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The MAT Factor – how MATs are supporting learners with SEND

The NFER have released a paper examining the role of MATs in supporting learners with SEND. The small-scale study, based on 49 semi-structured interviews with staff across 19 MATs, aims to shed light on some of the diverse approaches to supporting pupils with SEND in mainstream secondary schools that are starting to address this gap. While the findings are illustrative, they offer actionable recommendations for MATs to enhance their support systems, and provide valuable insights for policymakers and educational leaders in both the academy and local authority (LA)-maintained sectors.

Key findings:

  • MATs and schools are facing significant challenges around SEND provision: This includes recruiting and retaining SEND staff, high SENCO workloads and navigating relationships with parents and LAs. Moreover, the growing complexity of pupils’ needs has strained resources and placed pressure on mainstream schools due to a lack of special school places. 
  • There is no single template for the role MATs play in supporting SEND provision: It was, however, common for MATs to provide a SEND framework or  ‘vision’ to set culture and expectations across member schools. MATs typically avoided making explicit mandates, emphasising that the MAT’s role was to advise and support schools with SEND.
  • MAT SEND leaders play a pivotal role in SEND provision: Many of the trusts we spoke to had appointed individuals within their central teams to oversee SEND across their MATs. These MAT SEND leaders played a crucial role in centralising SEND efforts, facilitating collaboration, and providing expertise and support to individual schools.
  • SENCOs valued the collaboration, learning opportunities and additional resources that MAT membership offered: For example, SENCOs appreciated regular cross-MAT SENCO meetings, additional training opportunities, templates and toolkits and access to trust-level specialist services and expertise.
  • MAT-level monitoring and evaluation of SEND provision is perceived as valuable and constructive: MATs conduct regular SEND audits and reviews. Both MAT representatives and SENCOs viewed these audits as positive and constructive experiences, emphasising strengths and identifying areas for improvement.
  • Both mainstream and specialist provision can benefit from a 'blended' MAT approach: Interviewees highlighted that having specialist settings within their MAT allowed them to tap into the expertise that staff in these settings could provide, offered opportunities for tailored provision and increased awareness of SEND within mainstream schools. 
  • School SEND provision benefits from access to a strong MAT and a strong LA: Inconsistencies in different LAs’ capacities to effectively support schools led to interviewees’ reporting mixed experiences in their dealings with LAs. To ensure the optimal performance of MATs, it is crucial that LAs are adequately resourced so that their provision is both effective and consistent. 
  • The full potential of the MAT model for SEND provision is still to be unlocked: While many SENCOs reported experiencing a range of benefits to being part of a MAT, certain challenges and limitations remain, including the geographical distribution of schools, limitations in LA provision, and SENCO workload/capacity

Recommendations for MAT and school leaders:

  1. Empower SENCOs as agents of change: MAT and school leaders should empower SENCOs as agents of change within their schools. Their ability to innovate within the overarching principles and vision of the MAT allows SENCOs to respond effectively to the unique needs of their schools and pupils. 
  2. Strategic workforce planning: MAT and school leaders should focus on strategic workforce planning to address the staffing challenges. This involves targeted efforts to attract, retain, and adequately support SENCOs and support staff. This includes the need for manageable workloads, competitive pay, and professional development opportunities. MATs should maximise the power of their structures to train and develop SENCOs, teachers and support staff on SEND, utilising existing staff expertise to develop less experienced staff members.
  3. Support staff well-being: Strengthen measures to support the mental health and well-being of SENCOs and support staff. MAT and school leaders should recognise the value and importance SENCOs place on opportunities for collaboration, both across the MAT and locally. Such opportunities can help to mitigate SENCOs’ feelings of isolation and help foster essential support networks. Efforts should be made to strike a balance between in-person and remote meetings to maximise the benefits of these exchanges while minimising the impact of travel time. 
  4. Leverage wider benefits of being in a MAT: MAT leaders should explore further ways to maximise the benefits of their structures for SEND staff and pupils. This includes the collaborative development of toolkits, templates, and guidance to introduce efficiencies and reduce SENCO workload, as well as fostering greater cross-MAT collaboration in general. Where feasible, MATs should also consider creating a Director of SEND role (or similar) to take responsibility for providing strategic direction and to facilitate collaboration and knowledge-sharing across the MAT. Financial resources from MATs should be recognised and valued for their role in enabling schools to enhance their SEND teams and access support and interventions that might otherwise be unaffordable for an individual school.