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A fork in the road?: MATs should choose the path of collaboration if they are to learn and prosper

by Michael Pain, Forum Education

The education system is approaching a fork in the road. In the last decade the notion of collaboration and partnership between schools has been very much in vogue. Whilst some paid lip service to it, others successfully defined what they meant by collaboration and went on to create purposeful and impactful partnerships between schools that lead to improvements in children’s outcomes. The emergence of teaching school alliances and multi-academy trusts in recent years finally provided schools with the framework, structures and funding for achieving deep collaboration and a self-improving system between schools. Some (though by no means all) have gone on to realise this vision  for generating self-improving schools systems. These successful MATs and alliances have some common characteristics – they work hard to foster an inspiring and collective vision for their local education systems,  to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their schools, to generate a culture of ongoing challenge and support between professionals, and to deploy people with the right expertise strategically to achieve improvements.

“we are now entering a period where the system – inadvertently perhaps – may choose to turn its back on the notion of collaboration at the most critical level and at exactly the wrong time.”

However, I believe that we are now entering a period where the system – inadvertently perhaps – may choose to turn its back on the notion of collaboration at the most critical level and at exactly the wrong time. I start with this question: Where is the vision for a self-improving system for multi-academy trusts? I believe that the emergence of a system of hundreds of MATs working in isolation is already happening and that we risk returning to fragmentation and higher variability in standards as a result. As multi-academy trusts proliferate, many are failing to reach out beyond their ‘walls’ and collaborate with one another, and that is a big mistake. Indeed, some it seems are  more inclined towards a sense of competition with other MATs, finding themselves – as they so often do -in competition to take on new schools, apply to open new schools, apply for funding grants, or attract the best staff in the system to work for them rather than for others. Ego, distrust or, in some cases, perhaps a lack of confidence amongst leaders, are also factors that can prevent MATs from working together.

This is leading to a lack of learning and partnership amongst MATs (and between local schools working in different MATs) at a time when we need exactly the opposite. Yes, there are some excellent high-performing MATs – but are we already forging a system where certainly not a thousand, but a few hundred flowers bloom? As Robert Hill said in yesterday’s TES “too many MATs are struggling to fulfill their promise” and are not performing anywhere near as well as they could be (indeed there have been some high profile cases of clear organisational failure). In many of these cases failure would have been avoided had it not been for a better culture of learning and support between MATs. Thankfully, this is beginning to change.

In many of these cases failure would have been avoided had it not been for a better culture of learning and support between MATs. Thankfully, this is beginning to change.”

The fact is that most MATs have a lot to learn and the greatest source of their learning is from one another. As with any period of innovation, be it with the pioneers of flight or the technology revolution of recent years – collaboration speeds up learning and reduces the potential for spending too long walking down blind alleys. In times where we are breaking new ground (and where the stakes – children and young people’s outcomes – are high) we must choose the example of Silicon Valley. It really is critical that – at this moment in time – MATs choose the path of collaboration over isolationism.

Here’s why it matter so much. Failure to learn from the mistakes of other MATs eventually leads not only to the failure of more MATs but ultimately to the failure of schools. In turn, learning from successes (and failures) of others and working together to find solutions to common challenges leads to more successful MATs and better schools. It’s that simple. As things stand, only 9% of the overall total of MATs and single academy trusts have five schools or more. A huge number of MATs are about to reach that critical stage in their growth where if they get the right systems, resourcing, culture and strategy in place, they will begin to realise the full potential of the deep collaboration they are working towards and be able to replicate the achievements of successful MATs. A body of evidence and experience is already beginning to emerge around what successful MATs look like and the common areas for MAT failure (see more on Ofsted’s findings here). We know a great deal about the common mistakes around governance, finance, conflicts of interest, expansion, school improvement systems and capacity, etc. Yet the experiences of established and experienced MATs, if not the limited evidence that exists on successful MAT development, still sits in pockets. Instead, it should all be forming the basis of a culture of collaborative learning. Yet to do so, MATs need the context to learn from one another, share the experiences and challenges they face, share best practice, and work together to develop effective solutions to common challenges – not least in areas such as recruitment, funding and curriculum development.  

Yet the experiences of established and experienced MATs, if not the limited evidence that exists on successful MAT development, still sits in pockets. Instead, it should all be forming the basis of a culture of collaborative learning.”

Currently the training that exists (and tends to be well promoted by government) for multi-academy trust leaders is on the whole pretty expensive and defined by nationally delivered leadership programmes that, whilst involving some very credible people, do not encourage a sense of ongoing networking, collaboration and partnership at a regional level between MATs and their leaders. This is why we have looked to set up networks for MATs that do build in those key elements and encourage inputs and the sharing of best practice by MATs for MATs. It is my view that this kind of professional learning – rather than expensive national leadership programmes – will have the greatest legacy on MATs’ success and for embedding MAT to MAT partnerships in the long term.

Our network for MAT leaders in the East Midlands is developed in partnership with Inspiring Leaders and is very much built on the vision that Chris Wheatley (CEO of the Flying High Trust) and Paul Stone (CEO of the Discovery Schools Trust) had for creating a professional learning community and breaking down barriers amongst MAT leaders in the region. Paul and Chris have made a conscious decision to choose collaboration over isolationism and competition and it is hugely encouraging to see how many other MATs in the region have followed them and are also bringing value to the network. At the last meeting – amongst other things – we saw MATs sharing schemes of delegations, job descriptions and skills matrices for trustees. The sessions provide a blend of elements including: refection on relevant research and evidence, sharing of professional perspectives, elements of leadership development, and opportunities to work together towards identifying solutions to common challenges. That is exactly the way it should be when we are ultimately all in the same business of developing organisations that serve children and young people as well as possible. Meanwhile, Forum Education’s networks in the north west (delivered in partnership with ECM) and Yorkshire and Humber have also received a lot of interest and we look forward to launching these in the coming months. In the near future – once trust and relationships are fully established – it would be great to see this sense of collaboration and professional learning deepen still and open up opportunities for peer review between multi-academy trusts.

It must be said that the DfE, and particularly Sir David Carter, has recognised the importance of collaboration between MATs. He has spoken about how he sees a role for teaching schools – such as those led by Chris and Paul through Inspiring Leaders – creating cohesion and collaborative practice between MATs. It also seems that the development of MAT growth checks (read our latest update here:What do we know about the MAT growth checks and are there any implications for the accountability of MATs? ) will provide a helpful framework for enabling and encouraging MATs to engage in peer review. These are all positive steps, but I can’t help feeling that the system and government should be doing more to ramp up the encouragement and support that these emerging regional collaborative networks of multi-academy trusts receive, because the success of the MAT system really does depend on their success. At the same time, as Robert Hill and I have argued for some time, it is really critical that some high quality, rigorous independent research is undertaken into successful multi-academy trusts.

Ultimately, it would be encouraging to see the majority of MATs committing themselves to regular, routine and ongoing peer review of one another with reference to robust research, external expert moderation and with a positive commitment to sharing (at least some of) the outcomes with others in the system. That does require trust to develop and I believe these networks will provide the foundations for that.

What is fundamentally clear, is that the MAT system must choose the path of collaboration over completion and isolationism if it is to succeed, and must also seek to invest in its own learning and development in an affordable and sustainable way.

More information on Forum Education’s networks in the north west and in Yorkshire and Humber can be accessed here:Events

 

 

April 1, 2017