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1 Strategic narrative in Multi Academy trusts: Principal drivers for expansion and consideration of the needs of school communities

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Abstract

Multi Academy trusts are now a common feature of the English educational landscape. There were over 20,100 state funded schools in England on 01 November 2017, of these 6100 were academies of which 1668 were stand-alone academies and 4,432 were MATs. They present substantial challenges in terms of leadership and governance. One of areas that most exercises school leaders and boards is the setting of strategic direction for the MAT. This includes elements such as its expansion, responding to differing challenges from differing school settings and not least ensuring that schools remain responsive to the communities in which they are located (Baxter and C 2017). This paper draws on 30 interviews with school leaders and trustees from 6 MATS and 10 interviews with National Leaders of Governance. In so doing it looks to respond to the research questions: a) what are the principal drivers for strategic expansion in MATS? b) How do strategic discourses of school leaders and trustees consider the needs of the school communities within the MAT? The paper begins by contextualising the research in light of national and international drivers of education and the leadership structures and backgrounds of the two MATs in the sample. It then moves to consider why theory on strategy as narrative was chosen in preference to other strategic approaches, and its analysis before moving on to the findings and discussion. The paper concludes that within this sample there are a number of drivers for MAT expansion and that these fall under six principal categories. It also concludes that there are several ways in which school communities figure in the strategic discourse of school leaders and board chairs and that the extent to which they feature, depends upon the particular strategic driver emerging through the narrative. It concludes that the narrative method of conceptualizing strategy is useful in determining some of the powerful feelings behind strategic drivers and suggests that this is an important contribution to knowledge within the governance of collaboration literature. In so doing it provides a contribution to knowledge on the long-term sustainability of MATs and the ways in which they serve the communities in which their schools are located.
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1 Strategic narrative in Multi Academy trusts:
Principal drivers for expansion and
consideration of the needs of school
communities
Dr Jacqueline A Baxter Jacqueline.baxter@open.ac.uk
Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise, The Open University UK
Open University Business School.
Multi Academy trusts are now a common feature of the English educational landscape. There
were over 20,100 state funded schools in England on 01 November 2017, of these 6100 were
academies of which 1668 were stand-alone academies and 4,432 were MATs. They present
substantial challenges in terms of leadership and governance. One of areas that most exercises
school leaders and boards is the setting of strategic direction for the MAT. This includes
elements such as its expansion, responding to differing challenges from differing school settings
and not least ensuring that schools remain responsive to the communities in which they are
located (Baxter and C 2017). This paper draws on 30 interviews with school leaders and trustees
from 6 MATS and 10 interviews with National Leaders of Governance. In so doing it looks to
respond to the research questions: a) what are the principal drivers for strategic expansion in
MATS? b) How do strategic discourses of school leaders and trustees consider the needs of the
school communities within the MAT? The paper begins by contextualising the research in light
of national and international drivers of education and the leadership structures and
backgrounds of the two MATs in the sample. It then moves to consider why theory on strategy
as narrative was chosen in preference to other strategic approaches, and its analysis before
moving on to the findings and discussion. The paper concludes that within this sample there are
a number of drivers for MAT expansion and that these fall under six principal categories. It also
concludes that there are several ways in which school communities figure in the strategic
discourse of school leaders and board chairs and that the extent to which they feature, depends
upon the particular strategic driver emerging through the narrative. It concludes that the
narrative method of conceptualizing strategy is useful in determining some of the powerful
feelings behind strategic drivers and suggests that this is an important contribution to
knowledge within the governance of collaboration literature. In so doing it provides a
contribution to knowledge on the long-term sustainability of MATs and the ways in which they
serve the communities in which their schools are located.
Jacqueline.baxter@open.ac.uk
Abstract
1.1 1. Introduction, rationale and background to the
research
Over the course of the last 10 years education systems and how they are governed in England,
Northern Ireland and Wales have undergone rapid and unprecedented levels of change (Baxter, 2016 )
This is particularly true of England which now possesses a system largely driven by targets,
performance measures and evaluation linked to attainment of government mandated targets (Ozga,
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2011).The target driven culture infuses many countries within the OECD and has been influenced by
quantitative countrywide result comparisons such as the PISA (Programme for International Student
Assessment) report. England has particularly wholeheartedly embraced the discourse of education as
an economic driver, evidenced by the large amount of market based reforms that have been under
taken by governments since 1988 (Ozga, 2009) These reforms increased under the Coalition
Administration who came to power in 2010 and introduced reforms that dramatically increased the
pace and scale of change in education as a public service. These changes have manifested as: the
removal of power of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) (Lawn, 2013), increasing curricular and
financial freedoms for schools in the shape of free schools and academies (Higham & Hopkins, 2007)
and raising the bar in inspection and regulation of schools (Grek, & Segerholm, 2015).
Many schools which were formerly overseen by Local Education Authorities (LEA) have converted to
become semi-autonomous state schools in the form of Academies. Operational drivers, such as the
need to combine in order to cost effectively buy in services once provided by LEAs, combined with
research that implies that schools grouping together contribute positively to student progress,
(Chapman, Collins, Sammons, Armstrong, & Muijs, 2009), have resulted in Academy Chains, Multi
Academy Trusts and other less formal forms of collaboration such as federations. Volunteer governors
once responsible for governing and oversight of a single school are now situated in tiered and
hierarchical multi-level governance structures.
The number of MATs in England has increased from 391 in 2011 to 1,121 in 2016 (HoCEC, 2017).
MATs are formed from academy schools – schools that are free from financial and curricular control
by Education Authorities. They may be small, numbering 3-5 schools or far larger, encompassing over
50 schools. The National Governance Association offers some perspective with regard to MAT size
and shape. This is shown in table 1along with approximate numbers of students.
Descriptor Size of MAT Number of students approx
Small 1-5 1200
Medium 6-15 5000
Large 16-30 12000
Very large 30+ 12000+
Table one: Size of MATs
The government White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere made clear that by 2020 all
schools would become academies in stating:
By the end of 2020, all schools will be academies or in the process of becoming
academies. By the end of 2022, local authorities will no longer maintain schools (page 55).
