23 Feb 2022
It’s official – the English Government wants all state schools to become ‘academies’ – independent of local government – but also to be part of larger Multi-Academy Trusts. In a speech on April 28th, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson set out 7 policies to enable this – summarised here by Schools’ Week.

These will have some impact. But it’s not going to be easy – it’s taken over 10 years since the push really started in 2010 with the Academies Act to get just half of students attending academies. And it’s been even harder to persuade academies to join together in larger chains – this article by United Learning’s Jon Coles asks that very question! 

The reason for the slowness of conversion is really about the communication and marketing challenges of change. On the face of it, there are clear benefits to joining larger academies. Marketing Advice for Schools has worked with trusts that have brought together primary and secondary schools in a local area to provide better transition and an effective 3-18 curriculum, that have used economies of scale to deliver better training and career opportunities to teachers, and to that have delivered major cost savings.  

But many parents, teachers and governors like having a say in local schools, especially in the primary phase. Academisation is associated for many of these with top-down transformation, sackings of well-liked heads and teachers, and high workloads leading to rapid staff turnover. Introducing a strict new uniform or behaviour policy without consultation as a ‘short sharp shock’ might look good in the short term but it can put others off from wanting to see the same in their school.

And with so many schools rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED relatively immune from takeover, there are fewer that can be forced into academy chains.
What should MATs do if they want to grow successfully?

Here’s some sound advice from John Brennan of Glove Consulting, who have worked with many trusts on these issues.

1. Communicate your character
Defining and communicating the character of your MAT is crucial. What is the culture of the MAT? What is it going to be like to actually BE part of the MAT? Is it “principle led”? Will schools retain much of their own culture? Or are you a MAT who will look to import policy, procedures, and practice irrespective of what currently happens? Finding the best and most attractive way to honestly and with integrity state “who you are” is key. Then schools can appraise you in a transparent and objective fashion.

2. Tell people what they will get
How are you going to support the schools? What will the get for their top-slice contribution? What extras in terms of partnerships and access to funding and initiatives can you bring? What influences and pressure can you bring to bear to the advantage of potential partners?  Will they enjoy and inherit aspects of your (undoubted) good reputation? Do you “supply” new branding, website, and signage as part of the “deal”? You may need to define and develop your offer to make sure it is attractive enough in this crowded marketplace.

3. Appearances are important
If your MAT website is too rudimental, if your materials are too homemade, if your language is underdeveloped and clumsy, if your logo is crude and clumsy, if your PowerPoint template is all over the place – then what does that say about the quality of support you are offering? MATs are often offering savings and professional support in “back office” and business services. If you don’t present a professional and high-quality image, why would anyone think you can deliver professional and high-quality support?

4. An evidence led approach is crucial
As a strategic consultancy we recognise that, irrespective of how you look, if you don’t have the substance and the evidence to back up a “new look” then it’s just oh-so-much spin. So, detailed, and in-depth case studies about how your MAT has improved key performance indicators are crucial. BUT these must be presented in an accessible and benefit led fashion.

And – lastly, but most importantly...

5. Culture is more important than strategy
As Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and over our many years in communications and development, we have seen this in action many times – especially in new school and Multi Academy Trust formation and growth. So, make sure that before you start to develop a strategy for a new entity or for growth, that you have defined your vision, your values, and your culture.