92.As the previous chapter detailed, the overall picture of MATs performance in England is mixed. The Sutton Trust’s most recent Chain Effects report revealed that several chains have failed to improve over a significant period of time. In their evidence they told us:
Our evidence suggests a mixed picture [ … ] the best academy chains are having a transformational impact on pupils’ life chances, but others have seriously underperformed and have expanded too rapidly.
93.The Sutton Trust’s research found that a number of trusts have struggled to improve their results over the past three years. In contrast a similar sized group of trusts performed consistently above average over the past three years. This group includes Ark and Harris Federation, which are frequently referred to by Government Ministers as successful trusts.
94.In January the Government released their own MAT league tables based on 2016 exam results. This showed that two thirds of MATs had Progress 8 scores that were below average across the secondary schools in their trust. Just over half of those (51%) performed “significantly below” average. Some of the largest trusts did particularly badly, including E-Act and AET. MATs did better at Key Stage 2 with over half achieving above average progress in writing and maths.
95.The EPI’s study of MATs performance, compared to local authorities, showed that being part of a MAT does not necessarily lead to better results. Natalie Perera, EPI’s Executive Director, told us:
What we see from the evidence of academy performance, be that individual types of academies or MATs, is that it is quite clear that they are not a silver bullet to raising standards.
96.Since the launch of our inquiry, several organisations and the Government have published analysis of the performance of trusts. All of these reports show a mixed picture in terms of the performance of MATs. They show that some MATs are delivering excellent results and using the MAT model to effectively drive improvement. However, a significant number of MATs are failing to improve year on year and consistently appear at the bottom of league tables.
97.Evidence from the DfE described the process by which underperforming schools could be transferred to an alternative MAT:
Where MATs are on track to deal with underperformance they should be supported to do so. The default approach to tackling chronic underperformance will continue to be to broker the school into an alternative MAT, where school leaders with a track record of success can apply proven models to improve performance.
98.A written answer to a parliamentary question in June 2016 revealed that of the 277 academies rated as inadequate from 2010 to 2015, just 84 have been re-brokered. In 70% of cases the DfE has failed to remove a failing school from its chain. In January 2017, Lord Nash wrote to us with updated figures on re-brokering.
As at 4 January 2017 there were 41 academies in the process of being re-brokered. Of these, 31 are as a result of intervention action on the part of the Regional School Commissioner (RSC). The rest involve instances such as a single academy trust seeking to join or set up a multi academy trust; or a sponsor deciding to hand back an academy because it no longer has the capacity to run it or wants to wind down the trust.
99.David Moran from E-Act was able to give us a first-hand account of the re-brokering of schools from his trust:
I think the timing of rebrokerage is critical. The impact on the culture within the organisation during that rebrokerage period was difficult at the school level for individual teachers, principals and parents. There was the sense of not knowing what was happening and who they were going to, and there was the question of the sensible timing of when that information is shared and how that process happens. In my mind, it makes sense for any type of a rebrokerage to happen at the beginning or end of an academic and financial year.
100.As well as highlighting the importance of timing he, and other witnesses, spoke of the importance of due diligence. Lucy Heller, Chief Executive of Ark, was critical of the Department’s focus on a “swift transfer” from one school to another. Instead of calling it re-brokerage she said it should be named “reacademisation” to reflect the process and financial burden on trusts.
The difficulty with academies is that it is treated simply as a transfer and there is little or no funding available to support that. At the moment, it is more attractive for MATs to take on maintained schools rather than academies that have fallen into difficulties, and it seems illogical for that to be the case.
101.Professor Hutchings told us that the re-brokerage process is still an unknown and that we have little evidence on how successful re-brokering is for under-performing schools. She expressed particular concern for schools which are “constantly re-brokered”.
102.There is a growing risk that schools which need to be re-brokered multiple times have become ‘untouchable’. These are schools which have received poor Ofsted ratings and/or are in financial trouble. There have been several recent media reports of trusts refusing to sponsor schools for this reason. An article in TES in November reported that changes to funding agreements means that trusts can no longer pull out of sponsoring schools which risk dragging the entire chain into insolvency. This is leading to a growth in ‘untouchable’ schools and trusts taking due diligence a lot more seriously.
103.We are concerned by the growth of ‘untouchable’ schools and the length of time it is taking for some schools to be re-brokered. The Government should give greater support for schools which are deemed unattractive to sponsors and play a more active role in re-brokering through RSCs.
104.During the course of the inquiry the DfE have been developing ‘growth checks’ which are intended to assess whether a MAT should be allowed to take on more schools. In June, Sir David Carter outlined these checks. He proposed that five checks should be carried out by the RSCs in their region:
I am going to introduce a health check on five key areas. The five tests will be standards and track record, people and leadership, governance capacity, financial sustainability and management of risk.