Although, in response to widespread protest, the government subsequently did a u turn in turning the
plans into legislation, with the Education Secretary telling parliament that although it remained the
government’s ambition that “all schools should benefit from the freedom and autonomy that academy
status brings”, and that ministers did not need wider legislation “to make progress on our ambitious
education agenda”,(Whittaker, 2016); there is little doubt that in practice, they have not deviated from
their vision and the number of schools joining MATs continues to rise. There were over 20,100 state
funded schools in England on 01 November 2017, of these 6100 were academies of which 1668 were
standalone academies and 4,432 were MATs. Compared to 2016 there has been a decrease in the
number of state-funded schools (from 21,500) and an increase in the number of academies that were
both standalone (from 1,618) and those in MATS (from 4,1140) (DfE, 2018).
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1.1.1 Types of MAT in relation to number of schools in England
As the literature on multi-level governance in both the public and not-for-profit sector reveals, (Foss,
Husted, & Michailova, 2010 ;Cornforth, 2012)), providing strategic direction for a number of
organizations, which may also be widely geographically dispersed creates a number of challenges for
those responsible for setting the strategic direction of the organization –the governing boards and
senior leadership teams. Previous research into public sector organizations has revealed two key
challenges for boards governing multi-level organizations: What of information should boards use in
their strategy making, and how to source and communicate this information within and between levels
of governance (Foss et al., 2010).
One of the key sources of information when a school is deciding on its strategy (be it curricular,
financial or capital), is knowledge about the needs of the particular communities served by the
organization. As research indicates, (Goodall & Montgomery, 2014), this is challenging enough when
only a single school is involved, but even more so when multi-academy trusts are spread over a
number of gographical areas and communities, many of which are diverse both culturally and socio
economically. Profound concerns have been raised by the Education Select Committee, as to whether
MATS are actively serving the communities in which they are situated and whether their plans for
expansion consider these communities (Parliament, 2017).
Nested governance arrangements are hierarchical and as Bradshaw and Toubiana, writing on the thirds
sector, argue, they are ‘tension-filled and oscillating, or in need of balancing and crafting as opposed
to managing.(Bradshaw.P. and Toubiana 2014,p.232). Cornforth’s review of non-profit governance
research, published in 2012 revealed a distinct lack of research into multi-level governance structures,
in spite of the fact that they are found, ‘among many non-profits that operate at both national and local
levels.’(Cornforth 2012,p.13). Also pointing out that these organizations also often have ‘some form
of democratic involvement at the local level’ (2012, p.15), and that such organizations spend
considerable time in discussing and modifying their governance in order to enhance their strategic
decision-making processes. Other researchers point out (Widmer and Houchin 1999,p.29), that
federated governance arrangements often experience a tension between the need for greater efficiency
and centralization and the need for ‘representation’ of local interests.’ Ostrower and Stone highlight
the need to examine the ways in which culture and context affect multi-level governance structures,
pointing out that not for profits in the same way as multi-academy trusts, may contain organizations
that are widely geographically dispersed (Ostrower and Stone 2010). This effectively means that
policies may not simply be applied without discretion to all schools in a MAT, but must take account
of the particular culture and context in which schools are placed. However, the challenge for boards
and senior leaders at the apex of the organization for understanding the needs of diverse and dispersed
school communities and considering them in decision making processes, is not insubstantial.
Research from the education sector into MATs is only just emerging and tends to be focused around
school structures and management of collaborations, the area of MAT governance is as yet relatively
unexplored. In addition to this, the paper looks to contribute to the literature on the governance of
collaborative organizations in the public sector.
1.1.1.1 Collaborative governance and governing collaborations
The governance of collaborations in the public sector sits within the broader concept of collaborative
governance, as Vangen and Cornforth outline,
Collaborative governance draws primarily on literature describing new patterns of government and
governing. Organizations are brought together to govern society, contribute to public value,
implement public policy or manage public programmes or assets in a collaboration arrangement.
(Vangen, Hayes, & Cornforth, 2015,p.l1239)
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The emergence of collaborations within the public sector is attributable to social, political and
economic factors that have given rise to a paradoxical interweaving of market principles and
democratic ideals that have characterised governance and governing since the demise of the post war
consensus in the mid 1970s .Today’s education board members function as ‘semi-independent or
parastatal actors which permit government to ‘tackle a wide range of social issues without
involvement in the minutiae of day to day political actions’ ( Flinders, 2008p, 3.). They are also a
result of the shift from hierarchical bureaucratic forms of governing, to networked forms of
governance which have resulted from a shift in power ‘away from traditional government institutions,
upwards to transitional bodies, and downwards to regions and sub-regions (Newman, 2001,p.11).
This paper views MATs as collaborative organizations as defined by Bardoch (Bardach, 1998) who
builds on Moore (Moore, 1995) and (Imperial, 2005), to define collaboration as,
Any joint activity, between two or more organizations, intended to create public value by working
together as well as separately. This interactive process involves autonomous group of rational actors
who use shared rules, norms, or organizational structures to act or make collective decisions
(Imperial, 2005, page.286).
1.1.2 Collaobrative advantage, collaborative inertia
Research into organizational collaborations such as MATs identify two main issues which exist even
when all parties are keen for the collaboration to work well. They describe these as collaborative
advantage and collaborative inertia, ‘capturing a fundamental and practical tension between what is
aimed for in collaboration and the challenges of achieving this in practice.’(Huxham & Vangen,
2013,p.10). In the case of schools, there is little doubt that there are advantages, both pedagogical and
managerial, to be gained by collaboration, but there is also the risk that the collaboration will end in
inertia, causing the failure of the organization and the future of schools within it. There are several
examples of MAT failures which reflect this (see Adams & Barr, 2018). There are undoubted tensions
in the school sector as organizations strive to retain their own identities whilst also attempting to meld
with that of the parent organization (Baxter, 2017). The sheer number of instances in which MATs
have failed to improve schools within their organizations or have experienced financial difficulties
illustrate that these collaborations are no easier in the education sector than they are elsewhere.
