There are big variations in performance between academy chains – both independent research and DfE analysis confirm this. So what is it that the most consistently high performing multi-academy trusts (MATs) are doing that makes them successful?
In a speech in November 2015 Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Education, gave this rationale as to what was distinctive about the best MATs:
"The highest performing academy chains in this country have a clear vision and a distinct model of teaching. I would encourage all new academy chains not to see themselves only in terms of being effective administrators, or competent managers. They should also be bound by a philosophical and pedagogical vision."- Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Education
The Minister is right. The best chains have thought about, evolved and systemised their approach to school improvement. That is not to say that a rigid take-it-or-leave-it approach is adopted or imposed in all academies within a MAT, but that there are distinctive features about what they do.
1. They know their academies well quantitavely
Their core purpose means that these MATs adopt a culture of high expectations and, using FFT Aspire or other benchmarks, set demanding targets.
They monitor progress and performance not just in tests and exams but also in real time at key points across the year. From this they evolve or adopt a standard core data set that can be presented in varying degrees of depth according to the audience. This means teachers and year leaders are able to use the data as a formative assessment tool, while board members have access to a dashboard that provides a graphic overview of how each academy is performing. The best data dashboards also track performance in areas such as attendance (of staff and pupils), exclusions, child protection, special needs, applications for admissions, number of classes covered by a temporary or cover teachers and financial management.
Knowing academies well also entails a clear and consistent performance management framework for academies, leaders and staff.
2. They ensure their academies work together
It’s not just a question of a MAT knowing the metrics, but also understanding how progress is or is not being made. The best MATs commission or conduct external/peer reviews for each academy. This often involves senior leaders from one or more academy using a formal model to scrutinise another. Some MATs involve a HMI or Ofsted inspector in this process.
Other drivers of deep knowledge across a MAT include staff from different academies working together to moderate assessment and to agree an understanding of what a year’s progress looks like; senior and middle leaders developing a shared approach to lesson observations; conducting joint learning walks; and academies jointly investigating issues of common concern.
3. They adapt strategies to an academy’s context
The best MATs understand where each academy is on its school improvement journey and have pinpointed precisely the issues that need to be addressed if it is to make progress – whether these relate to a school’s culture and expectations of pupils, leadership, governance, attendance, behaviour, teaching and learning, assessment or variability in performance.
MAT leaders ensure that resources are mobilised to tackle these weaknesses. But this is about more than being adept at managing a deficit model of school improvement. Good MAT leadership is also able to adapt interventions to maintain momentum as an academy improves and can refresh or renew strategies as the chain develops. Peter Matthews has written perceptively on this topic in his study of primary school leadership.
4. They deploy expertise strategically
Effective MATs achieve a win-win by broadening the leadership experience of their best and emerging leaders; deploying them to support academies that have particular problems or challenges. The deployment may only be for part of the week and/or for a limited time – a term or an academic year – though sometimes a temporary assignment evolves into becoming permanent.
A sensible MAT will also identify, log and encourage academies to share the expertise of staff across the chain. Increasingly we are also beginning to see MATs appointing faculty or subject leaders with responsibility spanning two or three academies in a cluster. Not only does this make the best use of subject experts but it can help to retain able staff that might otherwise decide to move on.
5. They coach improvement in teaching and learning
Improving the quality of teaching and learning is integral to improving the performance of pupils and students. Some MATs, like some teaching school alliances, adopt a common model for coaching improvement in classroom performance. The coaching model varies with some chains using coaching pairs or triads, some a model based on providing real time feedback, while the approach of others is based round Iris or other video technology.
A systematic approach to coaching includes thorough training for those acting as coaches, the engagement of all staff – including leaders – in the process, and building the discipline into work with teacher trainees and NQTs.
6. They use inquiry-based learning as the flywheel to accelerate improvement
This is the flip side of the coaching coin. It is seeing great teaching as being more than the refinement of professional practice – important though that is – and viewing teachers as learners. It is staff learning with and from each other (both within and across academies) about what makes an impact in terms student learning and progress.
Professional development is defined not just by attendance on training events. Instead inquiry-based learning firmly links professional development to classroom impact through such means as lesson study, action research, joint curriculum and lesson planning and teacher/student learning commissions. MATs that are smart in harnessing this approach make sure they focus efforts on addressing academies’ defined improvement priorities.
7. They empower their middle leaders
MATs miss a trick if they limit the practice of distributed leadership to senior leaders. The best MATs know that they gain real energy and momentum when they empower middle leaders to work together on curriculum, pedagogy or pastoral issues. That drives change and improvement right into the heart of academies within a MAT.
In this way middle leaders might be tasked with tackling an identified improvement priority – such as closing gaps in attainment. Or they might be asked to lead and inquiry-based learning project. Or, as part of a shared middle leadership development programme, they might be given a joint assignment to investigate a key MAT-wide challenge and make some recommendations.
8. They evolve and apply some non-negotiables
Most MATs insist on some degree of operational consistency in areas such as financial, business and data systems, school policies and HR. Moreover, if a MAT takes over a failing school it may also implement certain basic teaching and learning systems as part of a recovery strategy. However, as a MAT gets the flywheel of shared school improvement spinning, non-negotiables will move into a different dimension. They will start to apply to areas such as curriculum, pedagogy and the fundamentals of school turn-around.
This process will not so much be a question of a MAT imposing certain ways of teaching and learning, as scaling up what has proved effective and successful. Co-construction between teachers and leaders across academies is key.
9. They work with and learn from other schools
MATs appreciate that they need the stimulus and learning that comes from engaging with schools and practice outside their MAT. They are open to learning from other organisations; so they encourage their academies to look outwards as well as inwards for improvement support.
10. They know their impact
High performing MATs will be able to demonstrate the impact they are making on improving academies within the chain – one of the key issues Ofsted looks for when it ‘inspects’ MATs. But in addition they will assess and understand the impact of specific interventions and initiatives. They will track the impact of programmes on staff capability, classroom practice and student engagement/learning. They will evaluate the health and organisational maturity of the MAT itself using, perhaps, one of the MAT frameworks or checklists developed by The Future Leaders Trust or the Regional School Commissioners.
A comprehensive school improvement programme on the scale described needs leading – or to use a term that perhaps better expresses the role – orchestrating.
MATs require a director of teaching and learning (or a similar post) to commission, foster and join up these different strands of school improvement activity. MATs also need to work out which school improvement activities are best organised and led at MAT, cluster or academy level.
There are two other considerations to factor in. First, over the 10 elements of the school improvement approach, MATs need to balance activity that is essentially hierarchical in nature – for example, quality assurance, accountability and leadership arrangements – with actions that will promote networking such as inquiry-based learning, peer reviews, shared coaching and development programmes and learning walks. Too much of the former and you end up with a compliance culture and too much of the latter risks promoting useful activity that has little or no impact.
They are respectful of the identity and character of individual academies and of a school’s strengths, as well as understanding where it needs to make improvement.
They are resourceful in that they do whatever it takes and mobilise the support needed to bring about improvement.
They are responsive to the context of each academy and its particular needs and adapt their strategies as circumstances change.
They are relentless in their pursuit of improvement and adopt a ‘no excuses’ approach – believing that every child can achieve.
They are resilient in persevering with improvement despite challenges and setbacks.
With the ongoing growth of academy chains, we need to maintain this focus on strong leadership in order to ensure that all MATs are meeting the high education standards every child needs.
This article originally appeared on the website of the Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.