How can academy trusts prepare to successfully scale up their model for improvement?
A key question that we are regularly asked in our work with academy trust CEOs and boards across the country is: ‘How do we grow sustainably and successfully?’ It’s a big question, with a complex answer which depends on the particular context of the trust. For all trusts, however, whichever stage they are at, there is one core aspect which I believe can be achieved with reference to some specific principles. That is the scaling up of school improvement.
Trust growth is driven by many things. At its worst, some trusts pursue growth for growth’s sake – with leaders focused on increased numbers and prestige. In these trusts, the house was too often built on sand, and such trusts have failed quite spectacularly. Elsewhere, many CEOs are – understandably – focused on the financial viability of their trusts and scale brings opportunity in this regard. However, despite the very real funding pressures, the financial tail should not be wagging the trust dog, and whilst trusts certainly need to ensure financial viability and probity, they must begin their quest for growth with the ‘core business’ of school improvement taking centre stage. Indeed, too many trusts risk overlooking their vision and their model for school improvement at scale in a desperate dash for financial viability. No school wants to join the trust where the needs and success of pupils does not drive everything. Put simply, the main thing must remain the main thing if trusts are to succeed through growth.
Too many trusts risk overlooking their vision and their model for school improvement at scale in a desperate dash for financial viability.
Vision defines everything
So, where do CEOs begin building a model for school improvement at scale? Through our extensive work we have developed the seven pillars of improvement at scale:
- Collective Commitment
- Real time and robust intelligence
- Process and project management
- The quality of improvement activity
- Quality assurance
The trust’s vision for the educational experience it provides and the commitment it makes to its pupils, defines the other six pillars – and for good reason. A trust that can articulate what success really looks like for its pupils can then develop a school improvement model that measures ‘the right things’, inspires teachers and leaders to work for it, cultivates and invests in the necessary expertise, pursues disciplined innovation, and readily holds itself to account. This means having a clear vision that isn’t restricted or overly defined by the top down measures of success set by government – important and influential though these are. A vision and narrative for improvement that taps into why people come to work, and the needs of the communities a trust serves, is a powerful force for generating collective commitment to improvement at scale and across schools.
Building capacity and collective commitment
With a clear and compelling vision, school improvement can then be scaled up. Building school improvement leadership and delivery capacity is crucial. Many CEOs struggle with the transition from small to medium-sized trusts because they understandably cannot let go of the operational leadership. Most CEOs are only in post because they have a strong track record of leading improvement, yet they are now corporate leaders and accounting officers, and it is impossible for them to oversee day to day activity once their trust expands. This means taking a ‘hands off, eyes on’ approach and appointing high calibre leaders of school improvement who can focus on overseeing the improvement plans. CEOs – whilst coaching their school improvement leaders and monitoring their impact – should also be focused on the bigger picture of ensuring that their organisations continue to recruit and develop experts who can deliver the improvements and innovation needed.
CEOs are only in post because they have a strong track record of leading improvement, yet they are now corporate leaders and accounting officers, and it is impossible for them to oversee day to day activity once their trust expands.
CEOs should also be building a trust-wide culture of collective commitment ensuring that the professional capital exists that sees all staff readily supporting one another’s improvement and progress. This can easily be lost as a MAT expands, as key relationships are less proximate.
The quality of due diligence when taking on schools is also key here. Knowing the impact that a joining schools has on the trust’s ability to sustain standards and achieve improvement is critical. One trust we know of has a ‘golden rule’ of three well-performing schools to each one requiring significant support. Geography can make or break school improvement capacity, and it is essential that schools in the trust (or its hubs) are proximate enough to ensure the delivery of school improvement is viable.
Real-time and robust intelligence
As trusts grow, so does the importance of data and intelligence as trusts can only be as good as the intelligence they receive and the processes they have for acting on it. In devising what is monitored, trust leaders should remember that ‘what gets measured tends to get done’. Behaviour will always be driven by accountability, so it is important that trust leaders choose carefully what data and intelligence is monitored and that this reflects the vision. Of course, it is crucial to monitor progress and outcomes in core areas such as literacy and numeracy, but CEOs should also bear in mind the broader aspects that are also important to the vision.
Behaviour will always be driven by accountability, so it is important that trust leaders choose carefully what data and intelligence is monitored
As organisations grow, they should ensure that their systems of reporting achieve the following:
- are consistently applied across schools to allow for benchmarking and the identification of both good practice and areas of weakness;
- capture data regularly and routinely that enables you to measure progress against the vision for improvement – often going beyond central government KPIs and top down targets and reflecting the things your trust values;
- ensure that data capture and reporting routines are well understood and adhered to and that those involved are adequately trained;
- capture intelligence from a range of sources to provide a sufficient degree of triangulation, using workable and manageable processes.
Of course, making sure that standard operating procedures exist to ensure that data and intelligence feeds into the process of school improvement is also essential.
