Michael Pain, Director, Forum Education
Improvement at scale is fundamentally about organisational – rather than individual – capability; and for those MATs looking to scale up, it is important for their leaders to take a step back to move forward.
School improvement is the core business of multi-academy trusts (MATs). Ensuring that successful schools continue to thrive and that schools in challenging circumstances improve to the benefit of all pupils is at the very heart of what MATs do. A fundamental challenge for all MATs is making the important transition towards achieving and maintaining improvement at scale, moving from a place where improvement is achieved in a handful of schools to one where it is achieved and maintained across sometimes dozens of schools across a range of contexts. The journey can be perilous – there have been some stark examples of failure where MATs have attempted to grow and expand without clear plans, principles or frameworks for scaling up their improvement activity. Too many schools, pupils and parents have been let down as a result. Getting this right matters.
A sustainable approach requires a strong theory of the case for improvement – generating and aligning the necessary capacity, commitment, intelligence, processes and quality assurance models for scalability, all underpinned by a compelling vision for what successful school improvement truly looks like. Scaling up ‘core business’ is no small feat for any organisation, but it is particularly challenging for a sector that has traditionally placed significant onus upon the knowledge and expertise of individual leaders to drive improvement. Improvement at scale is fundamentally about organisational – rather than individual – capability; and for those MATs looking to scale up, it is important for their leaders to take a step back to move forward.
Why is scalability of school improvement proving challenging for many trusts? To understand this, we must go back to the origins of many MATs. Most multi-academy trusts are born out of the National Support School model – a model that has transformed the methodology of school improvement in this country for good, it seems. National Support Schools are led by National Leaders of Education (NLEs), successful and experienced school leaders who, together with their teams, provide intensive support to another school in challenging circumstances to improve. This approach, whilst successful on a school to school basis, is essentially dependent on individual leaders driving a focused and time limited project of improvement in another school – it is not, in itself (outside the MAT model at least), about improvement at scale or over a sustained period time.
In contrast, the MAT model demands that leaders take on responsibility for achieving and sustaining improvement in multiple schools at a time. This requires the systemisation and scalability of school improvement methodology and processes beyond the individual leader and beyond the context of their original successful school. As DfE guidance tells us “Building the right support structures and skill sets is critical. It helps MAT leaders lead sustained improvement and significant change. It also ensures that that the trust is not unduly reliant on individual leaders.” Despite this, so many trusts are yet to make the transition from what is fundamentally an NLE model to a model for improvement at scale. Many MAT CEOs are still reliant on the knowledge and practices of one or two individuals (including themselves) to lead school improvement and have not considered how their model can keep up with the rapidly increasingly demands placed upon it. This requires that they develop a compelling theory of the case for school improvement – giving rise to capacity building, training, systemised processes and quality assurance models across their MATs. It’s a theory that needs revisiting as MATs continue to grow – to be challenged and refined. Indeed, we believe this challenge of scalability presents itself at various stages of a MAT’s growth and development, as new schools join and new staff join, and the contextual issues change all the time.
Forum Education has developed seven principles for achieving improvement at scale, which we believe MATs should consider and regularly revisit. These are:
- Collective Commitment
- Robust and ‘real time’ intelligence
- Improvement Activity
- Quality Assurance
We’ve written in greater depth on this elsewhere (Why so many MATs are yet to develop a compelling vision (and how they can go about forging and embedding one), but it is worth reiterating how vision (or lack of it) not only defines but underpins the six other elements. Successful school improvement at scale depends on a clear vision that goes beyond the personality of the individual leader. This can no longer be about ‘my vision’ for school improvement – as it too often is for leaders with a strong-track record of school to school improvement. Success at scale depends on ownership of ‘our vision’ for school improvement at all levels.
A compelling ‘organisational’ vision is important to school improvement for many reasons. It generates the capacity through inspiring and motivating great leaders and teachers to join and stay with the trust. It creates collective commitment to improvement on a wider scale – ensuring that people are ready and willing to give their time and share resources to support the improvement of other schools. It ensures that the right data and intelligence is collected at all levels in order to monitor ‘what matters’ and to inform the change that impacts on children and young people’s success. A compelling organisational vision also ensures that research and development activity that underpins improvement practice is driven by the right motives (by need rather than an opportunity for external funding, for instance) and that the organisation’s own quality assurance approaches are as much about meeting the needs of ‘the customer’ – children and young people, not simply the expectations of government.