(HCEC, 2014-15). Widmer and Houchin writing on the third sector, (Widmer & Houchin, 1999,p.29),
point out that federated governance arrangements often experience a tension between the need for
greater efficiency and centralization and the need for ‘representation’ of local interests.’ The
representation of local interests on MAT boards has recently been undermined by government in their
drive to recruit board members on a skills basis; this has meant that the democratic representative role
of the board member may not necessarily be considered to be a core element within MAT boards
(Baxter & Farrell, 2015).
Both the rate of expansion of MATs and the extent to which they serve communities in which they are
situated have been highlighed as key concerns for the future development of the academies
programme. The Education Committee 2017 report into Multi- Academy Trusts reported that :
‘We were told by parents that MATs are not sufficiently accountable to their local community and
they feel disconnected from decsion making at trustee boardx level. There is too much emphasis on
‘upward accountablity’ and not enough on local engagement (paragraph, 46) (Parliament, 2017).
The same report also questioned the speed at which MATs had expanded too quickly over too large
geographical regions and argued that, ‘Schools that operate within close proximity to one another are
best able to share resources and expertise and subsequently can most successfully take advantage of
being part of a MAT. (para, 54).’
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The DfE propose to introduce a MAT ‘growth check’ in order to evaluate why and how effectively
MAT growth is operating. However at present there are also grave concerns as to how and why MATs
grow, in light of the wide variations in the performance of trusts (ibid, p, 32).
This study looks to examine these areas in investigating a) what are the principal drivers for strategic
expansion in MATS? b) How do strategic discourses of school leaders and trustees consider the needs
of the school communities within the MAT? The paper begins by contextualising the research in light
of national and international drivers of education and the leadership structures and backgrounds of the
two MATs in the sample. It then moves to consider why theory on strategy as narrative was chosen in
preference to other strategic approaches and how it is used to analyse the data before moving on to the
findings and discussion. In so doing the paper looks to make a contribution to knowledge of how
these emerging organizations are looking to serve their communities, whilst also contributing to the
literature on the governance of collaborations more broadly.
Governance arrangements within multi-level organizations are both hierarchical and intra-
organizational and infused with tensions at both organizational and intraorganizational levels
(Bradshaw.P. & Toubiana, 2014). Yet despite the clear difficulties in this area there is a surprising lack
of research into the governance of these complex organizations’ (Cornforth, 2012,p.13).
Previous quantitative research into MATs (Baxter, 2016), using quantitative and qualitative data
revealed particular sources of information that MAT boards seek out in order to perform their strategic
role. It also identified the importance of school communication with communities as a source of
information. Although the work identified different sources of information available to governing
boards in MATs it failed to identify their relative value within the strategic process. Yet as Chew and
Osborne point out, strategic positioning is a key element in successful collaborations in the public
sector (Celine Chew & Osborne, 2009), and, drawing on Chew’s previous work, define it as ‘a
managerial decision-process to develop an organization-level positioning strategy that aims to
effectively differentiate the organization from other service providers.’ (Chew, 2005, p.4 in Chew and
Osborne, 2009, p.92). A key element in understanding how organizations position themselves
strategically is the identification of the drivers behind these strategies (Kale, Singh, & Perlmutter,
2000), trustees as members of boards at the apex of these organizations play a pivotal role in defining
and influencing these drivers.
The paper begins with a note on terminology, it continues by explaining what MATs and an overview
of the governance structures within them. Following on from this it explores the narrative approach
and why it is the focus of this paper. Section three of the paper discusses the findings of the study and
considers them in light of the research questions, the paper concludes with a discussion of findings for
the paper, the contribution it makes to knowledge on collaborative governance and the implications of
further research in this area.
1.1.2.1.1 Terminology – a note.
It has become confusing for people that were originally called school governors to find themselves
being addressed by a plethora of other terms. Whilst this is important from an identity perspective, it
is not the focus of this paper. Therefore all individuals that volunteer their services in a governance or
advisory role are referred to as board members. The paper also refers to trustees- board members (TB)
who sit at the top of the hierarchy of governance in MATs and Academy board members (AB)The
authors acknowledge that apart from trustees at the apex of these organizations, there is a great deal of
variation in the duties and responsibilities of board members as section .1.1.2. points out.
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1.2 2. Multi Academy Trusts: Structure and governance
As table one indicates, MATs can vary in size and geographical spread, but whatever their size and
scope, they possess hierarchical structures of governance that imply substantial challenge, not only for
the overarching board of trustees, but equally in relation to the governing boards that sit under them.
As figure 1 indicates, the board of trustees is supplemented by a number of governing committees
overseeing: finance; standards and Resources. In very large MATs that are geographically dispersed
there are further levels of governance including: Cluster Committees and a Cluster CEO (or head
teacher), these committees are responsible for schools located in geographical proximity to one
another.
When MATS take over new schools, either of their own volition or at the behest of the Regional
Schools Commissioner, they appear to be adopting two structures depending upon whether schools
are seen as weak (in terms of their last inspection by the school standards regulator –Ofsted) or
relatively strong. In the case of weak schools, individual school boards are generally known as
academy boards. In the case of stronger schools, their boards are most likely to have certain powers,
delegated by the board of trustees which will vary in their scope and range depending on the particular
board. These arrangements are set out in a formal scheme of delegation which schools are mandated
by the Department of Education to display on their website.” (Baxter, 2017b,p.4).
Previous project work in this area indicates that boards are looking to make sense of the governance
challenges presented within MATs. Research in the north of England (Baxter, 2016), indicates that
information on school communities is often challenging to obtain given the dispersed nature of some
MATS. It also indicated that information often appears to follow a hierarchical top down approach
rather than feeding up through the organization from the individual schools and their communities. In
addition, it also highlighted a sense of dissatisfaction from boards situated in individual schools, who
voiced the opinion that information was imposed upon them rather than being solicited from them.
This paper builds on that research to investigate how these new structures gain information from the
numerous catchment areas under their jurisdiction and provides the basis for a further funded project
(Leverhulme, 2017) into how this information flows throughout the organization.
