Learning strategy in Multi Academy Trusts: knowledge as narrative

Baxter, Jacqueline (2019). Learning strategy in Multi Academy Trusts: knowledge as narrative. In: ECER 2019: Education in an Era of Risk – the Role of Educational Research for the Future, 6-10 Sep 2019, University of Hamburg.

URL: https://eera-ecer.de/ecer-programmes/conference/24...



Multi-Academy trusts (MATs) are groups of schools in England led by an executive head teacher (EHT) and a board of trustees. They are complex organizations consisting of from two to over a hundred schools (Baxter, forthcoming , 2020). In 2017 were over 20,100 state funded schools in England on 01 November 2017. Of these 6,100 were academies of which 1,668 were standalone academies and 4,432 were MATs. These schools may be proximate to one another or widely geographically dispersed (Baxter & Cornforth, 2018). In England’s quasi-marketplace of education, one of the key decisions for EHTs and trustees is whether to expand the organization, and if so, what type of schools to take on (Baxer, 2020) ,and over what geographical spread. High profile failures of these organizations raise questions over MAT rate of growth, and the way in which they are managed and governed (DfE, 2018; HMSO, 2017). Studies in the public , private and non-profit sector have identified top management’s absence of strategic thinking as a major detractor from performance, (Casey & Goldman, 2010), and long term sustainability (Mintzberg et al, 2005). However, creating strategy for a single organization is very different to creating it for a large multi-site organization (Elmes & Barry, 2017). According to Casey and Goldman, there are four categories of knowledge required to think strategically: Factual knowledge-on the whole organizations as well as its parts, (Mintzberg (1987:4); procedural and conceptual knowledge: Procedural knowledge informs the strategic thinker on how to develop ideas, concepts and frameworks, and different ways of seeing issues, how to identify opportunities, whilst conceptual knowledge includes ideas resulting from taking different perspectives and frameworks for integrating system inputs and the environment for directing the organization. Finally, strategic thinkers must have knowledge of their own thinking, seeing their own strategic thinking strengths and weaknesses as well as those of others. This is the lens through which learning experiences will be interpreted:

This article builds on the work of Casey and Goldman, and on other papers written as part of the same funded research project (Baxter, 2018; Baxter, forthcoming ,2020; Baxter & Cornforth, 2018) to evaluate the ways in which trustees and CEOs approach strategy as a learning activity in MATs. Asking the research questions, a) Do trustees and CEOs think of strategy in learning terms b) If so how? c) What are the implications of this for Trustee and CEO development in this area? d) what theoretical contribution does this study make to what is known about strategy learning in multi-level organisations. In order to do so the study uses 40 interviews with trustees and EHTs to evaluate the four areas of knowledge needed in order to think strategically: factual, procedural, conceptual and metacognitive- awareness of their own capabilities in this area. The research concludes that leadership boards in MATs appear to place more emphasis on factual knowledge, at the expense of the other areas of knowledge. It also concludes that whilst trustees and CEOs are aware of the ways in which their strategic thinking is developing, the area of conceptual knowledge is limited by MAT failure to collaborate with other MATs. The study contributes to the international literature on strategic thinking in education whilst also contributing to knowledge on strategic thinking in multi-level organizations across the public sector. It will also be of interest to those in the field of the development of strategic thinking in educational leadership more broadly.


The research is based on 40 semi structured interviews with Trustees and CEOs working in 12 MATs. The CEO is the operational lead of the MAT and is sometimes referred to as Executive Head. Trustees were chosen due to previous research identifying that trusts are strategically driven by strategic planning at trust level, this is particularly true in terms of expansion strategies. (Baxter, 2016). The MATS are situated in the North (6) and South of England (6). The interviews were carried out within the period December 2017 to June 2018. They lasted between 45 minutes to one hour each. They were carried out via skype, in person and by phone. The research gained approval from the ethics committees of the two universities involved. Informed consent protocols were drawn up and approved by respondents before interviews commenced. Due to the sensitive nature of this research, this included anonymity of trusts as well as individuals.

The interviews were coded using NVivo software and analysed using the framework outlined in the abstract. Having successfully adopted the narrative approach in other research which investigates strategic discourse in Mats, and sense making on governing boards ( Baxter, 2016), it has proved useful in drawing together ‘the apparently independent and disconnected elements of existence into related parts of a whole’ (Polkinghorne, 1988, p:36). In so doing we also drew on Linde’s coherence system of narrative, as ‘a discursive practice that represents a system of beliefs and relations between beliefs,’ (Linde, 1993, p.163).. Contrary to some views of narrative, in which stories of phenomena have a beginning, middle and end, Roe 1994), this paper assumes the unfinished nature of narrative as an ongoing process which forms and shapes policy and practice (Cooren, et al, 2013,p.368. This involved all researchers reading and coding each transcript individually, then discussing, merging and reflecting on these codes to form larger categories and emerging conceptual themes, and then further analysing these themes by comparing them across the data sets and to the study’s conceptual framework. This permitted insights into the research questions that not only illuminated the aims of the respondents, but also the values and ideals behind their strategic goal. Studying the narratives of the participants in this way also allowed examination of elements that, ‘recurrently, routinely and persistently animate the actors.’ As part of the narrative approach, this method makes use of anecdotes and metaphors to explore the values and ideals behind strategic learning.

Expected Outcomes

The research set out to respond to four key questions a) Do trustees and CEOs think of strategy in learning terms b) If so how? c) What are the implications of this for Trustee and CEO development in this area? d) What theoretical contribution does this study make to what is known about strategy learning in multi-level organisations. It revealed that while trustees and CEOs think of strategy in learning terms, they are not always aware of their own progress in this area. There is also an assumption, particularly by trustees, that they should already be proficient in this area. (a and b). The research also revealed that collaboration between MATs is relatively rare, so the learning opportunities for CEOs and trustees are limited in this respect. The implications for this, in terms of CEO and Trustee development are as follows: Lack of engagement and sharing of good practice with other trusts, is a drawback in terms of learning and development in this area. Therefore, there needs to be some provision made for individuals to share good practice and compare experiences. However, the likelihood of this happening may be low, due to the quasi -marketplace of education in England. If this is the case, then opportunities for individuals to extend their critical and strategic thinking should be sought; ideally through mentorship between schools. The study uncovered some challenges for strategic thinking development in the leadership of multi-level organizations, and as such has made the following contribution to theory, in proposing an extension of the Casey and Goldman framework for strategic thinking, to encompass development. This addition represented the element of: creation/engagement in of communities of learning practice and will be central to future research in the area of learning for strategic thinking.


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