The Evolution of Multi-Academy Trusts: From An Academy Grouping Model to The UK’s Answer for Education

Multi-academy trusts are becoming more commonplace and are only set to become more mainstream across the UK, with the government hoping for every school to join one in the near future. But what are multi-academy trusts and why do we have them? 

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What Is a Multi-Academy Trust? 

A multi-academy trust (MAT) is a group of aligned educational academies that come together to form a trust. Academies in the UK school system are educational institutions that rely on state funding directly from the Department for Education (DfE). When they join a trust, funding is shared between the schools under an Academy Funding Agreement. 

Independent of their local authority, MATs and their members essentially become a charity with a single board of trustees to oversee all decision-making. All staff within MAT schools are also employed by the company, forming a conglomerate-type arrangement. 

“Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have been created by many of our best leaders, teachers and governors to improve and sustain standards in our schools. We know that the composition of MATs varies in different locations, and there is no one right model. There are great examples of primary only or secondary only trusts, but also examples of trusts with different types and phases of schools.” - Sir David Carter, Former National Schools Commissioner 

That said, individual academies are still recognised as individual entities in so far as they receive individual Ofsted assessments. These schools are only grouped from a financial and business perspective—not necessarily from a performance standpoint, although this might be looked at as a collective to address any concerns.

How Is a Multi-Academy Trust Managed? 

Much like a corporate charity organisation, MATs have a hierarchical structure to govern all academy activities and manage financial spend. Aside from the nominated board of trustees, MATs also appoint an Executive Headteacher to keep the board accountable. 

“It is clear that there are at least three core elements that the strongest trusts exhibit. First, a board that contains a wide range of professional experiences that can deliver the dual responsibility of building strategy to deliver great outcomes for children alongside the culture of accountability that is necessary across the organisation. Second, the appointment of an executive leader, typically an executive head or chief executive officer, who is held to account for standards across the schools. Third, the creation and execution of a school improvement strategy that develops and improves the workforce, builds succession and enables the strongest teachers and leaders to influence outcomes for more children.” - Sir David Carter, Former National Schools Commissioner

MATs are complex and offer comprehensive information on how the group is run. Each MAT is required to provide a ‘scheme of delegation’ to break down roles, responsibilities and key decision-makers within the organisation. 

Although MATs achieve more independence than local authority governed schools, they still need to follow existing frameworks to standardise MAT management across the country. 

Why Do We Have Multi-Academy Trusts? 

The government advises all schools to become academies that are then eligible to join a MAT of their choice. This follows The Education Reform Act (1988), which marked the move towards a more individual approach to education. 

As academies are independent of local authority support, they put emphasis on schools, governors and parents to take control, in line with the act. The more schools that take this approach, the more competitive the education landscape becomes. This is thought to increase schools standards across the board through marketisation and greater competition between institutions. 

Things like league tables, Ofsted results and formula funding have perpetuated this change and MATs are just the natural evolution of this. 

The formation of MATs is the logical next step in independent education. They help schools run more like a business with greater support available for individual academies and a fairer allocation of funds.

Multi-Academy Trusts: A Timeline

MATs have grown in both existence and popularity in the past five years. However, many changes and legislation were introduced in education long before their emergence that explain why we created a system for a more individual and organisation-like format.  

The Education Act 1994 

A national system of primary and secondary education was introduced, helping provide a structure for learning across England and Wales. 

The Education Reform Act 1988

A following educational act came into force to encourage schools to adopt legal autonomy as well as give parents greater incentive to get involved in decision making. 

Sponsored Academies 2000s

In the early 2000s, sponsored academies were backed by a Labour government to support schools with failed Ofsted results. Such schools received funding from both a sponsor and the government to cover different educational costs. 

The Education Act 2002

As part of new education legislation, the prefix ‘city’ was removed from academy terminology to make all schools regardless of being non-city or city located to qualify for academy status. 

Academies Act 2010 

Fast forward ten years and a Conservative government passed an act to convert schools into academies or else build entirely new academies proposed by local authorities. 

Regional Schools Commissioners 2014

Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) were appointed to approve academies and address issues in existing academies. This role was expanded in 2015 to include more responsibilities, making RSCs pivotal in MATs across the country. 

Multi-Academy Trusts 2017 

With greater adoption of academies as a tried and tested educational model, MATs quickly came to be known as the predominant model of school governance. 

Do Multi-Academy Trusts Work? The Stats

Multi-academy trusts are beginning to dominate the educational sector. But are they having the intended impact? Here are a few key statistics* to know about MATs: 

  • The best-performing MATs are the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, Inspiration Trust and Harris Federation. Each trust has a well-established ethos focusing on subjects such as social mobility, social norms, behaviour and thinking tools. 

  • In 2019, almost 3.8 million pupils attended academies in England, comprising 72.3% of secondary pupils and 29.7% of primary school pupils

  • There are 1,170 MATs in the UK as of 2019, with the majority having five or fewer schools. 

  • At KS2, 64% of pupils reached the expected standard in core subjects such as reading, writing and maths in 2019.

  • According to ISO, 81% of MATs have a Data Protection Officer (DPO), 72% of MATs have appropriate reporting procedures, 90% of MATs have an information governance group, 81% have public policies and procedures, 90% produce regular staff bulletins and 81% of produced materials to remind staff of data protection responsibilities.

*At the point of writing this article, the below statistics were accurate. All data compiled in October 2021.

The Future of Multi-Academy Trusts 

Now, the government wants to further increase the adoption of trusts across the UK, with the hopes of all schools joining a MAT at some point in the future. A speech delivered by Gavin Williamson in April highlighted this. Below are some key excerpts: 

“Today over 50 per cent of pupils in state-funded education study in academies. But we want to go further because strong multi-academy trusts are the best structure to enable schools and teachers to deliver consistently good outcomes for all their pupils.”

“The difference with the multi-academy trust model, and we see it again and again, is that the strongest leaders can take responsibility for supporting more schools, developing great teachers, and allowing schools to focus on what really matters - teaching, learning and a curriculum that is based on what works.”

This newfound enthusiasm comes post-pandemic as a response to the way MATs were able to act positively in times of crisis. MATs showed an increased ability to: 

  • Respond quickly with clear lines of authority and communication 
  • Allocate resources across schools that need them
  • Support teachers to concentrate on key teaching deliverables

This isn’t to say MATs don’t have any flaws or areas that require improvement. Comparing MATs from 2019 to 2021 allows us to see both what MATs have done well in the face of a major obstacle to education, as well as where its weaknesses lie. 

Most notably, the power of governance needs to be revised in many MATs where too much power is in the hands of too few people. The quality of authority is also under question, with the need for more skilled governance and a sweet spot between too little and too large MAT groups. 

Although MATs have got some way to go, they’re by no means going away. Instead, MATs will only become more prominent across the sector as government backing and professional support rise. 


Join the MAT Zone at the Schools & Academies Show!

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