Expanding your multi-academy trust

As a MAT expands there are common areas to develop. Paul Ainsworth considers the actions to take to ensure sustainability and make the process as smooth as possible

Author details

Paul K. Ainsworth is a former head and currently an academy advisor for a multi-academy trust. His books include The Senior Leader's Yearbook: A handbook for implementing outstanding school systems.


A MAT needs an overarching vision. Simon Sinek describes this as ‘Your Why?’ 

In the initial stages of growth leaders may shy away from developing a strong ‘why’ in case it is threatening to the academies. The danger is that leaders can fall into the ‘why’ being focussed on efficiency or cost savings. Unfortunately this can be difficult to share and does not give staff something to strive for.

When times are hard colleagues may even dispute whether there are cost savings and feel disgruntled as to the purpose of the MAT. If you have developed a strong vision for your MAT, it is important to consider how you gain the ‘buy-in’ of joining academies and develop their belief in the vision.


Often one of the key challenges when expanding a MAT is determining the point at which the MAT leader stops being a principal and instead introduces principals or associate principals for every academy.

There can be a temptation to move to this structure quickly but this is obviously a large expense to the organisation. There may also not be a clear role to pursue and leaders can get in the way of each other.

Governance is a key aspect of leadership. A growing MAT will have to decide on clear schemes of delegation so that both the trust board and local governing bodies (LGBs) are clear on their remit.

As the MAT expands it is likely that the board will have to give LGBs a greater role and this can be difficult for board members who still have a strong affinity for one of the original academies.

A further challenge is to ensure the board is representative of the changing MAT while remaining true to its original aims and objectives.

Talent pip​elines

At the heart of any MAT should be the drive for school improvement. As MATs first grow this is often achieved by seconding or moving leaders from the original academies into the newer members of the MAT. The concept is often that those leaders are tried and tested, understand the vision of the MAT and can take their skills into the new academies and improve them.

This has proved very effective in many MATs. However it does not take too long before leadership capacity is reduced or spread too thinly across the MAT.

If a MAT is going to take this approach it needs to ensure that it is building its talent pipeline and developing colleagues at middle leadership and below so that these colleagues can be promoted to take on the leadership vacancies available.

At the heart of any MAT should be the drive for school improvement

School impro​vement

As MATs grow they need to develop their own school improvement strategies. Some MATs have built their own advisor system replicating that of local authorities with former principals taking executive roles and having responsibility for a group of schools.

MATs may also recruit a range of advisors such as those focussing on key subjects or elements such as post 16, pupil premium and EYFS. There are obvious difficulties and significant costs in developing a centrally based school improvement team.

Other MATs have focussed on a school led system, with a very small central school improvement team, and colleagues in individual academies identified and given time to support other academies in the trust, alongside their core role.

This second model is probably more complicated and time consuming to develop but has the advantage of colleagues retaining their in-school focus which can add to their credibility.

However a MAT organises its school improvement it is often best developed through its teaching school which can then bring together talent pipelines, school to school support through NLEs, NLGs, LLEs and SLEs and develop its initial teaching training strategy.

Back office sup​port

It is important to quickly develop appropriate financial systems as the sums of monies can soon become large. Appropriate systems will protect leaders and governors and ensure probity in their system.

MATs will often look for cost savings from back office support, including contracts across the trust such as photocopying and printing. Business managers need to ensure that as the trust grows contracts support this and do not increase tie in.

If the MAT is expanding through the acquisition of poorly performing schools, developing a HR function can be invaluable. There will be colleagues in the new schools whose capability may not be in line with the MATs and this will lead to staffing issues so central HR support is necessary to help make the process of transition as soon as possible.

If you look at different MATs there will be a whole range of centralised support including estates, central processing of payments, PR and communication, careers advice and guidance and enrichment. You will need to decide which you can afford and which are the most vital for your stage in development.

For​ward planning

All MATs will have a period of (relative to their size) rapid expansion and this will be difficult to deal with. Those MATs who have managed small growth (up to 6 schools) the most effectively are those who have spent time at the beginning planning their growth, especially around the governance and leadership model.

At this size there will not be large amounts of central services to plan and implement but what is crucial is that vision and mission are communicated, understood and owned by all.

Once MATs grow beyond this size they become very different entities and there needs to be focus on ensuring the benefits of this expansion outweigh the complexity of a big organisation.

At this stage the vision and mission becomes ever more important and colleagues need to be on board. If not they will start to feel that they aren’t part of the MAT but instead that the MAT is a different organisation and ‘does to them.’

Whatever the size of a MAT, the vision and the mission must have the pupils and young people at its heart. There are times when we must return to the basics of being here to educate and build life chances, not just form large organisations.

Last Updated: 
12 Oct 2016