Balancing MAT alignment vs. school autonomy

In this presentation about scaling your data & Trust which I emailed to every MAT CEO last term, I highlighted how central teams often struggle to decide on the right balance between a MAT’s need for central alignment and a school’s desire for autonomy. The argument typically goes that alignment makes MAT operations more streamlined, efficient, auditable and cost-effective but at the expense of a school’s individual autonomy, which has often been established over many years.

Some groups talk about ‘earned autonomy’ as a compromise, but this still assumes that a school needs to tow the MAT line until they can prove they ‘deserve’ autonomy. And once schools do ‘earn’ their autonomy under this model, they’ll most likely still be submitting data and using processes that the MAT have designed and embedded in the school.

MAT Alignment vs. School Autonomy




I’d like to challenge the notion that MAT alignment and school autonomy are oppositional. In fact, alignment can enable autonomy if you have accountability and transparency in place. 

Alignment Can Enable Autonomy, if there’s Transparency & Accountability




The picture above shows how MAT alignment can enable autonomy, allowing for sustainable growth beyond 5+ schools. The Assistant MAT in the top right example sets clear performance goals, and because it has built the right infrastructure (including standardised systems, instant access to data and auditable processes) it doesn’t mind how the schools go about achieving those goals. If there’s an issue, the MAT will be instantly alerted and can step in to assist the school in fixing, or sit back and monitor how the situation is dealt with. Either way, the schools get autonomy from day 1, and don’t have to earn it, whilst the MAT has the benefit of alignment.

There are other examples shown where alignment does not enable authority. This is typically a conscious decision by the MAT. For example, more authoritative MATs (such as in the top left of the diagram) may choose to have very high degrees of standardisation in terms of systems and processes, leading to low school autonomy. This isn’t necessarily bad - for example, in turnaround schools there may be processes and systems that need complete overhaul.

Standardise systems and give autonomy to people to get the best of both worlds

The key is for MATs and schools to decide on what they want to align or standardise, and what they want to devolve autonomy to schools on. This will depend on your culture, but at Arbor we tend to be of the mind that to create a sustainable infrastructure you should standardise systems to allow for a degree of uniformity and give autonomy to people in how they use those systems. That way you get the best of both worlds. More on that in the next post...