Building Trusts

MAT leadership and coherence of vision, strategy and operations

Share this page

Date published 16 April 2018

Last updated 21 March 2024

Our research into the leadership, vision, strategy and operations of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is the largest study of its kind to date.

We engaged with over 40 MAT CEOs, through case studies and interviews, and surveyed the staff from 22 trusts. The report explores the strategic choices taken by leaders, how this affects the way their trusts operate and how changes in the scale, geography and school performance of a MAT can create break points that mean a trust has to change its approach.

This research will inform the development of Ambition School Leadership’s executive leadership programme, Executive Educators: Building and Leading a Sustainable MAT.

How to read the research

  • Continue reading this page for the most high-level summary of the research
  • Download the 19-page report summary here
  • Download the full 61-page report here

The questions we asked

We conducted this research with over 40 MAT CEOs and staff at 22 trusts. We asked:

  1. How does a MAT’s vision translate into its school improvement strategy and operating model?
  2. How are a MAT’s strategy and operations affected by growth?
  3. What differentiates high and low performers?

To read the full methodology, please see p50 of the main report.

Key findings

Trusts of all sizes were involved in the research but these findings are most vital for CEOs of small and medium-size MATs.

  1. MAT vision and mission statements differ in how clearly and specifically they describe the outcomes they want for their pupils and in how much emphasis they place on academic performance above other measures of success. Higher performing trusts appear more likely to explicitly cite standards and outcomes when defining their overall vision.

  2. The key strategic choice for MATs is how to deliver school improvement. Two dominant approaches emerged from our research which reflect opposite ends of a strategic spectrum: preserving the autonomy of individual schools; or achieving consistent teaching and pedagogy across schools.

  3. MAT leaders that choose a school improvement strategy of achieving consistent teaching and pedagogy will need to achieve alignment across their schools. They have to make a cultural choice about whether to achieve this through central direction or collaborative convergence. These approaches are not mutually exclusive; different approaches can be used in different areas of alignment.

  4. MAT operating models face ‘break points’. This is a moment of non-incremental change where a MAT has to stop a previous operational approach and make a shift. MAT leaders have to look ahead to adapt their operating model to future context and needs.

Ambition's perspective

MATs are complex organisations, so their effectiveness depends on the quality of leadership from the CEO, executive team and board. We believe the highest performing MATs have a coherent approach which aligns their vision and mission, their school improvement strategy and operating model.

In order to do this, executive leaders need to be clear about how their MAT adds value and helps schools deliver better outcomes working together than they would have done working independently. We believe that all schools in the MAT need to be aligned around a common approach to school improvement. In the MATs where we see this happening, a common approach is usually developed around curriculum, assessment and teacher training and development.

The rest of this report (below) looks at:

  • Vision and mission
  • Strategy
  • Achieving alignment of school improvement
  • Break points
  • Operational models for delivering school improvement
  • Ambition's conclusions

Vision and Mission

A ‘vision statement’ is about the change a MAT wants to happen in the world, and its ‘mission’ is concerned with how that trust plans to achieve those changes.

We compared the vision statements described by the 34 CEOs that we interviewed. All MAT visions make reference to children’s outcomes, but we found variation in:

  • The clarity and specificity of the MAT’s vision
  • How much emphasis they place on academic outcomes and exam results above other measures of success

Higher performing trusts (as defined by results in the performance tables, Ofsted and schools’ financial balance) appeared more likely to explicitly cite standards and outcomes when defining their overall vision.

"Developing and sustaining outstanding leadership with a view to raising outcomes for children and young people."



We asked the MAT CEOs and staff that we surveyed to rate how well different strategic statements described their MAT. We analysed the results of 17 MATs to find out whether there were any patterns associated with certain strategic statements.

The analysis identified two clear groups representing each end of a spectrum, and a third that was more tentative, containing only two MATs. Given the small size of Cluster 3, our summary focuses on findings linked to Clusters 1 and 2. The key strategic choice for school improvement centres around what MAT leaders believe is the best way to raise standards.