As they grow, too many MATs find comfort in their school improvement model simply reflecting the top down accountabilities of government, which is understandable. These accountabilities are universally understood and tend to focus minds. Whilst important, what top down accountabilities won’t do is focus hearts, as leaders, teachers and communities look to the MAT to reflect the hopes, needs and aspirations of their communities and their children. MATs should be the glue between schools – joined together in a shared mission around a wider notion of improvement than what the inspectorate or DfE considers to be success. This is about improvement for your children and your communities. The best MATs will regularly consult, engage, look outwards, and revisit their visions so that they do relate to and inspire all their stakeholders in a shared mission to improve children’s outcomes. It’s these MATs that find it easier to bring on board schools and staff who have a great deal to contribute to improvement.
MAT leaders need to quickly get to grips with how the MAT’s vision becomes both compelling and scalable – if it’s not compelling enough and it isn’t owned by those who will lead, provide or – indeed – receive, school improvement, it won’t be scalable. The vision needs to be co-created and then embedded throughout the improvement model – driving capacity, commitment, the gathering of intelligence, process, research and development, and quality assurance.
- Regularly revisit the MAT’s vision with all key stakeholders, with strong reference to how the MAT will ensure children thrive today and in future. Ask, what does success look like and how can the trust achieve it through school improvement? Talk about ‘our vision’ rather than ‘my vision’;
- Review your school improvement model to ensure KPIs reflect the vision for the trust, not simply the top down accountabilities placed on it by government. Remember – ‘what gets measured tends to get done’;
- Communicate and reinforce the vision constantly, and carefully connect it to people’s roles, responsibilities and accountabilities at all levels of the organisation. Does the vision come through clearly enough through your organisational communications – many MATs still describe themselves by the number of schools they have or the status of those schools, that says nothing about the vision for a MAT’s schools.
This is a real sticking point for MATs. Like many small business owners scaling up their organisations, many MAT CEOs struggle to let go of the day to day leadership of school improvement. This is understandable, most MAT CEOs have been given their jobs because they have been so good at school improvement. Many will say “it’s what I’m paid to do”. Except it isn’t – as MAT CEO a leader is paid to oversee and deliver a scalable school improvement, driven by the organisational model and its capacity – not by the individual. The problem is that a MAT CEO spread too thinly or too exhausted by the sheer volume of school improvement work is not going to perform. In my own view, four or perhaps five schools is the limit to what an executive leader – supported by individual heads or heads of school – can monitor and secure improvement in. Beyond this, it’s an unsustainable position. It’s time to move on and stay in Executive school improvement leadership or scale up.
Stuart Conroy, CEO of Activ8 Distribution and a Sunday Times Fast-Track Award winner talks about this shift in mindset. “In the early days of growth it is about recognising that you need people around you who are more expert and skilled in certain areas of delivery than you are. It’s not just about getting in different professional experience, such as HR or legal advice, it’s about the delivery of the core product.” Indeed, this is a huge mindset shift and letting go means trusting others to take on the leadership of school improvement, not simply school improvement itself.
That means recruiting well. Finance is a tricky issue here and we are all too aware that many MATs have seen the recent development and improvement fund round as an opportunity to apply for funding to ‘pump prime’ school improvement lead capacity in anticipation that their MAT will grow and therefore ensure the role is viable. That’s a sensible proposition. However, the other challenge here is recruiting people with the calibre and experience to lead school improvement across five or six schools. These are people who need the following skill sets:
- The ability to analyse and interrogate data
- Lateral thinking skills
- Influencing skills
- Coaching skills
- Strategic resource planning and deployment
- The ability to challenge and hold people (and processes) to account
- Deep knowledge (and experience) of how successful schools operate and the principles of improvement at scale
Finding people with the right experience and skills is challenging, and that is why a strong vision and a strategy for being an employer of choice is essential. Let’s be blunt – MATs need to compete hard for school improvement leadership talent in a system that is still very new and with still very few people with the right skills and experience available. We know some MAT CEOs who have waited a long time to find and then appoint the right people to these critical school improvement leadership roles.
Capacity therefore depends on ensuring a strong pipeline of future system leaders. Alongside leadership of school improvement, it is important to be able to generate the capacity and skills for school improvement activity itself. Again, this ties into the vision – are we developing school improvement providers such as SLEs with the necessary skills and experience that aligns with our ambitions for children and young people? This is also about providing the necessary training for SLEs and routinely monitoring their impact and progress. Too few SLEs get the professional development they need to make the leap from provider of school improvement to leaders of school improvement.