Figure 1 adapted from Baxter 2017b.
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1.3 Strategy as narrative practice
Strategy as narrative forms part of a body of literature which focusses on strategy as practice(SAP).
This body of literature emerged in the 1990s with seminal papers such as Barry and Elms (1997). As a
body of research it has gained in popularity due to its capacity to investigate the micro processes of
strategy which up until then had been relatively neglected in favour of approaches which focus on the
effects of strategy. In contrast to these approaches, strategy as practice research draws attention to the
processes and practices that go to make up strategy. The field has also widened to embrace areas such
as power and identity in strategy making and the political and cultural contexts in which strategy takes
place. Importantly, precisely because of its capacity to generate useful practical as well as theoretical
insights It is strongly linked to strategy as learning theory whilst also providing for the iterative
generative aspects of strategy, whilst also acknowledging the tensions around power and identity that
often arise during the act of strategy making. Brown and Thompson (2013) echo Fenton and Langley
(2011) in arguing that narrative approaches support a more systemic view of strategy and strategy
development. They also introduce the idea of power and agency in this area and highlight the need to
listen to the multiple voices in organizations rather than focusing on those at the apex of those
organizations. This is particularly relevant for collaborative organizations in which leadership is
distributed throughout the organization. Narrative approaches have revealed the capacity ‘to see what
is agreed upon by all organizational members, that which is shared only within certain groups, and
that which is fragmented and ambiguous’ (ibid, pg. 1149). This fragmentation is both productive and
tension filled, as individuals and groups work through processes and power struggles to create
strategic narratives that permeate organizational discourses and are either rejected or become accepted
into organizational cultures. The method, is not without its critics, particularly within the field of
critical management studies. For example, Blom and Alvesson (Blom & Alvesson, 2015), criticise the
field of SAP studies more broadly, for its focus on the microprocesses of strategy at the expense of
issues around power and identity. But this study agrees with other authors in the SAP field and the
field of identity work, in arguing that narratives are a powerful source of the articulation of power
struggles and identity work and that these elements are important in the processes and thinking behind
strategic decision making (see for example:Johnson, Balogun, & Beech, 2010).
This is also based on the authors’ previous work into multi academy trusts explored the ways in which
strategy is understood by board members (Baxter, 2017a) and the key challenges for school board
members in terms of how they make sense of strategy in MATS (Baxter, Cornforth, & Stansfield,
20017) (see Baxter, 2016): this work also included analysis in how they approach complexity
indecision-making processes and how this impacts on their roles and identities (Baxter, 2017b).
Barry and Elmes’ definition of strategy is useful in defining the relationship between strategy and
narrative:
“The narrative view of strategy stresses how language is used to construct meaning, it explores the
ways that organizational stakeholders create a discourse of direction (whether about becoming being,
or having been) to understand and influence one another’s actions. Whereas traditional strategy
frameworks virtually ignore the role of language in strategic decision making, a narrative approach
assumes that telling of strategy fundamentally influence strategic choice and action, often in
unconscious ways.” (Barry & Elmes, 1997,p:5).
Drawing from literature, much of it in the field of health and social care, the strengths of the narrative
approach are also highlighted as having the capacity to highlight the moral, intellectual and creative
struggles being played out as individuals go about their sense making activities. (Golant & Sillince,
2007; Slay & Smith, 2011). As strategy as practice researchers have pointed out, research over recent
years has, “mainly focused on the visible part of the iceberg: people, events and explicit tools. The
actual practice in itself, which involves a ‘constant parsing out of the individual the local and the
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societal has not yet been sufficiently investigated (Whittington, 2011,p.185 in Ines de la Ville &
Mounoud, 2015).
In adopting the narrative approach information sourcing is often framed as part of a social process,
culturally acquired “Construed as social skills that have been culturally acquired, hence unconsciously
absorbed and embodied.” (ibid: 249). These social practices link strongly to identity (a key focus
within this project but not covered within this paper), in which: “Social practices are identity –
forming and strategy setting activities. The provide individuals with resources to interpret and
improvise their role; they shape the scope and extent of their exploratory activities and initiatives to
cope with the ongoing flow of organizational development. (Chia & Holt, 2006). Narratives have the
capacity to give an indication of the persuasive force behind certain modes of thinking and certain
practices, an element which has been extensively researched in the work of George Lakoff (1991). As
Bruner points out, there is agency in narrative, whilst it is driven by external discourses- discourse
which have formed diachronically and exert powerful influences on individuals within organizational
setting (Bruner, 1991), narratives are also replete with resistance discourses which may rail against the
prevailing discourse to form alternative norms or ways of approaching practice. These norms created
by narratives also come to represent cultural legitimacy as well as historical and traditional modus
operandi.
I have employed a narrative approach in other research projects in order to obtain a more holistic view
of the ways in which the ways in which, “the apparently independent and disconnected elements of
existence are seen as related parts of a whole” (Polkinghorne, 1988,p:36). In so doing I also draw on
Linde’s coherence system ‘a discursive practice that represents a system of beliefs and relations
between beliefs; it provides the environment in which one statement may or may not be taken as the
cause of another statement” (Linde, 1993,p.163).This paper explores its application in a very
particular element of strategy – sources of information on school communities, in order to identify
what type of information on communities is used in decision making processes of boards, and why.
The school community in this paper is defined as the area from which pupils are drawn. In the case of
MATs – the subject of this paper- it pertains to the often-numerous school communities which make
up the MAT.
