Blog: Evincing the MAT factor

6 March 2019

Findings from our new Multi-Academy Trust quality assurance reviews point to the power of collaboration and challenge as a driver of development and help understand what makes a great MAT.


By the end of 2018, there were more than 8,000 academies and more than 1,400 multi-academy trusts (MATs). Many of these MATs are in their infancy, and the oldest are barely into their teens. Consequently, there is very little evidence about what makes for an effective and sustainable trust, or the best approaches to school improvement, although there are many opinions and ardent proponents of particular models. Into this evidential void, Challenge Partners launched our pilot MAT peer quality assurance review (QAR) to find out  which approaches do work best in particular circumstances, and share examples of success, while also acting as a catalyst for the development of individual trusts and leaders.


Our MAT peer QAR methodology follows the key principles underpinning our well-established school QAR. As described in my recent blog, these include: reviews being led by an expert independent lead reviewer; the peer review team being composed of MAT leaders with sufficient distance to provide a robust and honest appraisal; involvement of leaders from the MAT which is being reviewed as part of the review team; and a shared commitment to working honestly and openly to leave the reviewed MAT in a better place.


Each review has sought to answer the question that should be at the heart of every MAT: what is the MAT doing to ensure the children it serves achieve better than they might otherwise, and is it working? Reviewers are expected to approach the review with an open mind, with time invested upfront to understand the MAT on its own terms: where has it come from, what does it stand for, what is its approach to school improvement, and what challenges does it face? The review then looks for evidence – across all levels of the trust – of how well understood and implemented the school improvement model is and whether it is having the desired impact. There is no checklist, no belief that we already know the answers, just a lot of very probing, open questions.


What the reviews have found is some commonality, but also important differences. Most strikingly, the trusts reviewed so far have all shown some degree of “collaborative convergence” between their schools, often in curriculum planning, assessment, and, in some cases, behaviour strategies and pedagogy. None mandates top-down standardisation, and some allow considerable autonomy for their schools, albeit with consistently high expectations and consequences of some kind where these are not met.


Our pilot sample is small, but diverse. It covers MATs of different size, phase, maturity and geography. So far no one approach to school improvement has proven more reliably effective: we have seen strengths and challenges in both “tighter” and “looser” MATs. It will be interesting to see what, if any, trends emerge as our evidence base grows, and also whether the strategies that work at one stage of a MAT’s development are equally effective as it moves to the next.


As for the process itself, findings from the pilot point to its power. The MATs that have been reviewed have talked about the impetus added by the observations and insights of appreciatively inquiring external pairs of eyes. The reviewers meanwhile have returned to their own trusts full of energy and ideas, noting the benefits of undertaking reviews for their own CPD. These quotes from MAT peer QAR evaluations are typical:


From a reviewed MAT: “The experience has been hugely beneficial, providing the opportunity to refine and articulate with greater clarity the USP or offer of the MAT. The team provided challenge to the key principles that underpin the MAT ethos, culture and climate, distilling the best of what we have to offer our schools through our governance and systems, whilst assisting us to objectively review the impact of our delivery models.”


From a reviewer: “It was a fantastic opportunity to be able to explore the systems and structures within another MAT. To work alongside such an experienced team from a range of settings led to many deep discussions exploring pedagogy and practice. The review provided the opportunity to learn from another MAT and also provided a point of reference to review our own trust. As a MAT we have gone on to explore the wider concept of our own ‘MAT factor’ which I have no doubt will further strengthen our trust.”


These comments echo the findings of Professor Peter Matthews and Marcia Headon’s evaluation of the Challenge Partners’ school QAR. The report’s title, Multiple Gains, succinctly captures their key conclusion that collaborative peer reviews bring benefits not only to the schools being reviewed, but also to reviewers’ professional development and practice in their own schools.


Extending these benefits to MATs and MAT leaders is enabling us to advance our ambition to secure upwards convergence in the education system by providing impetus for the best to get better, and accelerating improvement where it is most needed. As we scale up our MAT peer QARs and make them available to more MATs, we will continue to gather and share evidence of effective practice in MAT development, ensuring all are able to benefit.


* On 3rd April we're holding an event: Collaborate and Challenge: what works in MAT school improvement. Find out more and book your place here