MATs: subsidiarity as the key to success

Posted by Ewa Jozefkowicz on Jul 25, 2019 11:54:26 AM

Chris Kirk

When joining a MAT, school leaders are often fearful about the loss of autonomy over areas ranging from curriculum to finance. We speak to Chris Kirk, education consultant and MAT expert at CJK Associates about how responsibilities can be effectively distributed across a trust.

How can you promote a culture of collaboration across a MAT? 

Schools are very much like families and it’s so important to work with everyone to ensure that they are brought into the collective future of their trust. When we work with a trust, we speak to the principal of each school and ideally with their senior teams too, as well as the people in the MAT headquarters. 

There are some areas that we find schools are happy to hand over to a central team. These include health and safety, compliance checking, data protection, and keeping websites and policies up to date. An area that often causes more friction is financial management, and this stems from the fact that schools feel that they know their own specific circumstances so well, that they are hesitant to hand their finances over to a team that doesn’t have that knowledge. Here, detailed conversations need to be had about who will be doing what, both at school and central level.

One of the negative perceptions of MATs is this fact that schools lose autonomy and that most operations are handed over to a central team. Do you think this way of looking at things is too binary?

I think it is much more nuanced than that. Taking finance as our example - you can split this into so many different areas, including auditing, accounts, planning the budget, cash collection, and fundraising. A sensible trust, on any of those, would have a discussion with the principals of their schools on who is the best person to handle each element and how to ensure that all of them would work together. An important word here is ‘subsidiarity’ which doesn’t mean doing everything at a local level, or the highest level, but doing things at the level where you’re best placed to make the decision. If you follow this, you can’t go far wrong. You also need to think about how the accountability lines up with the decision being made.

When we think about autonomy, we should also think about who this autonomy relates to. You could have a MAT which is all about collaborative groups of teachers working across the trust to get the very best curriculum in any given subject. That might give more agency, and in a sense, autonomy, to that group. However, it may feel to a principal within one of these schools that is part of the trust, that they do not have enough autonomy over their own curriculum, because in this instance you could say that it’s being decided at a MAT level.

I don’t personally believe that headteacher autonomy is always the right way to go. I think it’s about giving the right people responsibility for the right areas of school life and that everyone should have a say in how things are done. You will get some great teamwork and hopefully some great results from that.

What do you think is the main positive impact of handling some operations centrally within the MAT? 

It’s important to recognise that when MATs work effectively and some important administrative tasks are handled centrally, this can reduce the burden of workload for teachers and senior leaders at school level. 

In 2000, we had the teacher workload crisis and I was involved in a campaign called Save Our Sundays, which was teachers across all phases seeing how they could reduce their marking workload and take back some of their weekend. Unfortunately, 19 years later, this is still an issue despite the fact that there is a lot of research to show that frequent, detailed marking doesn’t necessarily have a positive impact on pupil learning.

What a trust can do, is to put in systems and processes to support teachers to use their time efficiently and to reduce that administrative burden. They can also adopt all manner of new technology that would save time on tasks such as data entry.

If you had one piece of advice for MATs to act on, what would it be?

I would say that all MAT leaders, both within schools and in the central team need to have belief in their own experience and moral purpose, in order to do the right thing. Try to be consistent and ignore new gimmicks and fads, which you know won’t have long term benefits. Some of the leaders within MATs who I admire most have had that real insight and belief in their vision and have really strived to get buy-in from everyone else in the trust - and that’s why ultimately they have seen success.  

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Topics: MAT, academy, growth, expansion