2 Methodology
2.1.1 Sample
The research is based on 30 semi structured interviews with Trustees working in 6 MATs. Trustees
only- those at the apex of the organization were chosen rather than interviewing chairs and board
members at individual academies. This is because previous research identifies that trusts are
strategically driven by strategic planning at trust level, this is particularly true in terms of expansion
strategies. (see Baxter, 2016,2017, 2017a, 2017b). The MATS are situated in the North (6) and South
of England. They are not identified due to confidentiality issues. The interviews were carried out
within the period December 2017 June 2018. The interviews and were coded using Nvivo software
and analysed using the framework in figure two. The interviews lasted between 45 minutes to one
hour each (questions are located in appendix 01). The research also draws on 10 interviews with
national leaders of governance (NCL, 2013). National Leaders of Governance (NLGs) are
experienced chairs of governors (COG) who support chairs of governors in other schools. The
initiative began in 2012 and is one element of the government’s plan to give schools a central role in
developing a self-improving and sustainable school-led system. So far there is little evidence to state
what impact these leaders have on governance, although it is clear that some of them are effective in
supporting chairs and governing bodies (Matthias, 2014). The NLGs chosen for this study were
situated locally to the MATs under scrutiny. In virtually all cases, they combine their advisory role
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with one of chair – of a MAT, a school within a MAT or a single academy or maintained school. The
scheme has now been rolled out to FE which for some time has had a professional skills based form of
governance.
This sample to be used to inform a larger funded follow on study into larger collaborative
organizations, for this reason, organizations that fall into the large and very large categories (see
section .1.1.1), are not included in this sample.
Interviews (MATS)
MAT 01-South
Interview with:
-Chair of trustees (1)
-trustee (1) (central board= TB)
MAT 02-South
Interview with:
-Chair of trustees (1)
-Trustees (TB) (4)
MAT 03-North
Interview with: --Chair of trustees (1) (TB)
-Trustees (TB) (4)
MAT 04-North
Interview with:
-Trust Director (TB)
-Chair of Trust (1).
-Trustee (TB) (6)
MAT 05 North
Interview with:
Chair (TB) (1)
MAT 06 North
Interview with: Chair of Trustees (TB) (1)
-Trustee (TB) (5)
-Trustee (TB) and board chair (AB) (1)
-Trustee (parent TB) (3)
10 Interviews with National Leaders of Governance
2.2 Data Analysis
Data analysis considered key themes emerging from both documentary analysis and interview data.
Having successfully adopted the narrative approach in other research which investigates strategic
discourse in MATs (Baxter 2016a, Baxter 2017) and sense making on governing boards (Baxter
forthcoming 2016a, Baxter 2017, Baxter 2016b). It has proved useful in drawing together ‘the
apparently independent and disconnected elements of existence into related parts of a whole’
(Polkinghorne, 1988,p:36). In so doing I also draw on Linde’s coherence system of narrative
(mentioned earlier), as ‘a discursive practice that represents a system of beliefs and relations between
beliefs,’ (Linde, 1993,p.163). Using this approach in complex governance arrangements, allowed for
the building up of a picture of the challenges inherent within the subject under scrutiny, whilst also
revealing the ways in which boards are attempting to meet them. Contrary to some views of narrative,
in which stories of phenomena have a beginning, middle and end, (for example, Roe 1994), this paper
assumes the unfinished nature of narrative as an ongoing process which forms and shapes policy and
practice. As there were two very specific but interlinked strands of inquiry within the research the
data was coded according to the principals, ideals, values and objectives of the respondents. This
permitted for insights into the research questions that not only illuminated the aims of the
respondents, but also the values and ideals behind their strategic goal. Studying the narratives of the
participants in this way also allowed for insights into elements that, ‘recurrently, routinely and
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persistently animate the actors.’ (Cooren, Bencherki, Chaput, & Vásquez, 2015,p.368). This method
has been used in explorations of strategy as communication when exploring the extent to which actors
defend certain strategic positions, account for or disalign from an action (page, 369). This method of
analysis also, as part of the narrative approach, makes use of anecdotes and metaphors to explore the
values and ideals behind strategic goals. As such it offers insight into the drive behind adherence to a
certain course of action. In addition to the empirical data, schemes of delegation and strategic plans
were also scrutinized. These were analysed according to their aims and ideals. The webpages of the
MATs were included in the documentary analysis, again these were scrutinized for their strategic
goals, missions, values and stated aims.
3 Findings and discussion
The findings of the research are discussed under two broad headings based on the research questions
a) what are the principal drivers for strategic expansion in MATS?
b) How do strategic discourses of school leaders and trustees consider the needs of the school
communities within the MAT?
The research revealed that there are a number of strategic drivers for expansion of MATs these
appeared in several broad categories
1. Opportunities – the taking advantage of opportunities that the present legislation now allows
for – for example, creating a consortium of special schools that cross local authority
boundaries (and were traditionally constrained by them).
2. Values: in some cases, these were stated on websites and in strategic plans, but appeared
throughout some of the narratives of individual interviewees.
3. Pressures- these appeared solely within the narratives and assumed a number of guises.
Pressures were classifiable as internal to the organization or external to the organization.
4. Feelings. This category was created to include rationale that fell into none of the above
categories. They were articulated throughout the interview data and appeared to be based on
either individual feelings or on vague unformulated reported discourses occurring at either
trustee board level or academy board level.
5. Risks – these could also be seen as pressures but are placed in a separate category due to
their predominantly external features.
6. Resources – the opportunities that partnership offers to obtain resources not available as a
single school.
This section considers the question How do strategic discourses of school leaders and trustees
consider the needs of the school communities within the MAT? Within individual sections based
around the particular drivers emanating from the study.
11
Figure 2 Drivers for MAT expansion
3.1.1 Opportunities (1) Values (2) and Resources (6).
There was a clear focus from some MATs on opportunity (1). This manifested as new opportunities
that had opened up due to the policy climate. For example, one respondent described how their MAT
was keen to capitalize on the legislation that permits MATs to put in proposals for free schools.
Instead of doing this alone, they were proposing a joint bid, along with another MAT so that the new
school could capitalize on two forms of specialized knowledge- one focusing on autism and the other
focusing on ADHD. Another looked to expand its portfolio of continuing care by providing for
children whose needs were acute in terms of the intensive teaching of life skills:
We’ve got a caretaker’s house, he’s long gone so we’ve had it refitted for free by a sponsor , and we
now use it for sleepovers. Where children from the trust can go and sleep over, and learn life skills.
