The NEU supports our members in many MATs up and down the country - including our school leadership members. However, the irreversible decision to become part of a MAT should be made based on an informed view of the evidence and arguments.
In a recent speech, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson stated that the Government’s vision is for “every school to be part of a family of schools in a strong multi-academy trust”.
There are no new powers to compel schools to join a multi-academy trust (MAT), but governing bodies and school leaders may still be considering this possibility.
We urge leaders and school governors to consider the evidence presented here before taking this irreversible step.
No evidence that MATs support improvement
There is no evidence that shows joining a MAT helps boost attainment or outcomes.
A 2018 report by researchers at University College London’s Institute of Education found there was no positive impact on the attainment and progress scores of pupils in MATs when compared to equivalent non-MAT schools. Pupils in larger MATs (those with 16 plus schools) did worse, particularly in secondary schools.
An Education Policy Institute (EPI) report also published in 2018 compared school performance and pupil improvement at every trust and local authority in England at key stages 2 and 4. It revealed that academy chains are “disproportionately represented” among the worst performing groups of primary schools, with 12 making it into the bottom 20.
A previous EPI report from 2017 found that “academies do not provide an automatic solution to school improvement” and that “there is significant variation in performance at both different types of academies and multi-academy trusts”. It also noted that “the levels of variation in academic performance between MATs were greater than differences between MATs and local authorities”. The report concluded “there is no real change to the primary school test scores of incoming pupils once the schools become converter academies”.
Loss of autonomy and accountability
Once a school joins a MAT, it ceases to exist as a separate legal entity. It is the MAT board which is ultimately responsible for making the key decisions.
This has many implications for a school, its staff, pupils, and the wider community.
A school cannot decide to leave a MAT voluntarily, either to re-join the local authority or join another MAT.
The MAT structure means that individual schools have little control over key decisions including pay, appraisal, the curriculum, pedagogy and behaviour management.
There is no mechanism for a school to choose to leave a MAT and schools have no formal powers when decisions are taken by the MAT board that impact on their budget and staff. A recent example of this is at Tendring Technology College, where the academy sponsor AET charges £1250 per pupil as a top slice for central services and is also proposing a restructure that would result in redundancies. The situation illustrates that, where a school is unhappy with a MAT, it has no choice to leave, no voice within the MAT structure and there is no government regulation it can rely on either.
If a MAT collapses, walks away or is forced to give up the school by the Government, it will be transferred to a new trust, and parents and staff will have no say on which MAT this is.
Every year hundreds of academies are forced to move trusts in a process known as “re-brokering”. Schools, pupils and staff are not consulted on the identity of the new MAT, with a decision effectively made behind closed doors by the DfE.
In 2019/20, 241 academies were re-brokered to new trusts, representing 2.7 per cent of all academies in the country. Between 2013-14 and 2019-20 a total of 1,176 academies were re-brokered.
Joining a small MAT now does not mean your school will not end up as part of a larger MAT.
The Government has made it clear that it expects single-academy trusts will join MATs, and smaller MATs will merge into larger groupings. The trend is towards consolidation into bigger MATs: at least 190 trusts were given approval to merge in the 18 months from 31 August 2017.
There is no requirement for MATs to include parent representatives on the ‘local’ governing bodies of each academy, in fact some MATs have abolished local bodies altogether.
A House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report, Academy accounts and performance, January 2019, found that: “Parents and local people have to fight to obtain even basic information about their children’s schools, and academy trusts do not do enough to communicate and explain decisions that affect the schools they are responsible for and how they are spending public money.”
The DfE recently weakened its own governance guidance in this respect: removing the need for schools to be “answerable” to communities and parents from its governance handbook.
