Growing Multi-Academy Trusts and their 5 key challenges

25 January 2021

Since 2011, many schools have converted to ‘academy’ status to achieve greater autonomy and control over their activities and finances. In recent years increasing numbers of schools have formed or have joined multi-academy trusts (MATs), with around 44% of state funded schools in England now part of an academy and around 85% of those in a MAT. In terms of actual numbers, over the past 5 years, academy schools have increased from around 5,300 in 2015/16 to just over 9,000 in 2019/20.

The trend towards academy conversion is clear and the vast majority of recent conversions have been for a school leaving local authority control to join an existing MAT rather than to set up as a standalone academy. This trend’s expected to continue and means that for MATs, there’s the potential for continued growth, which brings many opportunities but also significant challenges.

Are mats all the same size?

MATs vary in size from, by definition, a minimum of 2 schools, up to large chains with 50+ schools. There are also a number of single academy trusts that have achieved permission to form a MAT but haven’t yet taken the steps to transfer in other schools’ activities.

The majority of MATs (83%) contain, or run, up to 20 schools and recent surveys have shown that around half of all MATs are planning on increasing the number of schools in their MAT in the coming years.

There’s been much debate around the ‘optimal’ size. Comments from the previous National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, indicated a minimum number of 1200 pupils in a MAT (income of £5m-£6m), the equivalent of a secondary school and perhaps two primaries – or 5-6 primary schools. Others have argued that in order to obtain true economies of scale, a MAT should contain 30+ schools, however this has been challenged as a return to a Local Authority style approach that many of the schools looked to move away from.

Clearly there’s a middle ground here; a sufficient number of schools in the MAT to achieve economies of scale but the local detail and characteristics of individual schools is retained and the Board of trustees have sufficient knowledge and connection with individual schools in the MAT. Each trust will have their own views based on the particular circumstances, however 10-20 schools is likely to strike the right balance.

So the trend’s clear and the benefits of collaboration, economies of scale, leadership and capital funding are there but MAT leaders need to get it right otherwise there will be problems – increased size alone won’t solve underlying issues, the challenges will just get bigger.

The key challenges faced by growing MATs

  1. Governance structures – variability in this and some work better than others; consideration of the experience and skills of trustees; functions of audit committees; local governing bodies/academy committees.
  2. Financial systems – strong consistent procedures and commonality’s key; financial and management information, is it timely, relevant and with the right amount of detail?
  3. Skillset of senior leaders – The role of CEOs, experience of running organisations of this size and training needs.
  4. Organisational structure – Use of centralised ‘functional’ team covering HR, Administration, property/estate management, IT infrastructure and support and procurement.
  5. The MAT ‘brand’ vs local school identity.

There are significant benefits to be achieved in converting to a MAT and growing, however the challenges are considerable. By reviewing the key areas and putting in place a plan to address each of these a MAT will not only move towards being a more compliant and smoothly run organisation, but it will also make it more attractive for prospective schools to join.


If you’d like to discuss any of the points above, or would like advice on how to tackle the challenges faced during the growth phase of your MAT, then get in touch with our team, email us or call 0116 490 4274.