However, this was combined with a sense of moral obligation – values as another board member from
the same trust reported:
So, we have a moral obligation to get it right and make sure they’ve got the right bits of paper or the
right life skills to enjoy the rest of their life. ` (Chair TB)
In a country in which the notion of lifelong learning has all but disappeared, (Tuckett, 2018) where
adult education is largely related to basic skills and where provision for special needs education is
increasingly limited, this form of innovation is to be welcomed (Busby, 2018). But on the other hand,
collaboration between MATs was noted to be rare, as one local leader of governance explained:
They’re not looking to do joint things with other MATs they just have a silo approach. (National
leader Of Governance).
12
The challenge for us is to prove that our system works ……it is very, very competitive, people are out
there for themselves, I don’t think there is much sharing among trusts (MAT CEO).
Since the Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced local management of schools (LMS) the English
education environment has become increasingly competitive (education is devolved in the rest of the
UK). Successive governments have embraced marketized ideals far more readily than in other OECD
countries. But lack of collaboration between MATs will be a problem in the longer term, not only in
terms of accountability – the capacity to hold these sizable organizations to account is already poor
(Baxter, 2018a)- but also in terms of system learning. This is discussed more fully in section 4 of this
paper.
The lack of collaboration between MATs may just be a symptom of the relatively early stages of their
evolution. Literature on collaborations within the third sector points out that collaborations in
themselves are difficult enough and that inter- collaborative) network s between collaborative
organizations are a step beyond what we are seeing at present (Gerwirtz, Ball, & Bowe, 1995).
However, there are signs in this study, that the early stages of collaborations between MATS, who
share aspirations with other MATS, such as the widespread provision of special schools, may well
have the potential to make up for a dearth of such organizations in certain areas. They may also, in the
longer term, reverse the trend for pupils to have to travel miles to attend a school which caters for
their particular needs (Bloom.A., 2018). One MAT was looking not only to develop their focus on
special schools, but equally to take on mainstream schools so that pupils that become able to
participate in mainstream education, may do so in a relatively seamless transition. These types of
aspirational innovations are well worth monitoring, as their models could well provide useful
blueprints for other MATs and, provided they are successful, provide a much-needed element within
the education system.
There was considerable evidence that the possibilities afforded by legislation (the 2010 Academies
Act) and the government drive to link all schools to MATS, were only just starting to be realised.
Schools who previously had a very defined mission – for example those with a religious character,
were realising possibilities that hitherto had not existed for them. As these schools already had
experience of federated structures (grouping together without trust status), their thinking in terms of
governance and expansion appeared, in contrast to MATS without a particular ethos, to be more
advanced. This is unpacked in the next section.
In terms of serving and connecting to school communities, there was a very strong focus on this
within the narratives of those who based expansion plans on opportunity and resources. This MAT
trustee describes how this would work for their school communities:
In terms of communities: we believe really, for practical purposes if we can get children from age two
and keep them in a MAT school then it is within our destiny to give them the best possible education.
Because we all know that lots of kids are arriving pre-school and they are so far back in terms of
development, that to get them where you would expect them to be is a hell of a push. (MAT Chair of
Trustees)
There was also a strong sense of the need to cover areas of provision that were being substantially
undermined by government cuts to funding and also a lack of coherence within the system. This came
through in the will to provide ‘all through education’ from pre-school to 18, and in the case of one
MAT the will to go further than this, linking to technical and vocational education post 18. The
overriding concern being, to be able to control and monitor learner progress in a cohesive type of way.
It’s our aspiration, in due course, when it comes to provision of vocational training, wouldn’t that be
nice to have in the stable, so you feel as if you have some ownership and some control, [….] so there
is something for everyone in this community. (MAT CEO)
13
The resources available for the follow through of such aspirations were vital to MAT expansion
projects as this board member points out: ‘we have one [school] that’s probably going to join us in the
future and we think that will be a learning opportunity for the rest of the schools.’ (MAT Chair of
Trustees). Literature in the area of resource acquisition and knowledge in collaborative organizations
differentiates between knowledge transfer, and the knowledge creation effects of acquisition (Hardy,
Phillips, & Lawrence, 2003). Defining the first as a strategic effect-a process that happens as a result
of collaboration, whilst knowledge creation is seen far more as a strategic driver. Powell et al argue
that the greater the diversity of the organizations within the collaboration, the more likely it will be in
generating new knowledge (Powell, 2003, in Hardy et al, 2003). The boards in this study that were
actively taking opportunity to expand to acquire new resources, appeared also to be looking to create
new knowledge, knowledge that could then be used by the sector to prompt improvements in other
MATs. But there was also evidence that in the process of acquiring new knowledge, knowledge would
be created that would give particular MATs a competitive advantage, and that sharing information
may only be on certain terms, such as on condition that a certain MAT was officially recognized as a
lead MAT. Although it was not certain whether that would be in official or unofficial terms. As yet
there is no legislation that points to how the Department for Education will deal with collaboration
between MATS, there is certainly an aspiration by the Education Select Committee that this will
happen organically, and that system leaders will emerge out of the process (DfE, 2018; Parliament,
2017). However there is a policy made tension within the system, that on one hand encourages
collaboration, and on the other, promotes competition. If learning is to occur within the system then
there needs to be an investigation on the effects of competition between MATs.
2.Values.
Values and mission appeared to be very strong in terms of drivers to expand. This was particularly
evident in MATs which have a religious character and previously formed part of religious federations
of schools. In these cases board members appeared to be very focused in terms of what they wish to
achieve by expansion and this formed a key element in their strategic development planning.
People know us, they know our ethos so schools approach us- if they like what we stand for then they
know what they are signing up for. (CT, religious MAT).
The values associated with special schools, are, as the previous section reported, strong and their
mission very clear. They are also fulfilling a very important role in an area that has become greatly
underfunded and undermined over the past 10 years. For this reason, their expansion in two cases, was
being hastened by the intervention of the Regional Schools Commissioner, anxious to broker schools
in the area that were without sponsors.
We were approach as to whether we would be able to sponsor another school because people had been
looking at us, seeing the rigor that we put into it, and the systems, processes, protocols and
procedures, And. I suppose you feel flattered by that, but thought, oh my goodness, we’ve got to start
expanding now. We have a five-year plan, we’ll just bring that forward. (CT, special schools MAT).
