26 March 2024

Multi Academy Trusts are ‘anchor institutions’

A lot is talked about multi-academy trusts and their important role in driving ‘localism’. However, localism can mean different things to different people.

Most organisations to do with education have a view on localism. The DfE’s Education White Paper of 2022 believed that strong local partnerships were central to ensuring school improvement. National education associations which promote good governance feel that high-performing local governing bodies form the vital bridge between the trust board and its schools. The Confederation of School Trusts goes further, with the view that MATs are ‘anchor institutions’ with a wider civic responsibility to create strong, stable schools, that work in tandem with other local services to serve local communities not only now but also for generations to come.

Central to the concept of localism is this idea of community engagement. Trusts that embrace localism actively involve parents, teachers, students, and other stakeholders in decision-making processes. By seeking input and feedback from the local community, MATs ensure that their initiatives and policies are relevant and reflective of the aspirations and values of their young people.

Localism also empowers school leaders to respond more closely and creatively to the real needs of their pupils on the ground. Making the most of their local knowledge, MATs can harness the right people from their local communities with the influence and power to make things happen. They can identify and broker relationships with the most relevant destinations that are likely to appeal to the ambitions and aspirations of their pupils in ways that can be realised. They are best placed to broker relationships with the most appropriate social services relevant to the very real needs of their local pupils and families in the area.

And even though most multi-academy trusts might still be small and consist of schools located more or less in the same area, localism is also very relevant to the large, national MATs too. This is where the importance of a trust’s mission or ‘philosophy’ comes in. For MATs with many schools located all over the country, its philosophy, clearly and widely understood by all stakeholders, is very important. It acts as the ‘glue’ that provides a common mission for all schools in the trust. At the same time, the glue should be flexible enough to allow the school to take its own view on how to interpret and implement the mission for its local area, according to the needs of the community.

We spend a lot of time talking to the senior executives of MATs, health care services and universities, as well as visiting schools and speaking to the executive leaders and teachers in charge of delivering teaching and learning. It’s noticeable that something has changed over the past few years when it comes to the relationship schools have with the local community. During the pandemic, pupil, parental and community engagement reached very high levels, partly out of necessity, of course. Whether planned or not, schools became even more of a trusted source of information and support and began to take on a new place and role at the centre of the community. Some schools went even further and began providing services that might usually have been expected to be delivered by local social services.

Subsequently, in our post-pandemic education system, what’s clear is that there is significant variation regarding what schools now feel their role should be. Many schools we’ve talked to recently are continuing with what they see as their ‘civic duty’, continuing to provide services themselves, for example, food banks or parental support classes. Other schools are very unsure of their role in stepping into the shoes usually filled by social services and question whether they have the right skills to do that, let alone the time to do it.

What we might begin to see over this coming period of time is MATs reflecting more widely and deeply on what localism means for them as they develop their forward-looking strategies and create their own definition accordingly. Their plans may also need to consider evolving education policy initiatives. There will be a general election later this year; a new administration is likely to create a whole new set of social initiatives which it is felt are necessary to tackle key barriers to learning. These will only become properly embedded if schools, trusts and the community at large work even more effectively together on their successful implementation.

In such an event, trusts and schools will need to begin to undertake significant reviews of their requirements when it comes to continuing professional development and, importantly, recruitment. They will need to ensure that they have the right mix of skill sets moving forward. With recruitment already a challenge, we have to look at broader public services such as the NHS and universities.

Whichever way you look at it, the role of MATs and their schools will become increasingly important, when it comes to serving their local communities. But one thing’s for sure: the definition of ‘localism’, what it looks like in practice, and how trusts deliver it, will continue to evolve.

Andrew Thraves is Chair of Big Education, a Multi-Academy Trust with schools in East and South London which work very closely with the community, and includes the Old Kent Road Family Zone project. He’s also Chair of Yes Futures, a charity which works with schools to give pupils experience of volunteering in the community and also the world of work with local employers, building their confidence, resilience, mental health and wellbeing.

Andrew and Hayley support the education sector by providing executive search, interim and consultancy solutions to Multi Academy Trusts. Their speciality is understanding the education sector and connecting talent who is passionate about providing high-quality inclusive education.

If you are interested in working with us, you can contact Andrew via LinkedIn or email andrew.thraves@andersonquigley.com or Hayley via LinkedIn or email at hayley.mintern@andersonquigley.com.