Multi-Academy Trusts: a vision for the future of schools 

multi-academy trust
By Tom Kershaw | 15th February 2023 | 6 min read

Since their introduction at the start of this century, academies have been championed by both main political parties and found themselves at the epicentre of educational change. 

But, more than a generation on, how can this increasing number of schools coordinate, grow, and consolidate their expertise? Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) are playing a key part in this evolution, bringing clusters of them together under core leadership teams. 

This is not the first time academies have joined together, but the ambition is for this to be the gold standard. The Department for Education (DfE) hopes all state-run primary and secondary schools will become part of a MAT by 2030, thus completely phasing out more than 100 years of local authority control. 

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Academies – charity takes the lead in education 

Overseen by regional DfE directors (and, formerly, regional schools commissioners), academies have become responsible for more than half of state-funded children and young people’s education since their first appearance in the Learning and Skills Act 2000. They are funded directly by the DfE; this is in contrast with “maintained” schools, which are paid for and overseen by local authorities. 

Their proliferation is locked into procedures for improvement and regional growth. If a school is failing, it will be told to become an academy; if a local authority needs a new primary or secondary institution, then that must – with few exceptions – also be established as an academy. 

The UK Government believes this newer delivery of education is responsible for widespread school improvements. In one year, it says inspections found three-quarters of sponsored primary and secondary academies to be ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’, in contrast with about a tenth of their predecessor establishments. 

So, what is a Multi-Academy Trust? 

A Multi-Academy Trust is headed by a singular leadership structure which oversees several schools. In this structure, each location is not an individual legal entity but a series of sites that deliver an agreement between the trust that oversees it and the secretary of state for education. 

The advantages MATs bring include creating a formal framework to share knowledge, more opportunities for staff development and retention, the ability to share specialist staff, and the possibility of achieving economies of scale. 

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Multi-Academy Trust governance arrangements 

The trust model of governance is placed on sponsored academies (schools often considered to be “failing” by the UK Government), converter academies (those making the switch to academy status out of choice), and the more rarely used collaborative partnership (these being directly answerable to the secretary of state for education). 

In short, all schools in a MAT have academy status, as opposed to being “maintained”. However, not all academies are currently in a MAT. The ambitions of the government mean this is likely to change in the next ten years. 

These trusts can act independently because of the funding agreements set out between themselves and the secretary of state. Intake is still overseen by the local authority, but councils have control over little else. 

At the top of these Multi-Academy Trusts are their members. The UK Government likens these to “shareholders of a company”. 

Next is the board of trustees. They oversee the day-to-day operations of schools, including areas such as spending, standards, and compliance with charity law. Some of these trustees are members of the MAT. 

What happened to school governors? 

One of the most well-known roles in a “maintained” school is the governor – a chance for local people to take on the task of jointly making major decisions about young people’s education. 

In a MAT, it is fair to say this has been absorbed by the role of the trustee. But also relevant to this are “local governing bodies”, voluntary groups which the National Governance Association prefers to call “academy committees”. If such a team is created, trustees decide its responsibilities. However, a role in this body is more akin to a scrutiny committee, overseeing how standards are being met and feeding this information to trustees. They don’t sign off on major decisions. 

Joining a MAT 

The government says it will advise a Multi-Academy Trust on when to grow and when to consolidate. As an indicator, it recently said it wants trusts to serve at least 7,500 pupils or a minimum of 10 schools. 

This scope means it’s more likely that unaffiliated schools will want to either join existing MATs or, if they are already a group, bring their trusts together. 

Joining a MAT is a serious commitment. One way to test out this relationship before committing is through a time-limited trust partnership. This has some but not all of the benefits of joining a MAT. This allows a school and trust to share best practice and see how well the two entities could work together in future. 

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