This pressure being brought to bear by RSCs is concerning. In cases where MATs have grown too
quickly there have been numerous problems, even in cases in which their growth was encouraged by
policy makers. As section 1 reported, the DfE is introducing a MAT growth check to evaluate the
growth of MATs. But the same report (section 21) points out that,
We believe that the department’s recent ‘good practice guidance and expectations for growth’
document does not provide a solid enough evidence base on the characteristics of successful trusts.
The Government should commission and publish independent, robust research on what the highest
performing MATS are doing. (para 112) (Parliament, 2017).
14
In MATs whose expansion appeared to be value driven, these values were clearly stated on their
websites, in their strategic plans and even within their schemes of delegation. For example, one MAT
described themselves as family focused as part of their general value set. This focus appeared through
their scheme of delegation, which has a firm focus on communication with families and the
community more broadly and is reflected in their governance, as well as within their strategic plan,
which envisaged their growth in terms of the ways in which it could best serve the communities in
which schools (or prospective schools) are situated. This came through very strongly in a MAT in
which the community focused ethos permeated both their strategic documentation, website and the
narratives of board members. Terms such as ‘family’ and ‘cross fertilisation’ along with ‘our
communities’ rather than ‘our schools’, demonstrated a firm focus on what communities needed. This
MAT also had strong links with community organizations, sending board members and staff to attend
community meetings to see how the school could integrate and serve particularly challenging and
deprived communities. As this board member reflected, ‘trustees are our eyes and ears.’ The same
organization also had very firm ideas about the autonomy of schools within it,
The boards, they are just like they were when under the LEA, the only major thing we control is if a
local head resigns, then we make the– the central decision, the trustees board (MAT CEO).
This particular MAT combines the relative autonomy of academy boards, with the need for all heads
to be sympathetic to the values of the organization, in this way they ensure that local strategy is driven
by these values, as this individual emphasised, ‘It’s absolutely crucial that the appointments made on
head teachers as sympathetic to sponsor values, a willingness to engage with the organizational
mission.’ (MAT CEO).
According to the National Leaders of Governance, MATs with a strong and firm value system which
permeated their strategic decision making, were far more organised in terms of the ways in which
their governance was structured, as this NLG reported, ‘it’s clear where they are going and why they
are going there, they’ve thought about it, that’s clear too.’ (NLG). They also had a far firmer focus on
the school communities within their organization as this CEO reflected:
Some of our areas are quite tough and we’ve got a great primary head, and her view is, I want to get
them as young as I can, because the more influence good teachers can exert, the better their prospects
will be (MAT CEO).
In cases where MATS were dealing with challenging schools, practice was divided: Interviewees from
2 MATS had a very firm focus on schools in the areas, but made little mention of community.
However, in the case of one MAT, the CEO and Chair of Trustees had made the decision to go to
community organization meetings to see how the MAT could best serve particular ethnic and religious
communities. In so doing they were actively creating new knowledge on the needs of the community
relative to the school, whilst concomitantly sharing insights from within the MAT. Although this
approach only appeared in a single MAT within this study, it is clearly an area for future research, not
only in the context of knowledge creation but also in the political elements of successful collaborative
governance and the ways in which knowledge is created in the relationship between boards and school
communities within this new system.
3.1.2 Pressures (3) and Risks (5)
The pressure to expand is clearly highly influenced by the policy context. Regional Schools
Commissioners (RSCs) are under intense pressure to re broker failing schools and in some cases the
pressures are too great for MATs to resist. As I detail in a recent paper (Baxter, 2018a), the system of
accountability for English education was not thought about at the time that the expansion of MATs
was proposed by government. This has led to a system of multiple accountabilities in the system, yet
also to a lack of joined up thinking. (Baxter, 2018b). There were two kinds of pressure identified
within this study, these were closely associated with risk are illustrated in figure 2. The first kind of
15
pressure /risk is external (to the MAT), the second, type pertains to pressures and risks that are
focused internally, within the MAT. The accountability regime is undoubtedly the cause of substantial
pressures on the MAT; these include tension between on one hand the pressure to grow and on the
other, the considerable pressures to perform. The pressure to grow emanates not solely from RSCs but
from the environment in which schools are placed. They are held to account by: Ofsted (the schools
inspectorate), RSCs and the Education Funding Agency. They are also operating in a highly
competitive marketplace in which failing schools – or failing MATs are quickly shut down and their
schools re-brokered (via the Department for Education). There is considerable pressure on
government that, having pushed for academisation and multi- academy trusts, that this policy will
succeed and that MATs will not only demonstrate their collaborative advantage through enhanced
learning outcomes for learners, but also prove that collaboration works, in terms of reduced
transaction costs – whether they are economic or manifest as a better way to share knowledge and
resources. This effectively means that if schools are failing, these MATs will be shut down. Such
cases have been seen to have catastrophic effects on learners and their parents, as finding new
sponsors for failing schools is proving extremely difficult for the DfE. This in turn manifests as
another pressure on MATs: the pressure for good MATs to take on failing schools and make a success
of them. This, as section 3.1.1 demonstrated, is pushing MATs to expand before they are ready.
Successful MATs also face pressures that are in part internal and in part external, in terms of the
pressure to maintain their good reputations. As one strategic plan states:
[by year 5] The trust and its partners [will be] providing sector-leading services and support for other
schools and settings in the wider region. (MAT 01 strategic plan page 12).
The same plan also visions the MAT as, ‘seen as a National leader in helping to shape the MAT
landscape (MAT 01, p.11)
However, as the previous section reported, this is not unproblematic, as the marketized environment is
not on the whole, conducive to collaboration as this MAT CEO reports,
So our trust doesn’t share a great deal. It would do if it was up to us. But other trusts are not saying,
oh well, this is our approach, what are you doing? There’s very, very little of that. So, cooperation
between trusts is negligible. (MAT CEO).
