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Case study: one MAT’s process for new schools joining the trust
The Flying High Trust share their approach to new schools joining the trust. Learn about their due diligence process, how they assess their own capacity to grow and how they induct the new school over the first year.
- Initial due diligence and capacity check
- Going into more depth
- The consultation phase (for maintained schools joining the trust)
- Onboarding and inducting a school
About this MAT
The Flying High Trust is a 23 primary school MAT based in the East Midlands. We spoke to Nick Layfield, the operations director.
Although now a relatively large trust, this is a process they've developed over time, and learned from along the way. We hope this case study will be useful for smaller MATs, as well as those of a similar size to Flying High.
Initial due diligence and capacity check
Flying High first does an ‘expression of interest’ exercise with the school looking to join them. This is a one-page summary of the school's position, looking at:
- Why they want to join the trust
- Their staffing summary
- Their 3-year financial forecast
- Their site condition
This is assessed by the team members at Flying High with the relevant expertise in these areas.
They make sure there are no significant risks or liabilities that stand out – for example, finances showing significant debts/forecasting large deficits, or significant building disrepair.
The trust also has a couple of fundamentals for their vision and ethos for growth that must be met. These are:
- If the school requires support, the trust makes sure to maintain a 3:1 ratio of schools that can provide support to schools that need it. This is most common when the trust is approached to sponsor 'requires improvement' or 'inadequate' schools
- The school must be within a 1 hour journey of the head office. This ensures timely support, and for schools to be able to access key meetings, CPD, events and networks
Once all of the above is satisfied, the team members get approval from the board of trustees to move on to the next stage.
On occasion the trust has come across schools that are in a precarious position, for example financially. In these cases, the trust provides guidance on the steps the school needs to take to address this. If and when the school takes these steps, they can look again at joining the MAT.
Going into more depth
The trust now arranges a 2-day on-site due diligence visit. The CEO or deputy CEO, operations director Nick, the director of business and finance, the HR manager and a director of quality assurance and school improvement all attend.
They assess in more detail the school’s strengths and what they'll bring to the partnership. They also look at areas for development, and any risks or liabilities across the school.
They do this for all elements of the school, meeting the relevant members of the senior leadership team and other staff where necessary, to cover:
- Leadership and management
- Educational performance
- Premises and estates condition
- Health and safety
This is also an opportunity for the school to conduct their own due diligence on the trust and ask questions. This helps the trust be transparent about their processes to everyone in the school community.
It also helps avoid any “surprises” for the school further down the line – for example, the central financing arrangements, or HR processes and procedures (which they standardise across the MAT). Being up front early on lessens the risk of issues once the school's joined.
The directors of quality assurance and school improvement, who are part of the visit, determine the frequency of support the school will need.
They use a David Carter model of school improvement to assess the school's 'stage'. There are 4: 'stabilise', 'repair', 'improve' or 'sustain' (see the 'Sources' section at the bottom for more detail on this model and the features of each stage).
For example, schools in the 'stabilise' stage may need weekly visits. For schools in the 'improve' stage, it might be every half-term. The directors will then assess whether the trust has the capacity to deliver on that level of need.
As well as school improvement capacity, the team from the trust look at business and finance capacity. When they’ve assessed the financial outlook and liabilities of the school, they can model this in to their own budget to see how this will affect their own 5-year growth forecast.
Going back to the board
At the end of the in-depth due diligence visit, the team type up a report which they go through with the school. They then take this to their own board of trustees.
The board will give approval if they're satisfied with the report on the school, and the capacity of the trust. They can then get the ball rolling on the school joining the MAT.
The consultation phase (for maintained schools joining the trust)
Following the approval from the board of trustees, the school submits their academy order. The legal proceedings then begin, subject to the regional schools commissioner approving the conversion.
'Partnership' is a key part of Flying High's ethos, so they make sure that staff, families and pupils understand what's happening.
The consultation stage enables staff to:
- Ask questions
- Visit other trust schools to hear from staff about their experience
- Feel reassured about the TUPE process and how this impacts them
There's also a formal TUPE meeting attended by the LA and trade union colleagues.
Plus, the trust invites parents and families to a consultation meeting. This lets the school and trust share their vision for the future, answer questions, address any concerns raised and take feedback on board.
Pupils also have a chance to “quiz the CEO” about why joining the trust will enhance their experience in their school. They then have an ongoing voice in the development of the trust through the 'children’s parliament', with 'ministers' from all schools having a say.
Onboarding and inducting a school
Let staff join networks ahead of time
The conversion process for maintained schools means they have a 6-month lead-in time. During this time, the trust invites relevant staff members to join their headteacher network, business manager network or subject leader networks.
They can ask questions and get used to how the trust works, so by the time the school officially joins, they're up to speed on the trust's processes and shared good practice.
Don’t keep it all in your head
When the MAT was smaller, communication and transition were relatively straightforward, as there were fewer central staff and schools.
As the trust has developed there's now a wealth of resources, strategies, networks and general information that needs to be shared with new schools so they can make the most of the partnership.
The trust has an ‘A-Z’ (available here) it gives new schools. It has a comprehensive overview of what they'll need to know about the trust, such as:
- The central team and governance structures
- Finance and HR procedures
- Network overviews
- Staff performance management strategy
- Links to policies
The trust has also recently appointed a communication and engagement manager. Part of their role is to support schools through their induction, helping them access support and making sure the whole school feels aligned with how the trust works.
Match schools with similar backgrounds
Flying High's first 16 schools all came from the same LA, which meant they had similar experiences of what the LA did versus what they'd done themselves.
When a school joined the trust from a different LA, it became clear their prior experiences were significantly different. The school had different expectations of their own role, based on how things had worked with their LA. Learning from this, the trust now does two things differently:
- A ‘buddy’ system where new schools are matched with a school from the same LA that can answer questions and provide peer-to-peer support during their first year – this is particularly key for the school office to ensure smooth transition of financial systems and HR matters
- Feeding this consideration into the initial due diligence processes, so that if a school is coming from an LA the trust has fewer (or no) schools from, they learn their expectations and what they’re used to early on to support the transition
Key tips from what they've learnedCentralising HR policies and procedures, and standardising them across all schools, makes the process of new schools joining a lot easier. It lets the trust set clear expectations up front, meaning that unions can be involved ahead of the school joining. This means no surprises for the school further down the line.
Legal conversion dates, for maintained schools joining the trust, can get delayed – but you don't have to delay the ‘softer’ elements of induction. For example, have staff join the trust’s networks, set up peer-to-peer support and so on. Keep things moving in the background, rather than stalling until the official date.
Keep conversion management and induction separate – Nick deals with conversion support but having someone else manage the induction into the trust (joining networks, aligning on policies and procedures) establishes clearer lines of support for the school.
MAT-to-MAT collaboration has gotten stronger over the years. Reach out to other MATs through the networks available to you and learn from them.
Information on the 4 stages of school improvement can be found on pages 10 to 17 of the slides from a conference on academy governance where David Carter presented. You can download the slides from the ICSA website (click on 'view the conference slides').
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