The common barriers to scaling a MAT

Last week we brought together 100 MAT leaders from over 70 organisations to discuss different strategies for scaling their MAT sustainably, with a focus on how these varied by the degree of centralisation vs. autonomy the MAT chooses to give to schools (click here for the agenda). This generated some great presentations from our speakers from Elliot Foundation, United Learning and others which we’ll write up on this blog over the coming weeks, as well as some lively debate about what challenges senior leaders are having with scaling. We held the conference to highlight emerging good practice beyond the highly centralised model of MAT operations that is highlighted in the press. It’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach is overly-simplistic, and that strategies and barriers to scaling vary both between different MATs, and within a MAT as it goes through 6 phases of growth.

Scaling strategies vary by MAT culture, size and type of school
The first point that was noted was that a MAT’s scaling challenges varies by the culture and size of the MAT. We’ve written previously about how culture and the degree of MAT centralisation vs. school autonomy is a key driver of how a MAT scales systems, processes and people, and how different strategies may suit different school types. For example a MAT of outstanding schools will often have a different culture and degree of centralisation than a MAT of turnaround schools.

Being deliberate and setting clear early expectations about what you will centralise (systems, processes, roles) and what you will devolve autonomy to heads to decide was seen as essential in helping smooth the scaling process, and get ahead of problems that would be exponentially harder to solve retrospectively as the MAT grew. Most speakers agreed that despite it seeming easier to devolve decisions to schools at the outset, making bold decisions to centralise some aspects and capitalising on early enthusiasm would help in the long run. 

Building the infrastructure to scale early on
The mean average number of schools per MAT in the conference was ~5, which as we’re previously written about is exactly the time that MATs should be looking to put in place the infrastructure to help scale, typically involving the centralisation of systems. Most MATs in the room had centralised their finance function early on, and were now looking to capitalise on early momentum to centralise their MIS, assessment and HR functions, as this helps to get a single view of MAT data, improve transparency and audit of process, and provide the foundation for scaling your central team. As we’ve mentioned previously, it’s at ~5 schools (depending on phase) where manual processes and systems cause your team to break. Try to tackle this before it becomes a problem.

Common barriers to scaling, including crossing the ‘catch 22 chasm’ of growth
We polled our audience of 100 about what their greatest barrier to scaling was, shown in the chart below. The biggest response by far was the ‘catch 22’ of scaling - needing funding to scale the central team/impact of the MAT, but requiring scale to access more funding. This was commonly reported by all MAT types and sizes, but most prominently in MATs of 4-15 schools who were struggling for financial viability. These MATs were often entering into a period of unsustainable growth, driven by the imperative to become financially viable - conversation was focused on what MATs could do at this stage to smooth what is always going to be one of the hardest phases of scaling. Recognising this early, and preparing the infrastructure and team was seen as vital, reflected by the fact that centralising roles and systems came in at number 2 and 3 on the list. Setting up clusters and changing operating models was commented on by larger MATs as a challenge (often linked to how to manage these), as well as finding suitable schools to join the MAT. Several MATs were changing their governance model, and debating how far to centralise committees and responsibilities. Perhaps most surprising was the fact that finding the right people came so low down the list of barriers. The pool of talented individuals with experience in scaling impact across schools isn’t vast, and perhaps MATs underestimate this challenge or overestimate their capabilities in this regard.

Barriers to scaling a MAT

We will be updating this blog over the coming weeks with presentations from our speakers covering how MATs can effectively scale their culture, strategy, systems, processes, procurement, and governance.

For now, click here to see my presentation including some of the points above.