Much of the focus on developing models of school improvement in trusts has been on the process of getting schools, or a particular aspect of a school, from A to B, or C to D. The delivery of improvement is about the expertise of those involved, their interpretation of the data, their planning for improvement, the deployment of expertise; and further monitoring impact. That goes back to recruiting people with the expertise and talent to deliver high quality school improvement. However, whatever the nature of the professional knowledge or activity required, trusts need to adopt project management principles in regard to improvement, ensuring that the planning, co-ordination and oversight of improvement activity doesn’t just exist in a handful of people’s heads, but is applied through consistent systems that are well understood by all involved and can easily be held to account for impact.
trusts need to adopt project management principles in regard to improvement, ensuring that the planning, co-ordination and oversight of improvement activity doesn’t just exist in a handful of people’s heads
It is essential that improvement activity remains cutting edge, and that all those involved are informed by the most robust research-evidence and learning. Some of the most successful and cutting-edge international companies routinely spend in excess of 5% of their revenue on R&D in order to pursue improvement and innovation. For a trust to ensure improvement at scale can be sustained, it must be confident that its leading practitioners are engaged with and can apply the evidence and are readily engaged in opportunities to ‘test and learn’. What are the trusts links with organisations such as HEIs, research schools and the Education Endowment Foundation and could these be deepened?
Quality Assurance of the model
Finally it’s crucial that school improvement models are regularly scrutinised and tested for impact. In a rapidly evolving system, with only a handful of examples of large-scale school improvement models, it is important that trust engage in opportunities such as peer review to learn from one another and to test their thinking. This should focus on how their chosen model is generating collective commitment, building capacity, and generating the necessary expertise through ongoing research. Trustees should also be alive to the impact of their school improvement model, and should regularly challenge their executives across all these areas – ensuring that it is generating sustainable improvement.
In a period where finances are dominating the agendas of many trust boards, perhaps we are at risk of not keeping the main thing the main thing.
Michael Pain is CEO of Forum Strategy, an organisation providing consultancy support to trusts and other organisations. He is also the author of Being The CEO (John Catt, 2019). More information on Forum’s Seven Pillars can be found at www.forumstrategy.org
Self-audit questionnaire for executive teams and boards developing and leading scalable ‘improvement organisations’:
- Vision for improvement
Is your narrative for improvement clear and compelling enough; can you and staff across your organisation readily define what you mean by ‘success’?
Is the narrative sufficiently translated into public success criteria that reflect your vision; not simply limited to government KPIs?
- Capacity for improvement & innovation
Whilst being experts in their field, are your ‘improvement leaders or directors’ also adequately trained and skilled in areas such as project management, brokerage, stakeholder management and quality assurance?
Do you have a ‘networked’ culture where the focus of such activity directly links into your improvement strategy? Is this adequately supported by geographical proximity and fit for purpose technology?
- Collective commitment to improvement
Are leaders across the organisation sufficiently invested in organisational, as well as divisional, success?
Do you embed a sense of collective commitment amongst leaders through shared performance targets & ‘organisation-wide’ responsibilities where possible?
- Robust & real-time intelligence to inform improvement
Is the end-users’ (child, parent or patient for e.g.) voice central to the intelligence gathering process? Is this triangulated with a blend of objective data gathered from a range of independent sources?
Is there sufficient routine and consistency across the organisation in terms of the process for data gathering, allowing improvement leaders (and governors) to identify trends and make comparisons to inform improvement and innovation activity.
- Robust processes and project management to deliver improvement
Is the improvement model clearly articulated to all across the organisation, in a way that is accessible and enables people to see how their role interrelates with others’?
Is improvement planning and activity informed by careful diagnosis of trends and outlying data that is undertaken by a range of professionals?
Is improvement delivery underpinned by project management principles; including goal-setting, project planning; delivery chain management; stocktakes; and specific outputs.
- Investment in disciplined innovation and staying at the cutting-edge of improvement
Is the organisation investing sufficient time and resource in research and development work? Is the research and any subsequent innovation disciplined – aligned with the vision for improvement & informed by the data around improvement priorities?
Is the organisation’s leadership sufficiently invested in developing strategic partnerships that give rise to disciplined innovation and continuous learning across the organisation?
- Quality assurance of the improvement culture and model
Is the trust reviewing its impact against a broad set of KPIs that reflect the vision for improvement? Does it enter into peer review based on research around successful, scalable improvement models?
Forum Strategy is developing thinkpieces to help inform MATs as they seek to develop scalable school improvement models. The pillars are:
- Improvement activity
- Quality Assurance
The thinkpieces, with top tips / reflective questions, can be accessed here:
Pillars 1 – 4: MAT Development: 7 Pillars of Improvement at Scale; 1 – 4
Pillars 6 – 7: Coming soon
All content: Copyright 2018 – Forum Education