What does it mean to be the CEO of a multi-academy trust?

Sept. 24, 2015
Robert Hill

Robert Hill

Education Consultant

As the role of CEO of a multi-academy trust (MAT) evolves, I believe it is essential to recognise that the position will vary greatly between MATs, depending on the MAT’s size, structure, phase of expansion, and the challenges it faces.

Over the past 10 to 15 years the schools system has grown used to the idea of executive heads and principals. Although the titles and roles mean different things in different school contexts, there is now a much greater acceptance of the idea of a group of schools working together under the guidance of an executive leader.

Indeed, in many areas it is recognised that an executive head leading and overseeing two to four heads of schools is an excellent way of nurturing leadership talent and addressing the problem of recruiting sufficient heads under a traditional model.

"The evolution of the CEO role reflects the reality of the demands involved in overseeing a multi-academy trust – if the CEO role is properly understood."

However, just as we are getting used to this concept we have to come to terms with a new feature in the education landscape: the presence of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) running multi-academy trusts (MATs).

Many will be suspicious of, or even cynical about, this trend and see it as an excuse for inflating salaries or moving to a more corporate model for managing and leading schools. But there are now over 500 MATs consisting of two or more academies, and they are continuing to grow.

Around a further 100 MATs are responsible for six or more academies. The evolution of the CEO role does, therefore, reflect the reality of the demands involved in overseeing a multi-academy trust – if the CEO role is properly understood.

The Future Leaders Trust is now running the Executive Educators programme for MAT CEOs, and as part of that I developed a presentation that reflects on what it means to be CEO of a MAT. You can see it here.

"The Executive Educators programme is... beginning to provide a mechanism for multi-academy trusts to share their learning with each other."

I bring together and describe the various functions of CEOs under 10 headings:

  • Thinker and strategist
  • Guardian of the flame
  • Instructional leader
  • Leadership developer
  • Orchestrator of partnership depth
  • Quality assurer
  • Business developer
  • Communicator within the MAT
  • Ambassador for the MAT
  • Corporate executive

Some of the roles will be self-explanatory and some will require viewing the content of the presentation (click here to download it) to make clear the concepts I am driving at.

My crucial argument, however, is that the CEO role will vary between MATs. An individual CEO is very unlikely to undertake all of these roles. Their focus and sphere of activity will depend on such factors as:

  • The size of the trust and, for example, whether and how it works through cluster and/or regional leaders within the MAT;
  • The size and skills of the central MAT team and whether, for example, it has a director of teaching and learning, a director of standards or a chief operating officer – or whether the trust is at the stage of being run by one person and his dog, so to speak;
  • How CEOs distribute leadership to others to complement their own skills and expertise;
  • The nature of the challenges facing the trust – are the immediate challenges around school improvement and organising the basics of a group of schools working together, or they are about maturing a partnership and expanding its scope?

It’s also clear that the role of a MAT CEO will evolve over time as it moves through the phases of initiation, consolidation, expansion and maturing (phases that do not always follow sequentially!).

We are learning all the time about how to ensure that MATs deliver on their potential to help accelerate the rate of school improvement. The Executive Educators programme is delivering an unexpected bonus in this regard. Not only is it supporting the development of fledgling CEOs but, through organising visits to MATs and promoting sharing of learning between them, it is beginning – not before time – to provide a mechanism for multi-academy trusts to share their learning with each other.

"The role of a MAT CEO will evolve over time as it moves through the phases of initiation, consolidation, expansion and maturing."

One of my criticisms of the MAT movement has been that it has been slow to pool its collective learning. My sense is that this was already starting to change as MATs realised that collaboration and competitive advantage were not mutually exclusive; but Executive Educators should put a rocket booster under this effort. Long may it continue!

You can find out more about The Executive Educators programme here. Register your interest to join the October cohort by 30 September.


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. 

Search blog posts by topic: