Multi-academy trusts: working together for school improvement
How did the Sir John Lawes Academies Trust come about?
We’d dabbled in school-to-school support and informal partnerships with local schools. In 2011 the local authority approached us about a school in difficulty in the area, and asked whether we could work with them as they became the Samuel Ryder Academy, an all-through academy.
After supporting them for a while, we were asked to make the relationship more formal by establishing a MAT. As we researched we found there wasn’t a lot of guidance available in becoming a MAT.
It meant we had quite a lot of flexibility in how we set things up, as long as we remained clear in what we wanted to achieve. We also support two primary schools who are clients rather than members of the trust.
Did you face any particular challenges?
We had a big job to do in talking to our governors about becoming a MAT. The LA asks you to support another school because you’re successful and we had to put a lot of time and effort into ensuring our governors were confident that we would continue to be successful while doing so. They want to be confident there is no negative effect on their school.
When you become an academy and then a MAT, the pupils and staff shouldn’t feel any different – certainly not worse! It’s just the background support that changes. We’re in discussions with another school about joining now and it helps that we’ve already been through the process successfully.
How do you work with the headteachers of the other schools in the trust?
The heads in the trust have regular meetings and phone calls to catch up. You have to be able to discuss issues and concerns openly with however many heads you work with.
When we first started working with Samuel Ryder the school was struggling and they needed a lot of support and a close level of contact, almost daily. That was nearly three years ago and I don’t need to know the ins and outs of how the school is running now, I can see how much it’s improved.
We’ve been collaborating with schools for a while but it doesn’t stop me getting a bit stressed occasionally and worrying that I should be spending more time in my own school. The initial stages of taking on a new school are so busy but we know that things calm down and a school begins to require less support.
Have the SLT taken on more responsibility within the MAT?
Me being out of school and leaving the SLT in charge is a great opportunity for them to flourish. My absence enables really good staff in the trust to display their skills and expertise to gain opportunities for promotion.
Some are probably now ready to take the next leadership step and taking on a new school in some difficulty allows us to keep them in the trust and increase their experience in leadership support at the same time. They’re excited about a new challenge and we’re pleased because it means they stay in the ‘trust family’ - that probably sounds a bit cheesy but it’s true!
Our middle leaders across the trust are linking up their work too. They take part in joint training to discuss ideas and bounce suggestions off each other.
What are the benefits of being in a MAT for you?
A key area of discussion with the new school is the advantages of being in a MAT. If you’re supporting a school in an informal partnership and they have someone suddenly leave, I’m obviously sympathetic and want to talk through strategies to find a solution. I’m not accountable for the strategies that do or don’t work in the same way as I would be if they were in the trust though. The safety net is a huge benefit of being in a MAT and has definitely helped with staff retention.
I honestly don’t think there has been anything negative about becoming a MAT. It takes a lot of careful planning and the ability to be flexible – it’s about not doing what you’ve always done. What you’ve always done worked when you were a single school but you’re working with another school now. It’s an opportunity.
Have you centralised any services?
Yes, centralised services isn’t necessarily the best way of managing things but it’s the right way for us. Centralising some of our services has saved us a lot of money; we’re not a big MAT with benefactors pumping money in. We need to cover our costs and generate enough money to make it worth doing for everyone.
As an individual academy we bought attendance support from the LA as we couldn’t afford to do anything else. We were low priority according to the LA as we had higher than average attendance figures but we still wanted to improve our figures.
As a trust we’ve appointed our own full-time attendance officer who gives us a day a week and works across the trust and in both the primaries. We’ve covered our costs by selling her ‘free’ time to other schools and we’ve improved our attendance record to 97% which I’m so pleased about!
What are your current priorities?
It’s vital to look ahead, plan and be confident enough to do things differently where necessary.
Now we’re in a good position to add another school and ready for the challenge of it. We have two successful schools, with two great SLTs who can provide support to the next school that we’ll be taking on.
We don’t want to be too big a MAT. It’s important not to run before you can walk and to make sure that you are doing a good job for the schools you have before you take on a new project.
It’s also important that any new joiner is completely happy and wants to join the MAT because it’s the best thing for them and us.
What does the future hold for MATs?
It’s an exciting time for MATs. As the number of MATs increases, it’s so helpful to learn about what other trusts are doing.
Last year I went on a Future Leaders course with other MATs leaders. We looked at different structures and what was glaringly obvious was that there is no ‘one size fits all.’ It’s about doing things the way you need to for the schools in your trust to achieve the highest standards.