105.In September the Department submitted written evidence to this inquiry outlining their plans for the checks:
Further work to support the sustainable growth of MATs includes the development of a ‘MAT growth check’. The intention is that this proposal will offer trusts the option to undergo a ‘health check review’ as they approach key growth phases; and will look beyond school-by-school growth to assess the MAT’s capacity to grow successfully and take responsibility for a number of schools.
106.The Department explained that they are currently “piloting this proposal through a series of pathfinders”. In December Lord Nash confirmed that there are currently 30 pilots of these checks. Jennifer Bexon-Smith, RSC for East Midlands and the Humber, told us that the checks “will come into being for all trusts from 2017”.
As far as I understand in terms of the process there will be an experienced CEO, a finance director, a board member and a member of the trust that is being inspected, and they will have a series of five areas that they will focus on. There will be structured questions, but it will be very much about fitness for purpose to grow. It is not a pass or a fail; it is about identifying where there may be potential issues that need to be addressed before that trust is ready to go to the next stage of development.
107.We welcome the introduction of a MAT ‘growth check’ and look forward to the Department publishing further details on what measures will be part of the check and the process by which the check will be used. The Government must place tight restrictions on the growth of MATs and use their ‘growth check’ to ensure that MATs are only permitted to take on more schools when they have the capacity to grow successfully.
108.Many witnesses told us that the Department should be commissioning independent, robust research into what the most successful trusts are doing.
109.In its written evidence NFER said that “further research needs to be conducted in order to understand the characteristics, structures and behaviours of high performing MATs”. Professor Hutchings told us that we really need research on what makes a “good MAT”. Similarly the NGA’s evidence advised that the Government should conduct research specifically into “the maximum effective size and geographical spread of a MAT.” It is notable that such calls have been made over several years from many sources, seeking an evidence-based approach to the development of MATs.
110.Existing research is also challenged by the speed of change. As Karen Wespieser, Senior Research Manager at NFER, told us:
I think the plans to expand MATs is racing ahead of the evidence and as researchers we are trying to keep up. In most cases, in terms of the research evidence, the systems have not been in place long enough to say what works.
111.Shortly after Lord Nash gave evidence to us the DfE released ‘Multi-academy trusts: good practice guidance and expectations for growth’. The document includes “10 characteristics of governance in effective MATs”, “10 ways effective academy trusts lead school improvement” and “10 ways effective MATs make sure they have a strong team”. This is a useful document for schools considering joining a MAT or existing MATs developing their trust. Nevertheless it does not appear to be based on rigorous empirical research.
112.We believe the Department’s recent ‘good practice guidance and expectations for growth’ document does not provide a solid enough evidence base on the characteristics of successful trusts. The Government should commission and publish independent, robust research on what the highest performing MATs are doing.
113.The Government has stated that its intention is for schools to use the MAT model to share best practice and expertise. The Government’s white paper anticipated that:
In the future, there will be more MATs spreading best practice across the schools system and by joining, forming, expanding or leading MATs, the best leaders, who have already proven their success, ability and skills, can play a greater role in the system and spread success more widely to benefit more children.
114.Several of the larger MATs who submitted evidence spoke of the importance of school to school support. Oasis wrote that their academies “participate in a school to school led improvement model and therefore work collaboratively with academies within the MAT regionally and nationally, schools in their locality and the Local Authority (LA) to share best practice and accomplish improvement through partnership”. Dr Ehren and Professor Greany cited evidence which suggests that this type of peer support between high and low achieving schools can have benefits for the “donor as well as the recipient”.
115.Lord Nash informed us that the Government was “developing the concept of mentoring MATs”. This will involve well-established MATs mentoring newer trusts and sharing expertise with them.
116.Recent performance tables show a significant difference in the attainment of trusts, with a small group of trusts consistently producing excellent results for their students. These trusts should be encouraged to share best practice and use their expertise to support the MATs which are consistently under-performing. We are encouraged to hear that the Government is developing “mentoring MATs” and look forward to seeing more details of this programme.
114 The Sutton Trust ()
117 Department for Education, Experimental Statistics: Multi-academy trust performance measures: England, 2015 to 2016, , January 2017
118 Education Policy Institute, School performance in multi-academy trusts and local authorities-2015 (July 2016)
120 Department for Education () para 25
121 [on Academies: Standards], 6 June 2016
122 Department for Education () para 2
130 “Untouchables: the schools that MATs won’t go near” TES, 25 November 2016, p 8–9
133 Department for Education () para 18
134 () para 20
138 National Foundation for Educational Research para 5
140 National Governors’ Association ()
143 Department for Education, , December 2016
144 Department for Education, Educational Excellence Everywhere, , March 2016, p 58
145 Oasis Community Learning para 7
146 Professor Toby Greany and Dr Melanie Ehren, UCL Institute of Education ()
27 February 2017