Getting better at coping with constant change: A presentation by Arbor CEO James Weatherill

James Weatherill - 19 December, 2019

Category : Blog

Getting better at coping with constant change: A presentation by Arbor CEO James Weatherill

Our CEO, James Weatherill, opened our fourth MAT Conference in Manchester by talking about the growing sense of confidence in the MAT sphere as trusts become better at coping with constant change. We’ve transcribed his presentation below! This is the fourth conference in a series we’ve run to try and bring together MAT leaders from

Our CEO, James Weatherill, opened our fourth MAT Conference in Manchester by talking about the growing sense of confidence in the MAT sphere as trusts become better at coping with constant change. We’ve transcribed his presentation below!

This is the fourth conference in a series we’ve run to try and bring together MAT leaders from all around the country to exchange good ideas. Today, we’ll talk about your successes, as well as advice on what to avoid, and you should take home some practical, implementable tips to share with your wider central team. 

The reason why we do this kind of event is this: we’ve been travelling around the country and speaking to each of you, and we kept on finding that we were being asked the same questions. What this generally meant was that people weren’t exchanging ideas between each other. So, we want this to be a safe space for you to come together and hear about what different MATs are doing, both well and not so well, so you can avoid mistakes and exchange good ideas. 

I think in the early formation of any industry, it’s really important that people get together and talk a lot, so that’s the basic format for today. Hopefully you’ll go away having learned something new, having met some peers, having built some good relationships and ultimately having new ideas to take back to help your MAT scale better and more sustainably. That is the goal of today. 

We try and come up with a different theme for each conference, and for this I chose “getting better and coping with constant change” – I’ll run you through my rationale for that. This is a quote I came across that illustrates my point by Dorothy Parker, the American poet and author:

“In youth, it was a way I had,

To do my best to please.

And change, with every passing lad

To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know

And do the things I do,

And if you do not like me so,

To hell, my love, with you.”

What’s nice about this is that I think of multi-academy trusts as a group, and as people we’re still at the start of a journey. I think that journey is now a few years in. The feeling I get from going around and meeting lots of multi-academy trust is that we’re at the end of the youth phase, where perhaps we were all finding our way, listening to what schools had to say and giving quite a lot of autonomy around decision making. I’m sensing a growing confidence in each of you about having tackled the basics. 

We’re now moving on to some perhaps more cultural, personal things that you’re trying to tackle in your trusts – more specific issues. Some of the bigger,systemic problems are being tackled, like: “How do we scale? What  size do I need to be? What do my staffing structures look like?” These issues are broadly being solved (though not completely) and we’re moving on to the second stage where there’s this growing confidence. 

The last line of the Dorothy Parker quote perhaps doesn’t resonate with everyone. You can’t quite be that direct with everyone. And perhaps that’s too much confidence. But, nonetheless, I think we’re somewhere in the middle of those two verses now as trust leaders. 


Coping with constant change

The MAT backdrop has been one of massive change, huge change, political change, funding change, technological change – so much more in the last five years than I’ve seen for a very long time. I think as CEOs, you’ve got better at coping with that. You start off with one or two schools, you get better, you get hit by a few problems and your goal is trying to stay on track without falling off (the GIF below illustrates this process quite well!). I think people are steadily getting better at riding that wave of change and pushing through progress in that way.


Group MIS:  One system to streamline all data and workflows

So a little bit about Arbor: we’re a Management Information System for schools and trusts. We work with over 800 schools and 75 MATS. We have a group MIS which you can learn about here.

Fig 1: Arbor’s cloud-based MIS for MATs is the hassle free way for trusts to get work done 


Our Group MIS pulls all of your data together into one one place and allows you to get a MAT-wide view benchmarked against national data as well. You can drill down all the way from a MAT level. It gives you out of the box analysis on regions, on your primary and secondaries and you can go all the way from MAT level to student level – with no setup required as long as your schools are running our MIS system. It also allows you to work on how you can operate better as a MAT. Group-wide workflows, for example, like setting assessment policy centrally and pushing them down to schools, mean you can get work done without having to go into each individual school’s MIS.


School MIS: A hassle-free way to streamline your schools

We also run a school MIS. This is a simple, smart system that brings all of your data together at the school level. This video shows us an overview of behaviour and reform:

Fig 2: Arbor’s cloud-based MIS for schools


So, you can start to see your data making sense, both from a student level and on a school level. Again, this comes with out of the box analytics and you can drill down and action things. The goal is about automating all of the admin in your school to save your staff time, bringing all of your data together and pointing your staff to the children who are most in need. 


