Multi-Academy Trusts – Building a Foundation for Sustainable Growth

Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) share many of the same characteristics as other organisations in industry and commerce – sectors that benefit from a wealth of experience, research and management expertise to help understand factors essential for sustainable growth. For industry, there’s certainly no shortage of financial models (e.g. the ‘Higgins Sustainable Growth Model’) to calculate a company’s sustainable or optimal growth rate. However, although there are many points of comparison, there are differences in some of the drivers of organisational development. Commercial businesses, for example, can be driven by short-term profits, dividend-rewarded rapid growth and the need to pursue immediate market opportunities. And, although business partnerships can thrive, commercial organisations are, generally, driven by competition – not collaboration. As not-for-profit educational organisations, MATs find themselves in a distinctive position where models of sustainable growth are formed, not only by financial factors, as with business organisations, but also by wider social, moral and organisational considerations. These can be summarised as follows:

Leadership. In business models, leadership is, perhaps, the most commonly identified characteristic of successful growth. Leadership contributes to, shapes and directs the strategic vision and growth plans of the organisation.  A well-communicated and well-implemented strategic vision enables each academy to contribute to the Trust’s vision and ensures that each supporting strategy is mapped against successful outcomes for young people. Effective leadership also extends the social and moral responsibilities of the Trust through a commitment to and partnership with others in education. For example, in providing support for new or developing MATs.

Governance. At the organisational level, another key foundation stone for sustainable growth is a model of governance with clear and agreed distinctions at Trust and local governing body level. Clear delegation and direction of responsibilities provide the necessary framework for ownership, transparency and accountabilities. Louise Thomson, Head of Policy at ‘ICSA: The Governance Institute’, has blogged in detail on this topic, “Sound subsidiary governance is essential to ensure that … arrangements are appropriate for the size and complexity of the organisation. For a multi-academy trust, the board needs to be sure that each of its academies is operating in a manner consistent with the direction and leadership set by the board, while being suitably flexible to deal with local cultures and situations.”1

Effective organisational governance helps to entrench the social and moral responsibilities of the Trust as it grows by translating mission and vision statements into best practice.

Best Practice. Organisationally, existing good practice provides one of the foundation stones for future growth; for example in taking best practice from one academy and replicating this across all academies in the Trust. To give a specific example, Quality Assurance (QA) systems embedded successfully in one academy provide an opportunity for these to be extended across the Trust.

Extending best practice helps provide consistency and well-understood processes to enable the MAT as a whole to grow.

If social, moral and organisational factors determine the success of a MATs growth, it is the financial element that enables or constrains the Trust’s ability to achieve and sustain this. At its simplest, economies of scale only begin to operate above a certain threshold. Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner, recently provided some insight into this.2   By calculating, at the Trust level, total student population, pupil income, and a 5% contribution to running the central team and support structure, he models the impact on MATs of different scale. The conclusion seems to be that 1200 students in a MAT is the smallest viable number. This has inevitable implications, particularly for primary-focused and smaller MATs.

MATs have social and moral commitments different to those of commercial organisations. Finance, as David Carter has shown, is indeed a critical factor, but the growth of a Trust should not be measured solely by its economic size. The real measure is in the scope and ability of the Trust to enable all its academies to contribute richly to its communities; enhance the experiential quality of life in its academies; develop the talents and capabilities of staff; and, crucially, extend the life opportunities of its young people.


2 Sir David Carter “United We Stand. An Insight into Multi-Academy Trusts”, March 2016. Available from

First published April 2016 at RM Education