MAT-Rix Resurrections: What next for academies and MAT-isation? Part Two: the prognosis


6th March 2022

Part one of this blog responded to Sam Freedman’s recent paper Institute for Government paper on the future of academies.  Part two digs into his solutions, proposes further research, and suggests some early ideas. 

Big MATs or small?

Sam proposes that the DfE should ‘set a strong expectation that all schools will join a MAT [and] use incentives and clear messaging to encourage the shift to a single system rather than forcing schools to comply.’ The paper does not give further details on what this means in practice. However, as I argued in part one, the underpinning case for accelerated academisation and MAT-isation feels insufficiently developed. Even if, as Sam suggested on Twitter, fuller and faster academisation needs to happen partly because ‘the government wants it’,  the DfE’s reputation and legitimacy has been damaged by its handling of the pandemic, so the political capital to drive through academisation feels if anything weaker than in 2016. 

At one point Sam asks us to ‘imagine a system in which all schools are run in 500 or so MATs of average size 50.’  Imagine indeed. The evidence suggests that this feels highly improbable for at least a few decades. What feels more likely, given schools’ reluctance to join MATs, small MATs’ reluctance to grow massively or merge, DfE’s reluctance to coerce, and an evidence base that seems unlikely to get any more conclusive, is a patchwork of school groups, dominated by smaller, locally-led MATs. The AETs and Uniteds of this world will have a vital place, but I don’t think the 50+ school MAT will become the dominant model. The evidence doesn’t suggest that schools want to be in MATs of this size, or that small MATs are ready to merge in great numbers. Even in a fully academised system, a larger number of much smaller MATs feels much more realistic. So building a regulatory structure to support the system Sam describes feels like a long term leap of… imagination.

A possible CfEY Investigation

Despite these issues, I still believe that many of the solutions in the paper are worth considering. Sam rightly challenged me on Twitter to suggest some alternatives. In truth, I’m not quite ready for this.

At CfEY, we’re currently designing a new investigation which aims to take a broader view around how schools can collaborate to improve, and what kinds of regulation, governance and leadership can support this. Share on X

 Partly building on the vital programme that The EPI is leading on school groups, we want to explore and understand:

  • What we can learn from current approaches to strategic collaboration – within, between and beyond MATs (with a focus on how the pandemic inspired new forms of collaboration)
  • The demand side in more detail, particularly around the views of schools that are not academies, and small MATs which are less willing to merge or grow significantly
  • What we can learn from other collaborative structures within public services, for instance NHS primary care networks, in the UK and globally
  • How an approach to building a coherent system for school improvement can align with principles of effective policymaking and implementation (the IfG has lots to offer here), as well as the policy regime principles outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper.

Overall, I think any reform needs to go with the grain of a school system that is plural and diverse but not necessarily fragmented. Rather than force the pace of academisation, accept that the current plurality of school structures is likely to continue, and that there is no evidence-based rationale beyond policymakers’ need for ‘tidiness’ to change this. Yes, the current system feels a little messy, but we have always had a diverse school system, with a range of independent, faith and local authority schools, some of whom rely heavily on their local authority for improvement support, others who access and offer support more autonomously.  The problem is not about a half-academised system. The problem is a system that appears unable to build sufficient capacity for school improvement (whether within or beyond a school), co-ordinate or allocate this capacity effectively so that the right schools receive the right support at the right time, and regulate so that those responsible for school improvement are also accountable. The challenge is to make the most of the patchwork of schools, groups and other improvement providers so that no school is left behind, informed by academy-agnostic evidence on the effectiveness of different partnerships and improvement models.

Four and a half early solutions

While I’m a little reluctant to suggest concrete proposals without developing this fuller understanding, here are some responses and additions to Sam’s ideas that can still improve academies and MATs without relying on full academisation for coherence. Ironically, if done simultaneously, they could actually speed up the pace of academisation.

  1. Ensure that all individual schools retain some kind of legal status independent of a MAT, with the ability to request a transfer to another MAT around one year before the end of any funding agreement. Sam articulates this clearly and in more detail, but as a ‘third phase’ of reform. I’m not sure of the rationale for waiting for this fundamental change. It already exists in the ‘hard federation’ model.
  2. Establish a single regulator for academies, at arms-length from the DfE, which (whilst it might require a regional structure) replaces the current Regional Schools Commissioner infrastructure. Again, Sam’s technical proposals for this are very compelling. I’d add to this by reinforcing that the regulator has no role in school improvement, and no role in promoting academisation over any other model. I would also see the regulator as a ‘backstop regulator’, whose role would taper over time, because of my next proposal.
  3. Give all local authorities the new powers that Sam suggests; in addition, as soon as all schools in a local authority are academies transfer the powers of the regulator to the local authority. This was actually suggested in the 2010 white paper. When a locality is fully academised, and there is no local conflict of interest or roles, regulation can happen more effectively, with closer democratic oversight, at a local level (or possible a cross-LA mayoral level) than through any more remote national body. Some MATs will have to deal with more than one regulator, but this feels like a price worth paying for genuine local ownership and accountability, and reduce what Jonathan Slater described as the drift to centralisation that the current academies regime leads to.
  4. Adopt Jonathan Crossley Holland’s idea to establish local partnership boards to take responsibilities for brokering school improvement: ‘Unify the governance of the system by bringing together LA and RSC responsibilities for school improvement into a single locality governance structure. The DfE should support each locality to establish a School Partnership Board (sub-regional or local, depending on the area). ….The locality could be based on AEPs, Combined Authorities, LAs or Opportunity Areas but need to include all schools in the area.’  I am not sure whether such a board could also take on the local regulator role described above, but would love to get the ideas of governance experts on this issue.

Any board should ‘do the knitting’ around brokering and allocating school improvement capacity, rather than deliver any school improvement itself. In some ways, this structure has already been mooted by the DfE in their latest guidance on school improvement grants, which asks local authorities (now devoid of any grant’) to ‘work closely with the relevant RSC, diocese and other local partners to ensure schools receive the support they need to improve.’

4.5  Sam’s paper also reminded me of the brief existence of the Children’s Trust model, which aimed to bring local institutions and services together to support the most vulnerable and marginalised children. Although there were criticisms of excessive bureaucracy and challenges around partnership working, my own view is that these were abandoned prematurely, and could still offer a potential model to transform support for these young people. I also wonder whether these would be more effective now that more schools are in MATs, so that each MAT can represent a number of schools in a locality. There may be scope for a local partnership board to trial this broader role beyond school improvement.


Back to Keanu.  According to the Guardian, Matrix Resurrections showed that the whole franchise has been ‘drained of life’. Regardless of the content of the white paper, perhaps there is an opportunity for those who think our school improvement system can do better to present alternatives. None will be perfect, all are bound to have the baggage of values as well as evidence. But each might make a contribution to ‘managing the DfE upwards’ towards a solution they might not be able to achieve alone.