberations.
If growing your Trust is the option you choose, you may be interested in future articles around Trust Growth, Trust Growth Audits and what a robust Growth Plan looks like.