The main groups identified through the statistical analysis reflect two ends of a spectrum:

  • Cluster 1: Retaining the autonomy of school leaders and local governing bodies
  • Cluster 2: Embedding a common curriculum and pedagogy across all academies

Our interviews showed that MATs have different aspirations for the ultimate level of consistency that they wanted to see across their schools in different areas, and have made differing levels of progress in achieving it.

Focusing on autonomy with respect to school improvement does not necessarily mean MATs avoid standardising other areas of operation. Cluster 1 and Cluster 2 MATs both emphasised securing back office efficiencies and freeing up schools from administration and operations.

"Curriculum is quite individual to each school, but the pedagogy that's where there's more similarity."


Achieving alignment on school improvement

MAT leaders who choose a school improvement strategy of aligning around a common way of doing things have to make a cultural choice about how to achieve this aim.

We found MAT leaders can achieve alignment by different means:

  • Centralisation where a central individual or team defines one way of doing things
  • Centrally-supported collaborative convergence: a central team facilitates collaboration that results in one way of doing things

MAT leaders can use different approaches in different areas of operation.

MAT leaders can use evidence to decide on their preferred way of doing things and to create a compelling case for change. They may refer to an existing research base, or they can use evidence from within the MAT to identify which strategies are working best within their academies. This evidence creates a case for other schools aligning around the same approach.

Once a MAT has achieved alignment around a common way of doing things, whether through collaborative convergence or central definition, they have to decide what to do when a new school joins.

This presents a possible break point for collaborative convergence: what do you do when alignment has been achieved and then a new school is brought on board, which hasn’t contributed to the debate?

"We all do basically Singapore maths, not least because we’ve seen a real positive change in attitudes and in rates of learning and in rates of progress."


Aligning identity

MATs can develop a common identity across the trust in visual and non-visual ways. Items such as lanyards and school logos can be important for creating a sense that everyone works for the same organisation. However, establishing a common mission, vision and set of values can also ensure that all leaders are aligned in their decision making and have a shared sense of their aims within the trust, even if their schools look and feel very different.

Responses to standardisation

In our survey, we asked MAT CEOs and staff which areas of their MAT would benefit from more or less standardisation. There were no areas where staff wanted less standardisation.

The greatest call for more standardisation was around:

  • Information management systems and the use of information
  • Back office services
  • Development of senior school staff

"It's how you maintain the identity and cohesion of the trust when you're getting that bit bigger."


Break points

A break point is a point of non-incremental change where a MAT has to break with a previous strategic or operational approach and make a shift.

Break points are often associated with a change in the scale of the MAT, but we found that they can also be associated with a change in geography, policy context and the type or performance of schools in the MAT. Below we have highlighted some of the key break points identified by the CEOs involved in our research.

Break points from scaling

Accountability and oversight: When working with a small number of schools, CEOs may feel able to retain oversight through frequent communication and direct monitoring. However, MATs reach a scale of operation where they have to develop tighter monitoring systems and, for example, recruit new education leads to the executive team, in order to retain oversight as the numbers of pupils and size of accountability grows.

Governance: It is never too soon to clarify governance structures. However, governance is never fixed, it must evolve with the growth of the trust. For example, MATs that initially opted for representation of all local governing bodies on the main board have typically found this is impractical at scale. Trustees also need to have the interests of all schools in the MAT at heart, not just their original school. All MATs, even the smallest, need to expand the professional expertise and skills mix on their boards to reflect the scale of the MAT and the accompanying accountability.

Achieving alignment: If a MAT has a culture of collaborative convergence, leaders have to decide the approach to take when a new school joins. Will they re-open those areas to debate, leave the school to continue with its previous approach or expect it to align without input? What are the risks of each approach? This choice becomes particularly challenging when the new school is high-performing.

Communications: MATs operating at a smaller scale can often achieve consistent communication and build a shared identity by bringing together staff from all the schools for trust-wide activities. As the MAT grows, the challenge for the CEO is to keep messages consistent and frequent even if they don’t see staff that often. As numbers grow too large for staff to meet as a single group, trust leaders have to identify alternative strategies for sustaining cohesion.

