It’s time for CEOs and boards to reconceptualise what we mean by trust ‘growth’

Michael Pain


We’ve been quite lazy about what we mean by trust ‘success’ in the last decade – more schools, more pupils, bigger numbers. Rarely have these metrics by themselves reflected sustainable and transformational impact on pupils’ lives and life chances. It’s time to leave the 1980s management culture view of getting ‘bigger’ for success behind, and for this generation of CEOs to create a meaningful, powerful conceptualisation of what a successful trust looks like in a post-pandemic world, says Michael Pain.

Another week, another article or paper on ‘the growth’ of academy trusts. This should be really interesting I think, until you discover that the same old metrics and definitions of ‘successful growth’ flow from the page, with barely any new thought or creative reflection on what should be a rather profound discussion. According to so many of these papers and insights, the end game of success for the academy trust system, it seems, is how many schools and how many pupils are in the MAT! Wow, what transformation – I hear you cry. We’ve moved a few schools and pupils from one organisation or structure to another. All too often this is where the narrative of ‘growth’ ends in these papers. Indeed, looking back to Ofsted’s annual report in December, its very short section on academy trusts was dominated by the number of schools in trusts and said very little else – despite the myriad of ways so many trusts have made a difference this past year. Is bigger numbers really our definition of a successful education model where professionals are genuinely in the driving seat for the first time? Is this really what ‘growth’ is all about? It seems so (but credit to Ofsted they did put it right with a more qualitative analysis last month).


Numbers, numbers – ultimately are we all destined to be numbers on a page? It shouldn’t be a surprise – the generation of politicians and leaders who gave birth to the academy trust system grew up in 1980s management culture where achieving bigger, better numbers mattered more than anything else. Yet, shouldn’t we aim to be more than this, and certainly to be creating educational institutions for the future whose narrative is about far more than their size? I’d say so, and – increasingly – so do those who have now inherited the trust system in recent years. I would go as far to say that in the first decade of the trust system there has been no correlation between the size of academy trusts and their ability to give children an educational experience that prepares them to thrive in the twenty first century. In some cases size and scale has spelt disaster, in other cases it has worked well – but there’s no correlation. All too often I receive a request from a trust board to come and speak to them about their ‘growth strategy’. On some occasions I turn it down (unless its a very small trust that has to become sustainable quickly by working with the right schools), as it becomes clear the conversation will go no further than how to get more schools on board, rather than about sustainable organisational growth with profound impact.

Here’s a challenge: Rarely still do I hear a CEO introduce their trust by describing the quality of its offer and its place in the community – even where this work is astoundingly good – but almost always by ‘the number of schools we’ve got.’ So what do we do about this? Well, pre-pandemic and post-pandemic it is clear that the public expect solutions and leadership locally – they certainly trust and expect more from local leadership than national leadership. They want their local leaders to be working together on the things that matter to them – mental and physical health, equipping for employability in a rapidly changing economy, environmental sustainability, and rebuilding in a post-pandemic work. Indeed, if you ask young people about what matters to them, there is rarely a national government strategy for it, but increasingly a coalition of local leaders doing their best, together. Trusts leaders are increasingly stepping up to the plate here. They know what pupils, parents and the public care about; and what they don’t – and they don’t really care about the size of the trust, even though that’s the presiding narrative. When it comes to trust growth, we’ve still got a lot to do in order to shift the narrative from ‘what’ for the ‘why’.

Indeed the recent Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 found that the public are looking to CEOs of organisations (across a wide range of sectors) to fill the void left by government, taking the lead on change, stepping in to address societal issues and holding themselves accountable to the public. 68% said CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems and 66% said CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose change on them. In a context of pandemic and crisis, we can look at this two ways, as an additional leadership burden on trusts and CEOs, or – more positively – as the leadership opportunity of a generation through which we can have a profound and far reaching impact on the lives and futures of young people, through partnerships. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Trust leaders are more adept than anyone at leading partnerships for impact. This is their time.


This is why Forum Strategy’s narrative for academy trusts goes far beyond their size or structural composition. We believe that academy trusts that are positioned to give children and young people the best educational (and childhood) experience possible and prepare them to thrive in the modern world are those trusts that sit at the heart of their communities – connected through values, relationships and vision – always responsive and strategic through a strong sense of common endeavour that transcends into communities. This is an alternative, potentially much more sustainable, model that recognises that success is not simply about size, but even more so about shared vision, endeavour, participation and longevity of that participation.


It is increasingly clear that the challenges of our modern world cannot be solved in isolation, however big our organisations get! The impact of mental health, the challenges and opportunities that come with a culture of all pervading-technology, a fast changing jobs market where the skills demanded are evolving rapidly, and the climate crisis – all things that matter profoundly to young people – cannot be solved by an academy trust alone. But it leads us to the questions: who do academy trusts ultimately serve, and who do they need to work with in order to serve those people better? Only when we ask those questions do we realise that the numbers we have been chasing and putting at the front of literature for so long are the wrong ones (or at least not the most important ones!); and that the relationships, partnerships and solutions we need to achieve the profound ‘growth’ and success pupils, parents, and staff are asking for are mainly on our doorstep. This is the point at which trusts cement their community leadership role – because they have to, and because by virtue of their position they are at the centre of both young people’s lives and communities.

Interestingly, the Edelman survey also found that, rather than simply about being about compelling visions and new partnerships for solutions, there should – rightly – be an accountability for all of this; a new form of accountability generated by CEOs themselves to others locally. Again, there is nothing in our national system’s accountability architecture that allows for this, but why should there be? To have a national accountability system for local visions and impact would be contradictory. The public want to hold organisations such as academy trusts to account directly for the things that matter to them, and it is why our narrative is reinforced by the concept of pure accountability.


Pure accountability plays a crucial role in ensuring we can move away from a national, one size fits all, and (to be frank), rather outdated measure of success, to measures of success created by communities themselves. Like with most sectors in the economy – that are pre-dominantely driven by accountability from those on the frontline – pure accountability ensures trusts are responding to and accountable for the hopes, aspirations and expectations of their public, not just civil servants and ministers. Pure accountability requires trusts to make public commitments for the things that matter, and to monitor and respond over time – reinforcing their role as public service organisations. Examples include the use of pupil surveys, parent surveys, staff surveys, destination data, attendance and health and wellbeing data, carbon emission data and more… This is accountability that really connects and generates ownership amongst the people we serve, for what they believe in.

Yet no one is going to change this narrative for us. If they don’t we will keep trundling along chasing bigger numbers and unintended consequences. Trust boards and CEOs have some profound questions to ask of themselves in the weeks and months ahead, at a time it will feel unnerving and challenging to do so. But more importantly, they need to be shaping trusts and trust systems where they are constantly asking questions of and listening to those they serve – because within that dialogue lie solutions of immeasurable success and impact in the years ahead – solutions that matter to the next generation and go far beyond what you will read about in most ‘MAT growth’ papers. 

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

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