Onboarding New Academies: What to Consider as a Multi Academy Trust

We know that MATs are facing financial and capacity pressures to grow by taking on new academies. Networking and building relationships to facilitate your Trust’s growth is one thing. But what about the work that goes in once a school is set to join your Trust? How do you onboard a new academy? 

Onboarding an academy is a real opportunity to promote the vision and values of your MAT. It can also be a delicate process, depending on how the community feels about the school and the Trust. How you handle this phase sets the tone for your continuing relationships with staff, pupils and families.  

Read our guide on creating a smooth and successful onboarding process.  

1. Beyond the Consultation

Legally, MATs have to hold a consultation phase when a new academy is set to join their Trust. This is the time to gather feedback from stakeholders, including staff, governors, parents and carers, and pupils.  

The end of the consultation period is the end of the Department for Education’s statutory onboarding phase. But don’t think that this means your onboarding work is done. For a smooth transition, the consultation period should be considered just the beginning of the journey. 

2. Understand Your Community

Every school has a unique context, history and community. Before you do anything else to start onboarding a school into your Trust, you have to understand the context. This will inform how you approach everything about your relationship with stakeholders.  

Peter Hughes, CEO of the Mossbourne Federation, talks about the importance of understanding your community in his book, Outstanding School Leadership. He quotes education author Stephen Covey on how really understanding your audience allows you to build strong, positive relationships.  

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Seeking real understanding affirms the other person and what they have to say. That’s what they want.” Stephen Covey 

Essentially, it’s not about telling your new community everything about you and your Trust. It’s about listening, observing, and understanding your audiences first and foremost. 

To get started, you’ll need to: 

  • Identify your audiences. They will likely include staff, pupils, parents and carers. What are the demographics? Who else has a vested interest in the school? 
  • Understand community sentiment. What is the general feeling about joining a Trust? Is the community excited about or resistant to change? Use surveys and focus groups to understand why 

3. Craft Your Message

Once you have a solid understanding of your audience, you can start to think about what you want to say to them throughout the onboarding process.  

Your message will depend largely on the context of the school joining the Trust. If it’s a high-achieving academy converter that wants to join your Trust because your values and goals align, you’ll want to talk about new opportunities and shared expertise. If it’s a sponsored academy that has had little say in the decision to join a Trust due to poor Ofsted ratings, you’ll be highlighting your focused school improvement support.  

Remember to always go back to your understanding of the school community when you’re crafting your message, to avoid alienating your audience. Focus on being open and optimistic about the future.  

4. Choose Your Channels

It doesn’t matter how strong your messaging is if it never reaches your audience. Do some research to find out which channels your audiences use and create engaging content to communicate your message.  

Depending on the community, the best channels could be: 

  • Social media (Instagram, X, LinkedIn, Facebook) 
  • Newsletters (print or digital) 
  • Flyers (print or digital) 
  • Local press

5. Manage Expectations

The onboarding period is a perfect time to set clear, two-way expectations. What do you expect from your new academy? And, importantly, what can the academy expect from you? 

This can be particularly important for parents and carers, who could feel apprehensive about their child’s school joining a Trust. What will that mean for their child’s education? 

Start from the beginning, using digital and print materials to communicate with the community. Explain who you are as a Trust, and what you can provide in terms of central services and education support. Use clear language and avoid jargon to build trust.  

Then set out what you expect. This good be in terms of behaviour, attendance, uniform, communication, etc. Show the community that you want to work collaboratively to achieve the best outcomes for learners.  

6. Communicate with Staff 

Joining a Trust is a huge change for a school, which can cause a lot of anxiety for staff. During the onboarding process, your job is to communicate openly, honestly and frequently with staff to address concerns and build strong initial relationships. You could do this through regular letters, or meetings (either face-to-face or virtual) to allow two-way conversations. 

Make sure you address the main sources of anxiety, which could include: 

  • Planned staff restructures 
  • Onboarding timelines 
  • Changes to policies and procedures 

You should also focus on the positive, exciting side of joining your Trust. Consider a bespoke staff welcome booklet or film that introduces the Trust and covers what staff can look forward to, including: 

  • CPD 
  • Approaches to wellbeing  
  • Staff benefits  
  • Opportunities to share expertise  

Providing reassurance during the onboarding phase will lay the foundations for productive working relationships going forward. 

7. Consider a Rebrand

Every MAT has a different approach to how its academies sit under the Trust brand. Some are happy for each academy to maintain its own unique identity, and others prefer a more uniform approach (think DELTA, OGAT, etc). Maybe you want your academies to keep their own brands, but feel the school you’re onboarding needs a refresh. 

Whatever your opinion on the brand of your new academy, it’s important not to rush into anything. Consult with senior leaders and the wider community to understand the current brand and what it stands for.  

If you do decide to go ahead with a rebrand, get the community involved as much as you can. Communicate your reasoning and see if you can get input on proposed designs. The more ownership the academy community feels, the more likely they will be to embrace the change.  

8. Refresh Interiors & Signage

Regardless of whether you’re choosing to rebrand, you’ll still want to introduce some Trust presence into your new academy during the onboarding process. 

This can be as subtle as new welcome signs that include the Trust logo, or as bold as an interior display with your Trust’s vision and values front and centre.  

Wherever you land on the spectrum, refreshing interiors and signage will help your new academy’s community to feel part of your Trust.

9. Focus on Long-Term Impact 

Now think further down the line. You’ve successfully onboarded your new academy. It really feels like a part of your Trust family, and you’ve done some great work together on school improvement, CPD, estates, whatever it may be. Now’s the perfect time to make sure you’re still communicating your key messages. 

Monitor your progress and showcase your work across your channels. That could be through: 

  • Social media campaigns  
  • Case studies on your website and local press 
  • Features in your Trust newsletter 

Anything to make sure you keep the momentum and showcase your positive impact.  

What’s Next?

If you’re preparing to expand your Trust and onboard one or more new academies, we’d love to help.  

We can support you to: 

  • Create and implement a compelling and engaging communication strategy 
  • Perfect and promote your key messages 
  • Engage all key stakeholders through multiple channels  
  • Demonstrate impact on a continuous basis  

Get in touch to talk through your options.