Planning strategic improvement as a MAT CEO

Vision, improving pupil outcomes and financial management are key factors in a successful MAT. CEO Jamie Clarke provides advice to ensure long-term sustainability

Author details

Dr Jamie Clarke is headteacher of Sponne School, CEO of the Grace Academy Trust and a National Leader of Education.

There is a need to plan to get the ‘right’ people in the ‘right’ place in the academy. Of course, this is the major challenge but essentially it is about getting key leaders (principal and SLT colleagues) in post since without this, the impact of any strategic thinking and planning will be limited or even derailed.

Strategic thinking in vision planning

The strategic vision has to align with the inspection framework if we are to be judged to be successful by Ofsted. There is a need to find our way through the expectations of the inspection process and good schools have done this for years.  

I am not suggesting that we only focus on what Ofsted wants but we need to ensure that our thinking is inclusive of those things that are going to be judged publicly.

The common theme in vision planning for your MAT is planning for improvement in provision and outcomes

The strategy for improvement has to be driven by understanding where the academy currently is and where it is feasible for it to get to within the timeframe being used. Being too unrealistic is doomed to staff feeling frustrated and losing confidence, while ‘playing it safe’ will mean too many learners will be underachieving.

Planning for consistent improvement in ou​tcomes

The common theme in vision planning for your MAT is planning for improvement in provision and outcomes. 

If we accept that improvement has to be related to current strengths and areas for development in each academy, then the rate of future improvement is likely to be differentiated depending on this. 

One academy in our MAT is in special measures and so the rate of improvement has to be rapid to meet the timescale laid down by Ofsted or we run the risk of not escaping an inadequate category in time. 

Of course, maximum effort, time and resources will be placed against those aspects that will lead to ‘demonstrating’ sufficient progress for a team of inspectors to judge that it can be removed from this inadequate category.

The strategy for improvement has to be driven by understanding where the academy currently is

This is likely to be very different from an academy that is currently judged to be good by Ofsted. Here the planning for improvement in outcomes has to be a much more nuanced affair based on helping teachers to refine their teaching so that all pupils consistently make at least solidly good progress in all subject areas from day one in the academy.

My role as CEO is to recognise these differences and to ensure that senior leaders understand just what can be achieved and then drive this to happen through frequent ‘intervention’ in the academy. 

However, having high expectations for what pupils can achieve is non-negotiable for any school regardless of where they are currently judged to be.

Providing strategic direction in financial planning

Given that there are no additional GAG funds into MATs, we have to manage finances extremely carefully to ensure expenditure does not exceed income! 

As CEO, this financial balancing act is crucial for survival and so I look for ways of making savings by ensuring duplication of activities is eliminated where possible and some ‘centralisation’ occurs where feasible and appropriate. 

For example, a central purchasing system may well be cost effective, as is bulk IT equipment purchasing. We also centralise policy development since this has the added benefit of ensuring a single coherent message on practice and procedure exists on each site. 

Quotes for legal support are much cheaper when done collectively. We also inform employees that they may be asked to work at any site in the Trust and have written this into their contracts, potentially avoiding redundancies and associated costs.

Planning for staffing is the single most important aspect of this and keeping a tight oversight is essential to drive down costs and raise the quality of provision leading to improved outcomes.

Top tips

  • Get to know each academy really well and quickly – do regular learning walks with and without leaders and know the data forensically.
  • Get key leaders in place immediately – don’t hesitate to make your expectations really clear and encourage less effective leaders to move on.
  • Get plans for improvement in place with milestones that are not negotiable, preferably by ‘agreeing’ with the ones developed by your new leaders in post.
  • Be extremely visible in the academies – school improvement does not come from sitting in an office!
  • Keep your ‘fresh pair of eyes’ and challenge aspects that are not progressing quickly enough or prone to slippage.
  • Keep an eye on the finance. Plan to ensure in-year expenditure does not exceed income whilst keeping the ‘top slice’ to a minimum (we now aim for 5.5% of secondary budgets).
  • Communicate frequently with staff - we are in the people business where communication is king. We have a monthly short newsletter from the CEO to all employees on a single side of A4. 
  • Keep in contact with external bodies such as the regional schools commissioners and HMI, especially if not yet good!


Last Updated: 
14 Oct 2015