A new narrative for academy trusts – one year on, what happens next?

Almost one year ago, Forum Strategy published ‘a new narrative for a new decade: academy trusts at the heart of their communities‘, following extensive consultation with trust leaders about their hopes for the academy trust sector in the decade ahead. I have been overwhelmed by how many trusts have epitomised this since, both formally – before COVID19 – through their visioning and strategic planning, and more informally through the ongoing and inspiring response to the pandemic.

What inspired the development of the new narrative in 2019?

For all the talk of autonomy over the previous decade, many CEOs and trustees said that the academy trust sector had generally only scratched the surface in creating new eco-systems of improvement and innovation; or, indeed, in going beyond national top down measures and definitions of ‘success’. It was, many felt, a sector that over the previous decade had spent too much time looking upwards, and not enough looking outwards. Then there was also deep frustration that the trust sector was still very misunderstood by the general public – the people it ultimately exists to serve. In too many cases, scandals and failures had emerged from a culture, driven by some of the earliest trusts, that had focused on bigger numbers (growth and government scores on the doors) at almost all costs. Our members deeply wanted to change that perception and, through that change, the deep misunderstandings of trusts that had existed for too long. We wanted the new narrative to help that important cause.

Hopes for the next decade were based on a strong determination to change the emphasis: placing academy trusts at the heart of their communities – driven by people and purpose, not simply by a fixation on national KPIs, one size fits all frameworks, and growth for growth’s sake. The new narrative we developed spoke of capturing the hopes and aspirations of communities – not least pupils and parents themselves – in defining ‘success’; of trusts aspiring to become employers of choice in and for their communities – setting the bar in terms of being forward-thinking and inspiring places to work; of being beacons of sustainability with long term goals that go beyond politics and create a better future for all; and of togetherness.

Trust leaders recognised that some of the very complex and strategic challenges they face in the decade ahead, from poverty, mental health and technological change, through to the fast-changing world of employment and the new skills it demands, cannot be addressed in isolation. It demands a compelling vision, partnerships and goals that transcends their organisations and mobilises communities in the broadest possible sense. The new narrative helps trusts to begin to reach out with a compelling message that goes beyond the board or central teams.

COVID19 has accelerated efforts to change the narrative, but there’s more to do

So, one year since we published the new narrative, how have things gone? Well, we all know what happened in 2020 and – rather than hamper our collective efforts – the onset of COVID19 has accelerated the efforts to place academy trusts at the heart of their communities. Trusts right across the country found a real opportunity to demonstrate their role at the heart of their communities, with countless stories of how they had contributed to food banks, developing PPE for the NHS, paying for holiday food vouchers when government said ‘no’, extending their mental health services,  signposting to support for families, and so much more. You can read just a handful of inspiring examples here: Responding to COVID19: ‘Academy trusts at the heart of their communities’

The last nine months have also allowed trusts to demonstrate how their model (and let’s not forget, forging the right culture), makes them potentially such great and supportive places to work. Through the crisis, teachers – under enormous pressure – were able to collaborate across schools (without any limitations) sharing resources and mutual support for online learning. Headteachers were able to access proximate (very accessible) support from health and safety experts, IT experts, site management experts in their central teams, not in a large and over-stretched authority. These experts were colleagues they already knew well and who knew their schools well, and were just a phone call away. CEOs were able to champion their trusts and their communities alongside other senior local leaders.

It is clear that COVID19 has to some extent lifted the veil on academy trusts and dispelled some of the myths. Life for heads in trusts has largely been more manageable than for standalone schools, teachers in trusts have been able to be part of continuous support network where materials and resources are shared freely and openly (but with consistent expectations and quality assurance), and schools and parents have benefited from levels of support service expertise that has been unprecedented. I’ll share just two examples – one of a trust that established had a dedicated phoneline for parents to help signpost them to local support services and resources they needed during the crisis; and another that has used its fundraising prowess (yes, the trust used its economies of scale to employ a central fundraiser) to ensure no children went without technology. 

This has seen an unprecedented lack of negative stories about academy trusts in the press. One, because people, I believe, are better understanding the benefits of academy trusts and their role. And two, I believe the current NSC has a real handle on what’s going on in the sector, is very focused on the detail of trust capacity, and has overseen a period of stability and relative lack of crisis in trust governance that we haven’t seen before. Three years ago I wrote that I wanted the post abolished, so this progress is good news for which he is given little credit – probably as a result of his low key style. 

So we’ve made progress, but there’s a big opportunity about to pass many trusts by

However, whilst we’ve come so far with the narrative for academy trusts at the heart of their communities, and whilst trusts up and down the country have demonstrated their value to their communities, it is important to remember these are unusual times. Alongside the virus, there are no Ofsted inspections taking place, and there have been no SATs, exams or league tables. Trusts have had a little more space to do things differently with purpose. This will change soon. But, for now, we have a top down accountability vacuum that means, at least for a short while, the chance to create something very different and more long lasting is still upon us.

If the narrative is going to stick, if academy trusts are going to be seen as community-focused organisations for life, not just for COVID, trusts and their boards need to create an alternative accountability model locally. This means being more accountable to their communities through a richer alternative model that sits alongside the national, one-size fits all one. An intelligent model of local accountability that, together with a strong community-focused vision, with strong and strategic partnerships, and clear goals for our communities, can secure trusts as places that elevate communities through mobilising everyone in the best interests of children and young people. As I said in my conference speech in 2019, there is nothing that galvanises communities – schools, parents, employers, community groups and charities, health services – like service to the next generation.

If that is to be a reality after COVID 19, we all need to be thinking now about setting the vision and goals, and developing the partnership that will put academy trusts at the heart of our communities. And we need to make sure – in the absence of the one size fits Ofsted and league tables – that we give accountability to communities the prominence and status it deserves. This pure accountability, as I call it, is beginning to emerge, and it is based on principles that have underpinned almost all successful organisation in every sector – putting people first.

The coming months provide a once in a lifetime opportunity for trusts to redefine their relationship with accountability, beyond a ‘one size fits all’ model imposed on them by government, by self-generating a richer accountability to their communities. These are challenging and uncertain times, but challenging and uncertain times are almost always those that give rise to real change and progress. The question is, has your trust board recognised it yet?

Michael Pain is founder of Forum Strategy and author of Being The CEO

Which resources should you look at next?

Pure Accountability – let’s shape a purer, more community-focused alternative: PURE ACCOUNTABILITY: An accountability vacuum? Let’s shape a purer, more community-focused alternative.

Should academy trusts employ community organisers?; Neil Jameson MBE: Why academy trusts should employ community organisers

Academy Trusts at the Heart of their Communities; Case Study Magazine 1:

Case Study Magazine 2:


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