The role of the CEO: As the MAT grows, CEOs naturally need to consider where they have expertise, where they can add greatest value and where they should therefore spend their time. Similarly, CEOs should think about their executive team and their capacity and capability, including how to recruit for expertise that complements their own. CEOs will need to adapt their role in school improvement as the trust grows. Many step away from ‘on the ground’ roles by appointing leaders with the capacity to directly support school improvement, but will remain closely engaged with this core function by playing a quality assurance, challenge and support role.


Break points from geography

Curriculum: Some MATs believe curriculum needs to reflect the local context. They can feel that a common curriculum becomes inappropriate if they take on schools in very different localities. Other MATs strive for a common curriculum. For them, the challenge is operational: how to develop that curriculum collaboratively across geographies, as described below.

Collaboration: MATs may aspire to improve practice within the trust by bringing all their leaders and teachers together to collaborate. However, moving into new geographies makes this more challenging as it increases the time and expense involved. MATs therefore have to review how they create collaborative groups within their structure, and many use cluster-based models to facilitate more regular, local collaboration.

Central operations: Although MATs may initially focus on centralising back office functions to a single location, some then find it necessary to regionalise their operations as their geographic spread increases.

“Maths leads, English leads, SEND leads... come together in geographic hubs so that there is an effective opportunity to share good practice.”


Break points from performance

Pushing for excellence: MATs operating a highly-aligned model can find that high-performing schools face a ‘glass ceiling’ where they want to break away from that model to innovate and drive further improvement.

Tackling underperformance: MATs operating a highly-autonomous model can find schools with low performance face a ‘glass floor’ where a more directive approach is needed and standards and ways of doing things have to be imposed until performance improves. MATs rely on a clear scheme of delegation to empower them to take a more directive approach with under-performing schools and on effective change management to bring schools into alignment when they have become used to a looser model.

In Cluster 2 MATs, which focus on alignment, underperformance can still require targeted school improvement resources to be deployed to provide additional capacity.

Earned autonomy: Some MATs talk about schools having ‘earned autonomy’ – where a school’s high-performance means it no longer has to stick to the MAT’s school improvement approach. For Cluster 2 MATs that pursue alignment, schools gain ‘earned autonomy’ when they perform well enough to step away from a common approach and to innovate. For Cluster 1 MATs that pursue autonomy, the notion of 'earned autonomy' can be a way to justify why lower performers are not given the freedom to pursue their own approach – you earn autonomy once your results are high enough. Some CEOs also use this approach to encourage higher performing schools to join their MAT.


Operational models for delivering school improvement

The research identified different ways that MATs can operationalise their school improvement strategies:

  • Hub model
  • Centralised consultants
  • In-house central expertise
  • Cluster-based model
  • Self-improving network

MATs may draw on these approaches due to their strategic intentions or in response to more practical constraints.

For example, a MAT may identify a school in a new area to take on, in line with its mission. In the long term its strategy would be to build a cluster around this school, incorporating schools of different phases and with different levels of performance. However, the practical reality is that it takes time to build a cluster, so in the short term the MAT uses consultants to ensure that school has the support and expertise it needs in order to improve.

The models are not mutually exclusive. For example, a MAT might use some consultants alongside in-house expertise.

“One of our secondaries has a good system for monitoring progress across schools for discipline of approach which meets Ofsted criteria and all the heads want to do this.”


Ambition's conclusions

Ambition’s view is that the highest performing MATs are differentiated by having a coherent approach which aligns their vision and mission, their school improvement strategy and operating model.

Ambition believes the highest-performing MATs have focused on aligning their schools around a common model of school improvement. In the MATs where we see this happening a common approach is usually developed around curriculum, assessment and teacher training and development.

A MAT must continually review its strategy and operating model and adapt it in advance of potential break points. This is essential to achieve sustainable growth and sustained performance in the outcomes that matter most: transforming the life chances of children, especially our most disadvantaged.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

Continue reading

  • Download the 19-page report summary here
  • Download the full 61-page report here

Executive Educators

This research will inform the development of Ambition School Leadership’s executive leadership programme, Executive Educators: Building and Leading a Sustainable MAT.

Find out more