Harnessing the power of university-sponsored Multi Academy Trust partnerships

This blog was written by: Professor Debra Humphris, Chair of University Alliance and Vice-Chancellor, University of Brighton; Dr John Smith, Chief Executive of Brighton Academies Trust; Ian Dunn, Provost, Coventry University; and Uly Lyons, Chief Executive of the Better Futures Multi Academy Trust. 

This article first appeared in HEPI. 

In a speech to the school sector in April 2021, Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, communicated his vision for every state funded primary and secondary school to be part of a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT). Typically comprising of multiple schools working in partnership with each other across a locality, some MATs can have up to 30 or 40 partners, while others have as few as half a dozen. It is estimated that 72 per cent of schools are now academies, and 87 per cent of academies are already in MATs.

What is less known is the role of universities within these partnerships, but with the Minister’s announcement signalling an important political narrative shift in school reform, universities will be a valuable partner in realising that vision.

With support ranging from formal governance oversight to capacity building and the sharing of expertise and equipment, universities are in a unique position to offer sponsorship and cost savings to support school improvement and growth within the MAT agenda.

Through the provision of placements for teacher training students and the delivery of subsidised continual professional development for staff, university-MAT partnerships ensure a clear professional development pathway that drives school and workforce improvement.

University-sponsored MATs are also an effective means for realising a shared educational ambition for the MAT-served regions and the unique challenges they and their communities face.

Education partners can develop a connected curriculum, with subject viability met through the support of the university, and a seamless skills system that delivers locally responsive learning pathways between primary, secondary, further and higher education that meet the needs of individuals, communities and industry.

The relationship between the schools and universities within a MAT could provide a social infrastructure that helps level-up aspiration and opportunity for learners in a region. The multiple destinations available across the educational providers in a MAT means that learners of all ages – not just students but parents and even grandparents – would have a clear pathway of progression from primary school to PhD. Already, students are supported through university-led outreach and mentoring opportunities, and universities have helped schools rethink how they look at the transitions of their students and address lost learning and catch up during the pandemic.

Within the University Alliance, a number of our members already have established partnerships with MATs across the country. The MAT partnerships delivered by the University of Brighton and Coventry University represent different models of national and local MAT sponsorship and delivery, demonstrating the full range of support on offer across the sector.

In Brighton, the community of practice has delivered strategic support and, through the sharing of services and expertise, helped the partners within the MAT overcome practical problems on school improvement, wellbeing, safeguarding, staff recruitment, professional development and raising aspirations.

The aim of Coventry University’s sponsored MAT, meanwhile, is to bring together a community of sixth-form teachers and to enable smaller and less popular subjects to be delivered across schools using technology to bring sixth-form colleges together.

Although many university-sponsored MATs are located in the region where the university is rooted, Coventry University sponsors MATs across the country, including in Nuneaton, Leicester and Nottingham, thus enacting a civic role through an educational ethos that spans multiple localities.

University-sponsored MATs are a resourceful, innovative and effective means for delivering the rapid and sustainable growth of MATs needed to meet the Government’s ambitions. Realising the potential of these partnerships, however, requires a re-examination of the governance, policy, and practice of delivering MATs.

This was the subject of a recent roundtable which brought together representatives from MATs and universities within and beyond the University Alliance.

Our collective proposals include:

  1. Recognise the role of university/school partnerships to drive change within the MAT agenda and leverage their experience within policy making.  

Universities can be central to supporting school improvement and to facilitating the academy conversions needed to grow the MAT agenda. However, they are currently absent within the policies and policymaking processes. Undervaluing and underutilising the real and existing expertise and experience is a lost opportunity for the Government and its school programme. Regional School Commissioners should engage with the university / school partnerships in developing the academisation agenda and the university MAT sector should have a seat at the table for future decisions on MAT policy.

2. Legally enable the sharing of services across education groups 

The university-sponsored partnerships within the MATs helps drive cash savings and the redirecting of funding into learner provision through the sharing of services and investment of resources from the universities.

However, this mutual benefit is not formally recognised, meaning much of the support offered by universities remains arm’s length and its full potential not harnessed. University-sponsored MATs must be legally recognised within governance arrangements, formally enabling the sharing of services.

3. Leverage the university MAT sector to deliver tutoring and mentoring 

Many universities were established as teacher training institutions and can draw on this strong heritage and expertise to address teachers’ professional development needs and support school catch up. Universities already provide free mentor training for Initial Teacher Training mentors, and the Government should develop a common mentoring standard that universities can train and accredit more teachers as mentors to support the professional development agenda and ease workload.

The Government should also draw on the existing expertise and fund a programme across the university MAT sector to deliver tutoring and mentoring to help close gaps in lost learning and support the tutoring catch-up programme.

At a time when there is much soul searching on the purpose of higher education, here is a prime example of the critical role universities play as anchor institutions, educating and training the workforce of today, while setting down the pathways and opening doors of opportunity for future generations. As the Government looks to level-up through reformation of the school system, they would do well to build on the partnerships established between schools and universities within the MATs and utilise their expertise and experience to support the academisation agenda.

Further reading