16
Figure 3 Pressures on MAT Boards
Internal pressures manifest as both risks for the organization and for the learner. Trusts face the
complexity and ‘wicked problems’ faced by most schools, but on a larger scale. They must provide for
learners in both deprived areas and those in more economically buoyant situations. The challenges for
the governance and operationalisation of effectively doing both, are considerable. One MAT Chair of
Trustees described the process of taking on poor schools in poor areas as ‘brutal’, ‘We had to lose the
head and the deputy stepped down [….] and it feels very brutal.’ Another CEO described how
financially impoverished some schools actually are, at the point when they join the MAT, stating that
if those schools fail to meet their 5% reserves by the end of a three-year period, ‘we then ask them
how high are your staffing costs?’ (MAT CEO). The risk of taking on such schools is both financial
and pedagogic, and there is a real risk that the leadership will fail to buy into the MAT’s ethos, as this
trustee describes,
There is always suspicion, it is how you pitch the sale as it were [….] then how that develops from
there. (MAT Chair of Trustees).
Each had been an individual academy […] it was like herding cats at times (MAT CEO).
In terms of knowledge on school communities, it was not clear to what extent MATs primarily driven
by these forms of accountability considered the school communities within this, apart from a rather
nebulous aim to ‘raise standards.’ Which of course in the longer term is assumed to exert a positive
effect on communities. However, there was a concerning lack of evidence in this study, that MAT
boards that were primarily driven to expand purely because of accountability /competitivity drivers,
paid much attention to the communities they were taking on as well as the schools. This in the longer
term could prove detrimental to both cohesion within the trust and lack of a cohesive governance
structure, as layers within the trust governance cease to trust one another and end up working towards
different goals (Huxham & Vangen, 2013; Lessard, 2006).
17
3.1.3 Feelings. (4)
The final category within the drive to expand findings, is linked to the areas covered already but it
emerged as a separate category due to the strength of feeling attached to certain elements within the
narratives. This is what Cooren et al (Cooren et al., 2015), term ‘[matters] of concern’: the things that
appear to ‘count, matter or make a difference.’ (p, 368) to the narrator. In terms of this study they were
aspects that appeared foremost in the interlocutors’ minds throughout their narrative.
The word ‘predatory’ and ‘opportunistic’ occurred frequently to describe other MATs within the
environment, this was particularly prevalent among trust board members, particularly chairs of
trustees who tended on the whole to be more outward facing than the rest of the trustees, as these
board members described:
Frankly there are some very predatory MATS out there (Trustee Board Member MAT04)
They are entirely business like and entirely predatory (Trustee Board Member MAT 02)
We are not predatory (Chair of Trustees MAT 04).
The emphasis on the market, the need to be competitive extended even to those MATs whose values
were at the very forefront of their expansion projects. A strong sense of ‘grow or be swallowed up’
permeated a number of the narratives and came across as a key area of concern. It was particularly
notable in those MATs that had only been established in the last 2 years and that had felt extreme
pressure to both become a MAT and to grow rapidly once established. Figure 4 illustrates the relative
prevalence of words such as ‘predator, predatory, competition and failing.’. Compare this to Figure 5,
the word cloud of MATs whose narratives were value, opportunity and driven.
In describing this category as ‘feelings’ the study was able to discern some of the powerful discourses
that are affecting trustee/CEO decision making in terms of strategic drivers. Whilst these discourses
are unlikely to appear in mission statements or strategic plans, they are potentially powerful in
considering the political elements of strategizing. Given the relative powers of individuals within
these organizations, this would provide a fruitful area for future consideration.
Figure 4 Wordcloud of concerns in accountability driven MATS
18
Figure 5 Word frequency of value driven MAT narratives
It is clear that these categories are not entirely overlapping, for example there was evidence in the
study of MATs that appeared to be accountability/risk driven were also in part driven by opportunity
and resource goals. There were also clear indications that those driven by values/resources and
opportunities were also aware of accountability drivers. But the narrative approach to the study
permitted primary drivers and concerns to be identified, with its focus on insights into elements that,
‘recurrently, routinely and persistently animate the actors.’ (Cooren et al., 2015,p.368).
4 Implications for future research
The study set out to explore two key questions a) what are the principal drivers for strategic
expansion in MATS? b) How do strategic discourses of school leaders and trustees consider the
needs of the school communities within the MAT? Drawing from the field of strategy as practice it
employed a narrative approach in order to probe beyond official strategic positions of MATs as
articulated on their websites and strategic plans, in order to find out what the distinctive principal
drivers behind MAT expansion are and how communities are considered within this. The research has
made a contribution to knowledge in terms of the strategic governance of collaborations of public
service organizations, a field that is underdeveloped and distinct from the literature on collaborative
governance, in using strategy as narrative approach to uncover the relative strengths of the strategic
narratives within six MATS. In so doing it has identified that boards in this study tend to focus on
community to a greater extent if their narratives appeared to be driven by opportunity, values and
resources than those whose narratives appeared driven by accountability /risk concerns. This is an
important insight in view of the Department for Education focus on MAT growth.
Although limited in scope, due to the size and geographical spread of the MATs under consideration,
the research has produced a number of insights that will be useful as a starting-point in exploring
larger and more diverse MATs: The narratives revealed six key drivers of strategic expansion:
Opportunities; Values; Pressures; feelings; resources and risks. In so doing it confirmed findings in the
literature that have been identified in the voluntary and public sector, in terms of rational for
collaboration, whilst also adding a new driver, the feelings of trustees. This was revealed by using
some insights from the work of Cooren et al whose particular work examines strategy as practice from
a communicative perspective. As section 3.1.3. reports, the focus on examination of what ‘routinely
recurrently and persistently animate[s] actors’ (368), reveals some of the powerful discourses at play
during the strategy making process. It also points to the importance of further research in terms of the
relative power of certain boards members to influence strategic drive and the importance of including
other levels of governance within this research – for example academy level board members.
19
The research also returned an important message in relation to research into the governance of
collaborations. Supporting a strategy as practice approach and highlighting the need to investigate
strategic drivers in knowledge creation in collaborations. Finally, it raised questions on the future
development of the system in highlighting the tensions between collaboration and competition-
introduced by the policy and accountability landscape. This will be an important starting point for
system wide work on accountability, in the future.
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