Over 1,000 schools will switch MIS this year

There’s been a lot of schools switching MIS. Over 1000 schools have switched this year. We’re slightly different as a company in that we care about the impact that we have. We have a board and it’s my responsibility to report to them. These are the metrics that matter to them: 

  • How much time are we saving staff? 
  • How much have we transformed schools for the better?
  •  How much better do schools understand their students as a result of having the system in place
  •  Do they like using it?

The answers to all of these questions is shown in the data below, which is taken from the 800+ schools who use Arbor:

Fig 3: At Arbor, we have specific impact metrics that help us make sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing 


Over 800 schools and 75 MATs have switched to Arbor

We work with lots of different types of MATS:

Fig 4: A slide from James’ presentation showing the different types of MATs Arbor works with 


We work with MATs from the very large (over 60 schools) all the way down to the very small (1 or 2 schools). That’s where some of the learnings come from today. At different stages of the journey, you have different problems and there’s different ways of solving it. We’ve seen a lot of it. Take the Isle of Man, for example, which has its own government – they have very different problems. So hopefully, we’ll be able to play back some of these learnings today. 


Centralising data and your back office

We also have lots of partners that we work with. We don’t just do the job ourselves:

Fig 5: A slide from James’ presentation showing how we work with our partners


We have two sponsors today: P.S. Financials and RS Assessment. We integrate with both and we’ll talk about that today. You’ll find out how you can get a holistic overview of all of your students and how you can see your benchmark assessment data alongside your attendance and behaviour in Arbor. The whole goal is  around centralizing the back office, so that everything works seamlessly. 


School Autonomy vs MAT Centralisation

In previous conference, we’ve talked about the general theme of, “Where do you sit on the balance between school autonomy and MAT centralisation?” and a few speakers today will talk about their experiences with this.

Fig 6: A slide from James’ presentation showing school autonomy vs MAT centralisation amongst different MATs


We’ve run surveys and some of you will have been called about where you sit on the scale. These green blobs show a sample of where this room sits on each of these different areas. I’ve also highlighted in light green where the moving average is. So, what about MATs across the country? How centralized are they across all of these different things? The picture that’s emerging is that it’s kind of settling down. People know what they know and now they’re moving forward more slowly. 

The first few conferences that we did, when we benchmarked this data, it was all over the place. Some people were more centralized, some people were less. But what we can see now is that assessment models in primaries and curriculum in primary-led MATS are being more centralized.

In secondaries, it’s still a way off. Governance has been pretty highly-centralized across MATS, and there are different models for that. It’s the same with school improvement – sometimes there is a function set up for that centrally. Some MATS around the tables here are doing that particularly well. Pedagogy less so – left up to the schools to a degree. 

But in terms of policy systems and back office, we’re moving towards greater centralization and control at the MAT level. And this is an evolving picture. So we keep on playing this back to the room, but I think the trend has always been more to the right. MATs are taking more ownership of the more non-teaching elements so that schools can focus more on the business of teaching.


Beacons of excellence

There are beacons of excellence in this room. A question we tend to ask you is: “What one thing you do particularly well in your MAT, and what one thing could others perhaps learn from?” These are a few snippets from the calls that we had with some of the people sitting here.

Fig 7: Quotes from MATs about what they do well


The interesting and quite rewarding thing here was that lots of people are talking about their culture being something that they do particularly well. Another common theme is being confident to share the collective idea of our Trust, not the Trust – a shared, authentic identity across all schools. Safeguarding is another one, and one MAT talks about their approach to people(i.e. how HR and talent management can be a competitive advantage). We’ve also heard about how culture can be used to attract schools. 


The Biggest Challenges

So now, onto challenges. And there are loads. That’s also what today is about:

Fig 8: Quotes from MATs about some of the challenges they face 


One challenge is around parental engagement amongst vulnerable students. Also systems, and integration in a general sense. Head teachers who are wedded to how things used to be done, rather than how things are done now, perhaps? And finance is an ongoing problem. These are some common challenges that I hope will ring a few bells with a lot of you. That’s why I want to give all of you time throughout the day to explore the challenges that each of you have in your respective trusts. That’s it for me – thanks for listening!


If you’d like to find out more about how our hassle-free, cloud-based MIS could help transform your MAT, contact us. You can also book a demo by calling 0207 043 0470 or email