The ultimate control of a MAT is set by the MAT board, not at school level. The MAT board has the authority to decide which powers, if any, to delegate to local governing bodies. The scheme of delegation is not prescribed by the MAT funding agreements and can be changed unilaterally by the board at any time. Furthermore, ultimate power in an academy trusts rests with its members (usually no more than four) who are the equivalent of shareholders in a commercial company. Members have the power to appoint and remove all serving trustees and change the trust’s articles of association.
The views and rights of school staff
School staff should be fully consulted and involved in any decision around academisation yet conversion often takes place and is experienced as a top down process that can shift the dynamic of a school community.
Staff are right to be concerned about their voice within the MAT: academies are not required to have staff representation on their governing bodies.
A MAT may promise that pay and conditions will not change, but there is no legal barrier to that happening following academy conversion or upon transfer to a different MAT if this happens. New staff joining an academy may not get the same terms and conditions as those who transferred when the school converted. While those staff who transferred have a legal right to maintain their pay and conditions on transfer, the pay and conditions for new joiners can be whatever the MAT determines.
DfE data for 2019 shows that, on average, classroom teachers in both primary and secondary academies earned over £1,000 less than their maintained school counterparts.
Fewer opportunities for effective collaboration
Government guidance on “building strong academy trusts” claims that the “single governance structure” of MATs “is a more effective model than other examples of collaboration, such as federations and alliances.” However, there is simply no evidence that this is the case – there are no studies which demonstrate the greater effectiveness of MATs compared to other forms of collaboration. Becoming locked within a hard MAT structure can mean less opportunity to collaborate more flexibly with other schools and within systems like federations.
Furthermore, researchers looking at the impact of government reforms on the education system and schools have highlighted “how MATs are being incentivised and required to adopt hierarchical and increasingly standardised approaches that limit the autonomy and agency of individual schools.”
Financial risks and limitations
There is no financial advantage to joining a MAT, which are funded on the same per-pupil basis as maintained schools. However, being part of a MAT reduces financial autonomy for schools. The funding received by the MAT is not ring-fenced to one particular school - it is up to the MAT board how much money it uses for central services and how it allocates funding within the trust - this often involves distributing funding across trust schools. Individual schools have no say in this.
This also means that, while a school that outside a MAT can enter into contracts for services, once part of a MAT it is the board which is the purchasing body and so a school can only do what the board allows. Recently issued guidance on “building strong academy trusts” is clear that the Government thinks individual schools within MATs are better off without powers over financial management: “The academy trust structure allows administrative functions, policies and financial management to be delivered centrally, allowing school leaders to prioritise education”.
The Government argues that MATs are better able to secure efficiencies and economies of scale. However, a MAT would need to be very large to achieve the buying power and economies of scale available to LA schools. Without these economies of scale, academies may well be worse off as they need to purchase services that were previously supplied by LAs – and this can cost schools more.
Academies are also outside the scope of financial help that local authorities can provide, such as help to get through temporary funding shortfalls. Academies must bear redundancy costs themselves, whereas LAs can share the burden of these costs among schools.
The Government has consistently sought to encourage the development of larger MATs based on financial efficiency. In 2017, then Academies Minister Lord Theodore Agnew advocated for the merger of small MATs, arguing that “the sweet spot is perhaps somewhere between 12 and 20 schools, or something like 5,000 to 10,000 pupils”. No evidence has been provided to back up this claim, however, and studies looking at financial efficiencies in MAT finances are at best inconclusive while also demonstrating that there are significant challenges. A 2017 Education Policy Institute report on “The Economic Benefits of Joining, Establishing and Growing a Multi-Academy Trust”, concluded that “overall, there appear to be some efficiencies made among MATs comprised of around 8-10 academies, though not a substantial amount and the variation within these groups is more significant”.
Generally, the MAT system is more expensive and less efficient compared to schools supported by local authorities. A 2019 report estimated that MAT-wide leadership roles funded by top-slicing funding from their academies, added an additional £106 million (£13.17 per pupil) to the cost of the MAT “middle tier” compared to the cost of supporting schools through LAs.