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Last reviewed on 5 July 2018
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Here's how to create the environment in your MAT for driving school improvement. You'll learn what you need to determine as a central team, and how to involve each school in creating the improvement framework by sharing good practice and successful interventions.

The 3 elements of a MAT improvement framework

Here we propose how to build a school improvement framework that takes into account:

  • ‘Top-down’ improvement, i.e built and dictated by the MAT
  • ‘Bottom-up’ improvement, where the learnings of each academy feed into the improvement model
  • ‘Peer-to-peer’ improvement, to account for where academies can share resources and knowledge

We look at each of these elements below.

Top-down improvement: what you should determine at MAT level

Create an education vision

Your framework should centre around a shared vision of what makes a great education.

For example, a MAT may choose to prioritise:

  • Pupil mastery of core skills
  • A knowledge-rich curriculum
  • Social mobility and routes to higher education and high quality vocational learning
  • Creativity
  • Developing character, wellbeing and resilience

These aims are not mutually exclusive, but the whole MAT should aim for an agreed vision that balances these different elements. This balance will depend on what you decide is right for your pupils and communities.

Have consistent age-related expectations

You should use these aims to form common age-related expectations across your schools. This gives leaders and teachers a shared understanding of what constitutes a year’s worth of progress for different age groups.

Having common age-related expectations provides the platform for developing common areas of the curriculum. This in turn lets you share resources for schemes of work, assessment, data collection and accountability.

Decide where to standardise, align and give autonomy

Developing a common vision, language and infrastructure for working together on improving learning doesn’t mean you should centrally dictate all of the rules of the game.

Aligning practice, by schools working together to co-construct aims, policies and ways of working will be the most effective way for MATs to create a strong platform for school improvement.

As a result of an alignment process you can then decide where to standardise certain practices across the trust.

The table below illustrates the areas where MATs might take one of these approaches, i.e:

  • Standardise practice across the trust, as set by the trust
  • Let individual academies determine their own practice
  • Work together to align their practice

However, the table is only a guide. Don’t try to apply an off-the-shelf approach to your own context. Instead, executive and school leaders within a MAT should discuss and agree which issues fit in which column.

Areas where you might standardise practice Areas where you might align your practice Areas where academies might have autonomy to develop their own practice

The format of individual school improvement plans

Setting targets and key performance indicators

Systems and timetables for collecting and presenting assessment data

Arrangements for quality assurance of teaching and leadership

Using common exam boards

Performance appraisal systems for staff

Key elements of behaviour management

Safeguarding procedures

Reports to parents

Recruiting senior leaders

Agreeing age-related expectations

Common models for lesson planning

Agreeing a Key Stage (KS) 3 curriculum

Developing core approaches to teaching phonics, maths or other subjects

Moderating judgements on progress

Arranging observations of classroom practice

Models for staff coaching and development

Strategies for addressing the needs of groups of pupils with common challenges

Implementing the school improvement plan

Adapting curriculum and behaviour management to meet the school context

Arranging the improvement support needed from across the MAT

Identifying particular pupil groups with particular needs and designing interventions

Monitoring the day-to-day quality of teaching

Developing staff and holding them to account

Initiating interventions to meet the individual school’s needs and challenges

Bottom-up improvement: encouraging your schools to innovate

Allow innovation outside of standardised elements

Every school has its own distinct culture, identity and challenges. Standardising certain elements saves time and stops schools from 'reinventing the wheel' when it isn't necessary.

For example, no two academy development plans will have the exact same priorities. However, the emphasis when working on a development plan should be on implementing what is known to be effective curriculum and classroom practice. This means elements such as format and design can be standardised. But when implementing the plans, if all schools follow the same prescription on everything then you won't learn from difference and innovation in their implementation. 

You should create the right top-down school improvement framework, as described above. But you should also encourage difference to harness ideas and energy ‘up’ from your individual schools - or from learning from other schools outside the trust.

Empower your schools to test new interventions on specific curriculum, behaviour management, teaching or assessment issues that might help to accelerate pupil progress. It makes sense to focus innovation in areas that relate to a school’s and/or a MAT’s improvement priorities and build on the evidence of what is already known to work (or not work).

Assess the impact

It’s also vital that you learn from difference. That means you should put systems in place for assessing the impact of innovation on student learning. Lots of MATs, and schools, tend to be good at initiating interventions but poor on assessing and knowing their precise impact.

Here are some tips on how to assess the impact of your innovations:

  • Be clear about what you want the outcome to be and how the delivery will be monitored
  • Get feedback from staff, pupils and parents about what the intervention involved and the effect it had
  • Compare assessment data at the beginning and end of the intervention
  • Look at pupils' attendance and attitudes toward the intervention
  • Consider whether the intervention is significantly different from what is already being delivered
  • Consider whether it is good value for money
  • Bear in mind that it is difficult to prove that an intervention caused a certain outcome, as there are always other environmental factors. You should treat evidence with caution
These tips were provided by 2 of our experts, Anita Devi and Bill Dennison.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has created a 'do it yourself' (DIY) guide to evaluating the effect of interventions in school, which you may also find helpful when assessing impact. You can download it here:

Peer-to-peer improvement: enabling your schools to learn from each other

Peer-to-peer activity can help to resolve a potential tension between the top-down and the bottom-up drivers of improvement. This means interaction between schools, leaders and classroom staff across the different schools within a MAT. This should be sustained working between staff and leaders at all levels.

At the heart of this joint working should be a comprehensive model for professional development. This should cover four domains:

  • Acquiring and deepening knowledge (both subject knowledge and pedagogical practice)
  • Applying and transferring that learning effectively into the classroom
  • Knowing and assessing the impact of initiatives and programmes on pupil progress
  • Sharing knowledge of what works and ensuring that it is applied and/or replicated effectively

Leadership development or curriculum-based programmes may be organised on a whole-MAT basis. For larger or geographically dispersed MATs, classroom-based activity may be more suited to a cluster level where geographical proximity will help facilitate the practicalities of staff planning, observing and coaching each other. 

By working together in this way, you will create a powerful engine for driving improvement and moving effective practice across the MAT. It means each school is involved in constructing the language and ‘rules’ for how they work together, which helps the alignment process described earlier.

Checklist for assessing your school improvement framework

A key challenge for trust leaders is to develop the skills to combine and implement these different elements in a way that is right for the MAT and its schools at their respective stages of development. Use the checklist below to make sure you're doing just that:

  • How clearly have you defined your MAT’s education mission and values?
  • How far are your mission and values reflected in the curriculum and the way in which the schools in your MAT work together?
  • How deeply has your MAT worked through the balance between standardisation, alignment and autonomy – and does your approach reflect the point that schools are at on their improvement journey?
  • How far is your MAT encouraging innovation and monitoring and learning from its impact?
  • How extensively and effectively is your MAT promoting peer review, subject leader networks, coaching models and professional development and research programmes as means of fostering and spreading shared learning across the MAT?
  • Is your MAT clear about its model for providing school improvement support – i.e. the balance between employing specialist expertise at a central MAT level, using expertise based in schools and clusters, and buying in support from other schools and experts?


This article is based on content written for us by Robert Hill, an education consultant and visiting senior research fellow in the Department for Education (DfE).

Anita Devi is an education consultant and trainer who specialises in special educational needs and the use of technology to support learning. She is a member of nasen's national advisory board, and one of the founder members of the British Assistive Technology Association (BATA).

Bill Dennison is a national leader of governance. He is currently chair of governors of a large secondary school and a governor of a large sponsor-led secondary academy. He was previously head of the education department at a Russell Group university.

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