My school is an outstanding secondary located in London and was one of the first schools to convert to academy status – and we have recently joined a multi-academy trust (MAT). As a governing board, we were quite aware of what is happening nationally; collaboration is top of the agenda now, and there are benefits that come from working with other schools in a group. With the financial situation being the way it is, you can achieve economies of scale by joining together and make savings, such as on back office support. There are the other advantages too, such as teachers being able to visit other schools and get fresh ideas and CPD opportunities.
The initial discussion we had about this as a board was last year, so it has taken us more than a year to come to this point. It's important for governors to sit down and look at all the options, even if you come to the conclusion that the match is not for you in the end. Do your research and then decide.
The chair and vice-chair were asked to research and present papers on the possibility of joining a MAT. The board then discussed the proposal in detail and finally decided that the best option for us would be to look for a MAT.
Vision is vital
It's really important for the governing board to be really clear about its vision for the school when looking for a group to join. Keeping our students and community in mind we ruled out some MATs immediately.
Boards should also think about what they want their school to be like in, say, 10 years' time and whether the MAT they're looking at will help them get to that point. We weren't in a position where we had to join – we're not a failing school – so we were looking for a group that would add value and wouldn't impose upon us; we wanted to continue doing what we were doing.
We looked at the schemes of delegation for different MATs to work out how much intervention we might receive. These will tell you how much the board delegates to the local governing bodies and how much central control there is. Schemes of delegation have to be available by law, so you will be able to find them on the websites of the various MATs.
Schemes of delegation of some MATs retain a great deal of control in the centre. There may be schools which aren't performing as well as they should and don't have the capacity to bring about school improvement. Such schools may benefit from such schemes of delegation. We were the opposite. We're doing really well; we understand our students and we wanted a scheme of delegation that would mostly let us get on as we are.
The next thing we did was visit various schools already within the group we were looking at and have conversations with the staff and senior leadership there. Every school within the MAT we were considering felt different – not like a McDonald's franchise – and we came away with the reassurance that the centre wasn't going to impose its will on us. They were quite happy for us to keep using our uniform, for example, and to keep our name.
We then held consultations with parents, staff and the wider community. The questions they asked were mainly to do with the changes which may happen after joining the MAT. The teachers and senior leadership team discussed it with the students, explaining that their daily experience was not going to change and they were quite happy with that.
Governors need to be aware that governing a single school is very different from being a governor of a school in a MAT; the trust board is the legally accountable body. Some functions may be retained at the centre, such as headteacher appointment and performance management. Governors who were used to carrying out these functions themselves before joining the MAT may not realise or like that these functions do not lie with them anymore.
Governors also need to realise that although schemes of delegation exist, it's within the rights of the trust board to change that scheme if they want to. You need to be aware of what could happen at a later date – joining a MAT is like a marriage without divorce.
Since we made the changeover, most of the day-to-day teaching has carried on in the same way. We have to change our IT systems, however, and that is taking time to get used to. Our servers and financial packages have switched over, so support staff are having to get up to speed with everything
For other schools considering it, my advice would be to be absolutely clear about why you're joining and what you are hoping to get out of it. Do your due diligence and consider whether this group is the best match for you and how it is going to affect the education of your children. If it is going to affect it positively, then do join. But if you think there are going to be negative effects, don't.