The rise and rise of multi-academy trusts

MATs will soon dominate the school landscape. Let’s make sure they’re up to it

March 14, 2017
©Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images
©Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images

There has been a significant increase in the number of schools forming or joining multi-academy trusts (MATs). This trend is predicted to continue over the coming years and the government expects that most schools which convert to academy status will join a MAT. But the evidence of their ability to raise pupil performance is limited. While some academies in MATs are high flying, others languish at the bottom of the league tables.

In England, the number of MATs tripled from 394 in 2011 to 1.121 in 2016. While 1,618 academies stand alone, 4,140 are in a trust—one in five of all state-funded schools in England, according to the latest government figures. Schools Minister Lord Nash indicated to the Education Committee that the government expects a tipping point to be reached in five or six years where most schools have converted to academies and joined a MAT.

But as we press ahead towards MATs being the dominant model in our education system, questions remain about their performance. Conclusive evidence that trusts are able to achieve high standards across the board is yet to emerge. Analysis published by several organisations and the government shows that some MATs are delivering excellent results and using the model to effectively drive improvement. But a significant number of MATs are failing to improve year on year and are consistently at the bottom of the pile.

This year, the Department for Education’s exam result league tables show that two thirds of MATs had scores that were below average across their secondary schools at Key Stage 4. Just over half of those performed “significantly below” average and some of the largest MATs, including E-ACT and Academies Enterprise Trust, did particularly badly. The tables show, however, that trusts did better at Key Stage 2.

A study by the Education Policy Institute showed that being part of a MAT does not necessarily lead to better results than being under local authority control and vice versa. Research by the Sutton Trust drew the same conclusion. It found that while a number of MATs had performed consistently above average over the past three years—including Ark and Harris Federation, which are frequently cited by ministers as examples of successful trusts—a similar sized group of trusts struggled to improve their results.

In our MATs report, the Education Committee concluded that the government should commission and publish independent research on the methods of the highest-performing MATs. Those trusts that are producing excellent results for their students should be encouraged to share best practice and use their expertise to support MATs which are underperforming. We were encouraged to hear that the government is developing the concept of “mentoring MATs,” which will involve well-established trusts guiding newer chains, and look forward to seeing more details of the programme.

We also welcomed the development by the department of a “growth check” to assess whether a MAT should be allowed to take on more schools. The government must place tight restrictions on the growth of MATs and use the growth check to only permit trusts to take on more schools when they have the capacity to grow successfully.

Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, told us that the government’s attitude to MATs expansion had been “pile them high, sell them cheap.” In its early enthusiasm, the government encouraged trusts to expand too quickly over too large areas. Schools that operate within close proximity to one another are best able to share resources and expertise and subsequently can most successful take advantage of being part of a MAT.

If the government is to pursue the goal of further academisation, it will need to partner with and use the expertise of local authorities. Ministers can do this by allowing local authorities with a track record of strong educational performance to create MATs. If the government fails to recognise the experience and capability of high performing councils, then they risk an exodus of skills from the system as those employed in these education departments leave the sector.

The gap in how MATs are assessed by Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioners must also be addressed. The Committee wants to see Ofsted given the power to conduct full inspections of trusts. As MATs expand over the coming years, the current situation of Ofsted conducting batched inspections (inspecting several schools in a trust), is not sustainable and does not lead to intervention from the regulator or the department.

Despite the uncertainty around their effectiveness, MATs will soon be the dominant model in the school landscape. Only time will tell if they are more successful than local authorities at creating and supporting high-performing schools and tackling underperformance. But if the government is to ensure that all young people receive a quality education, then it will need to encourage and facilitate the sharing of best practice, utilise expertise already in the system and only allow the expansion of MATs that prioritise performance.