A time for servant leadership: academy trusts at the heart of their communities; Ros McMullen

Ros McMullen is a Forum Strategy Associate and a former Trust Leader

As a trust leader, I remember once informing a new principal that I was going to come and visit her academy to see how things were going. In return, I received a rather rushed email telling me it “might not be the best day to come” and listing a whole range of things she was juggling that day.  Somewhat taken aback I replied saying:

It sounds like a really busy day, please tell me how I can be of service to you?

The principal concerned later told me how that simple phrase had changed her whole view of ‘what the MAT was for’ and set our relationship for the future.

The pandemic has shone a very bright light on the relationship central trust teams, CEOs and Boards have with their academies: from so many principals we hear “I really do not think I could have got through this without belonging to this trust”, and the benefits of being part of a strong supportive ‘family’ have never been more important. 

From the beginning of the first lockdown, when schools and academies were required to stay open for the children of key workers, it became very clear that for ‘standalone’ schools the challenge was often overwhelming; whereas for schools within trusts the collaborative practice and structures meant that the logistical problems were able to be addressed more effectively and compassionately. 

Strong central teams in trusts have quickly been able to rationalise the use of the trust estate, deploy staff at all levels efficiently across the trust, address the challenge of increased resourcing for IT, develop new health and safety procedures, deal with the administration and communication burdens to support leaders ‘on the ground’, and, perhaps most importantly, provide these leaders with a support structure preventing them from feeling alone.

What has been particularly of note is hearing how this support for school leaders has often been extended beyond the MAT to other schools within the communities served by the MAT, and demonstrates that many are rising to the challenge. Forum Strategy published before the pandemic ‘A new narrative for a new decade: academy trusts at the heart of their communities’. MATs throughout the country are not only frequently supporting other schools, but have also demonstrated their commitment to their communities by proactively organising food parcels, by playing host to community projects, such as food banks, by producing PPE for local NHS providers and through becoming the ‘first port of call’ for many in their communities who had found themselves stranded, scared and struggling.

The pandemic has left too many school leaders fraught and exhausted without proper rest at weekends and holidays, and for those without strong supportive trusts they often express extreme loneliness and fear of not ‘being able to do my job properly’, of not being able to express their own anxiety as they protect their students and staff and absorb all their anxieties, of not being able to please anyone and of being terrified of inspection and accountability.

And as ever these pressures are the worst in the most challenging communities where the pandemic has not changed the pressures; it has added the most extreme circumstances to manage on top of the already extreme context. Social distancing, isolation and the economic impact affect communities with poor housing and physical and mental ill-health disproportionately.  We know this; and the principals leading these schools were already under the greatest of pressure before the pandemic literally decimated their communities and the support structures that had so carefully been built up to support these vulnerable communities.

The CEOs and trusts who understand this are building profound support for their school leaders ‘rolling up their sleeves’ and helping operationally; they are absorbing the accountability pressure and protecting principals; concentrating on the resourcing and logistics of online and blended learning; taking all administration, paperwork and official returns off the principals’ desks and into supportive central teams.  They can do this because it is not ‘business as normal’ – this is not normal: this is the time to wrap our academies and our leaders up in a cocoon of love and support.  This is truly a time for servant leadership and for ensuring the Trust is at the heart of the community.

Trusts that are getting this right understand that at this time any ‘walkabout’ should be a welfare check on staff, and an assessment of need; not of lesson observations containing judgements with consequences.  Central school improvement teams getting this right are adding capacity, not pressure: they combatting leaders’ anxiety, rather than undertaking audits and demanding meetings to explore progress against school improvement plans and prepare for OFSTED. 

As my colleague Dr Andy Hodgkinson explained: can anyone imagine a CEO from an industry seriously impacted by the pandemic, reporting to the Board on a strategic plan written 2 years ago?  Trust Boards and CEOs are now aware that all strategic plans written before the pandemic are redundant and we start again: the old accountability mechanisms already required significant reform, now they are unfit for purpose. 

In the light of all the experience and learning from 2020 this is the time for CEOs and Boards to seize the opportunity to re-examine their mission, vision and strategic intent in the light of what their communities now need to rebuild post-pandemic, and the prioritisation of staff well-being, in particular of leaders, needs to be paramount. 

Recent research points to the likely catastrophic consequence of the pandemic on retaining the current generation of principals and headteachers: Trusts must rise to the challenge of serving and protecting their communities and their community leaders in order to retain experienced the leaders and grow leadership at all levels.

Related Article (November 2020): A new narrative for academy trusts – one year on, what happens next?

Ros is an experienced academy and trust leader and a Forum Strategy Associate.  Together with Andrew Morrish (also an experienced CEO and Forum Associate) she operates the HeadrestUK initiative. www.headrestuk.co.uk


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