Looking ahead: what do trust leaders consider important in 2023 (and beyond)?

By Alice Gregson, Executive Director, Forum Strategy

What will 2023 have in store for us? This question is at the forefront of many people’s minds as we embark upon another new year, and, before January is complete, we will no doubt be inundated by prophecies of what lies ahead.

The reality is, in our ever changing world, that none of us can be certain, and if recent years have taught us anything, it is to be prepared for the unexpected. What the new year does offer, however, is a common point in time to pause and to reflect on what we might encounter – and what we may wish to prioritise – based on experience, intelligence and importantly, listening to the insights of others.

At Forum Strategy we have listened carefully through national surveys, trust visits, events and individual conversations; we have utilised intelligence from our strategy briefings, and, we have spoken to our associate team who work in close contact with trust leaders week in, week out. Below, I have picked out six big themes based on what you, as trust leaders, are saying will likely dominate your priority lists for the year ahead.

1. Providing stability, continuity and support to pupils, staff and communities

We are all aware of the impact of the current cost of living crisis and how it is further deepening already existing inequalities. ONS statistics published in October showed individuals with disabilities, individuals from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities and individuals on lower income are all being particularly adversely affected. This is frustrating and motivating in equal measure, as we seek, as a sector, to ensure no one is left behind.

It is also affecting the way we work – a recent survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) found that more than 1,000 managers and team leaders in the UK are becoming so anxious about the cost-of-living crisis that it is affecting their performance at work. Rising inflation and interest rates, alongside shrinking levels of funding for public services, are also causing workers and unions to take industrial action as people seek to find ways to ensure their salary keeps up with the pressures of their job and the cost of living. Governmental churn and incompetency have undoubtedly been contributing factors to this period of instability.

The resultant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils and staff is significant and pervasive, and our recent Being The CEO survey shows that addressing this is a high priority for trust leaders right now. Indeed, the role of a trust (and the schools within it) is becoming increasingly about community support and providing a place of stability, constancy, and continuity. Whether this is through the provision of food banks and signposting to key local support services, offering school facilities to help people to stay warm and connected, or through the expansion of wellbeing support and services, as trust leaders you have been clear in your commitment to your communities – but it requires constant work and investment. There is no doubt that those leaders who lead with compassion and invest as far as possible in the necessary support, will contribute to the resilience and ability of those around them to weather the storm.

2. Being an employer of choice

We know the significant challenges when it comes to recruitment and retention. The NFER (among others) have long reported on the risk to teacher numbers and more recently, on the declining numbers of new teacher trainees (which are markedly below target). And this is just one example from just one part of the workforce. Real terms falls in pay have hit the teaching and education profession particularly hard. And, we also exist in an incredibly competitive employment market, where employment (and vacancy) levels are at record levels, and as strategic trust leaders, you undoubtedly recognise you are competing with the wider economy for top talent. In our recent annual ‘Being The CEO’ report, we saw recruitment and retention rise significantly as one of the top challenges for CEOs.

The pandemic, cost of living pressures and economic outlook have all clearly exacerbated this issue. However, as leaders our focus has to be on the whole picture, and – crucially – on ensuring that our organisation is one that people choose to work for. A key starting point is thinking about and monitoring carefully what it is that attracts individuals to roles, why they stay, and why they leave, and what that tells us about organisational culture including how, as leaders, we nurture it for the better. Many trusts are also thinking hard about, and investing in, the things that really matter to employees right now, such as flexible working, continuous professional development, and fair workload. The trust model provides some huge opportunities here because of the scale and support networks that exist across schools. But, without such a holistic approach, it will be very hard indeed to achieve our goal of recruiting and retaining effectively.

The most forward-thinking and strategic CEOs will ensure that they, and their boards, have this on their agenda throughout 2023; planning, investing and acting accordingly, based on the best thinking and insight from within and beyond the sector. I suspect we have yet to see the full extent of potential departures from the sector, and, therefore, proactively addressing this will be key to mitigating against further instability and challenge. But it’s fundamental – as Sir Michael Barber has said – no school (or school system) exceeds the quality of its teachers and staff.

3. Ensuring safeguarding, attendance and behaviour

A sound foundation for pupils’ learning and healthy development is at the heart of everything, yet there are some key risks and issues. Recent research from Edurio and our partners at The Key clearly highlights some significant safeguarding issues, one deeply worrying example being that 1 in 10 pupils have missed school because they feel unsafe. It must be a priority to address such issues, but further still, to identify and address the underlying causes too. The legacy of the pandemic, the impact on wider support services, and wider societal issues are undoubtedly affecting our children and young people. Indeed, the House of Commons (HoC) Education Committee has launched an inquiry in January to investigate causes and possible solutions to the growing issue of school absenteeism.

As trust leaders, while you won’t necessarily be down into the details on a daily basis, but you will need to ensure that your trust and its schools has access to the necessary expertise and resource to meet what feel like ever-growing needs. It is crucial that boards and executive teams listen to their schools and families carefully to understand the challenges pupils face and to invest in and deploy resources strategically to meet those needs as far as possible. We know our children and young people have suffered as a result of some unprecedented situations over the last few years, and the challenge now lies in how we support them not only to recover, but to thrive in the years ahead. A key part of this may be considering how we develop curriculums that really equip children and young people with the skills they need for life, and to develop the ability to contribute meaningfully to the world – which also links to the next priority area.

4. Identifying and showing progress on vital global issues

People are becoming increasingly aware of their role as ‘global citizens’ and expect the organisations that serve them to model leadership and progress across a range of issues. This is no more evident than amongst young people, as social media and greater access to information have brought global events to the forefront of their attention. From the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ movements, to the impact of climate change, and the causes and consequences of wars across different countries – our children and young people (as well as many parts of our workforce) are more aware than ever, and they expect organisations in the education sector to play their part in addressing the societal issues that require progress.

As trust leaders you will be thinking more and more about your ambitions, your strategies and importantly your actions, in relation to issues such as equality, diversity and inclusion, and environmental sustainability. Whether it’s evaluating your curriculum content, your support offers to staff, or the ways in which you invest and lead by example (through ensuring estates are sustainable or supporting staff members to work with charities on particular causes), developing a strategy for these issues will be essential as people become more aware of their place in the wider world and the responsibilities to go with it.

Governance matters here too. A recent report from Willis Towers Watson has shown that more organisations are measuring CEO and executive performance by their impact across these areas. The most forward-thinking boards in education recognise that we cannot sit back and wait for governments or others to take a lead here.

5. Looking outwards, especially when things are confusing looking upwards

Clearly the departments and bodies working closely with (or in) government, haven’t been immune to the constant change and churn we’ve seen over the last year in particular. And it’s safe to say that the year(s) ahead are just as likely to be turbulent, particularly as we move towards a General Election in 2024. In our 2022 ‘Being The CEO’ report, changes in government policy were giving significant cause for concern among CEOs. With the Schools Bill dropped, and the white paper disappearing from the radar, there seems to be little direction about the future of the trust system currently, or a strategy for its growth and development. We know this has left many trust leaders frustrated. We also know that there have been issues raised to Ofsted around the latest Education Inspection Framework (EIF).

So, undoubtedly, you will be considering how you deal with the constant chop and change. Whilst there may not be a ‘national strategy’ per se that you can utilise to control the impact of some of this, our discussions with members of Forum Strategy have always focussed on how, with clear vision and values, you can use your autonomy (and therefore power) as trust leaders to keep things on course, and make the most of the opportunities that present themselves through partnership and professional innovation locally, regionally and nationally. The National #TrustLeaders Symposium last year was a good example of trust leaders responding to the context and innovating together – there are so many more across the system.

So as the year moves forward and more uncertainty comes, how can you use the control and partnerships you have to keep things on course, and strive forward with innovation, despite what the government is (or isn’t) doing?

6. Creating thriving, effective organisations and leading positive systemic improvement

While some use the term ‘strong trusts’ – and this may well have its place for regulators and government – at Forum Strategy we believe in defining the success of a trust through an alternative lens that connects better with schools and communities. We propose that trusts should aspire to be ‘thriving’ organisations, demonstrating a strong sense of connectedness and community, underpinned by some key principles for successful organisational development and better educational experiences for pupils.

For some this might mean a focus on substantial growth in the number of schools, for others it might mean a different kind of growth – such as key resources, central provision or partnerships that further improve the lives of pupils and staff. For many, developing local partnerships with businesses, health services or local charities will be key this year. And for almost certainly all, securing financial sustainability, considering strategic investment, and finding a way to ensure medium-long term stability, will be essential.

There are many facets that influence whether an organisation really thrives and in education, it will be essential to consider contextual factors. What is right for your children and communities in 2023 could well be very different to what is right for those in other trusts. That is why straight-jacketing what trust success is through too narrow or prescriptive a definition is not helpful as we move forward. But one thing I am sure we can all agree on is that thriving is where we all want to be. And so, the work to consider what that looks like at a system level as well as considering what it looks and feels like at individual trust level will be really important for the year ahead. Indeed, we have just published our first thinkpiece on this and have more in the series planned over coming months. We will make sure this work continues forward, in partnership with you.

Of course, it is important as we reach the end of this article, to recognise that these areas do not constitute an exhaustive list or a static one. Priorities and how often they shift depends very much upon context and there is rarely a one size that fits all in education – as is often the case, we start with some areas of common purpose and we build from there. And we keep listening.

But as a final thought, I do want to remind you of something I said clearly at our National #TrustLeaders CEO Conference last year and that is worth mentioning again. In the midst of some incredible levels of uncertainty and change, there are pockets of stability and support. And we hope you consider us to be one of those. The national #TrustLeaders networks will be a continual, unwavering source of support in the months and years ahead. You are not on your own and there are certainly many opportunities on offer alongside the challenges that we’d be remiss not to recognise.

In finishing, and drawing once more from our annual conference and the theme of ‘hopeful leadership’, there is much to be hopeful about looking ahead to 2023. Let’s make sure we remember that as we strive (as I know you all do so well) to lead with intent, purpose and direction.

Forum Strategy is a national membership and a consultancy organisation supporting CEOs, COOs, and executive leaders, with a particular focus on those leading academy trusts. To find out more about each of our three national #TrustLeaders networks, please visit our webpage here: https://forumstrategy.org/our-networks/

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