To bolster capacity further, many MATs are now looking at systematic talent audits of their staff in order to identify skills and experience that may not be obvious based on their current role or responsibilities. Does your MAT have the systems and process in place in order to know its staff well enough and, through that, is the MAT providing them with the necessary development to generate more capacity for school improvement? Remember, this is not about you as the leader knowing everyone’s strengths – it is about ensuring that the organisation’s systems capture this.
Finally, we can’t leave capacity without mentioning that school to school improvement depends on a careful balance between schools providing support and schools receiving support. A sensible approach, in our view, is that taken by the Flying High Academy Trust, which has set out a ‘golden rule’ insisting on three good or outstanding schools for every RI/inadeaqute school within the trust. The trust is clear that it won’t fall into the perilous position some others have done where the quest for growth failed to take into account capacity to deliver the improvement demanded.
CASE STUDY: Read more about Flying High Trust’s ‘golden rule’ for growth:MAT Development: the evolution of a MAT-wide school improvement model through growth
- Before scaling up beyond three or four schools, ensure that sufficient school improvement leadership roles are in place, removing the day to day leadership responsibility for school improvement from the CEO. Recruit carefully, looking for experience but also – crucially – for the key skills and competencies necessary to lead improvement at scale;
- Invest in the ongoing professional development of SLEs, including preparation for leadership of (as well as delivery of ) improvement projects – creating an internal school improvement leadership pipeline;
- Ensure sufficient capacity in terms of schools’ ability to provide support – put in place a ‘golden rule’ for the number of schools with success and sustained performance that it is necessary to have in place in order to take on under-perfoming schools;
- Maintain sensible geographical distances between schools which allow for expertise and resources for improvement to be easily shared.
- Collective commitment
Improvement at scale fundamentally depends on the ability to identify and deploy expert leaders and teachers to provide support across schools. This is partly about capacity to deliver school improvement (see previous section) and processes (see later). However, it is also about commitment and one key issue when MATs grow to a greater scale is many experience a lack of ‘buy in’ amongst colleagues across schools for providing resources, time and energy in order to support improvement across the wider MAT. This is often driven by the differences in cultures across schools joining a MAT and less ‘proximate’ relationships between schools and staff as the MAT grow.
It is important that MATs use their vision (that word again!) and their levers and structures to not only maintain but improve collective commitment through growth. MAT SLTs overlook this at their peril through growth. Without collective commitment MATs will struggle to develop the motivations and behaviours amongst staff to achieve improvement at scale.
Our case study on the Focus Trust identified some clear strategies for developing collective efficacy. Focus experienced these very same challenges and took the following approaches to address them:
Hearts and Minds:
- It’s about being part of something bigger. Establish and reinforce the commitment to collective efficacy through regular dialogue involving all staff. This conversation must be very much grounded in the values and vision of the trust;
- It’s not about losing great people. Communicate the evidential grounding for school to school improvement, including the development opportunities leaders can gain through supporting other schools and the opportunity to develop and retain high potential staff with ‘stretch opportunities’.
- Language matters. It is crucial that key trust documents, processes, meeting papers and agendas, and the dialogue in leadership meetings model the language of ‘collective efficacy’ – including the use of: ‘our schools’.
- Celebrate contributions to collective improvement and success, whether through case studies and articles, or through certificate schemes or at trust-wide events;
Levers and structures:
- Embed a sense of trust wide responsibility and accountability within principals’ job descriptions and appraisal documentation where possible;
- A culture of peer review between schools, with heads and SLT members at the centre, can help to embed a sense of shared responsibility for improvements in other schools. Is participation in school to school peer review part of your heads’ role?;
- Place an onus on commitment to trust-wide improvement and the success of other schools within the recruitment process for senior leadership positions;
- Remember that geographical proximity has an important bearing on people’s ability and willingness to contribute to the improvement of other schools.
- Trust-wide professional networks – with a focus on improvement and professional development are key to developing a sense of collective support and commitment to other schools.
CASE STUDY: hear more about Focus Trust work on building collective commitment here:
Top tip: Generating commitment fundamentally depends on engaging leaders and teachers with a compelling vision for achieving the best outcomes for children and young people across the trust. However, there are also some key levers that can ensure commitment to the wider trust – including performances targets, recruitment, maintaining geographical proximity between schools, and an emphasis on peer review and networking across schools.
- Robust and ‘real time’ intelligence
The monitoring and reporting of key intelligence from across the trust’s schools is key to the success of a scalable improvement model.
The DfE recommends significant standardisation of reporting models across a trust’s schools and this is indeed an important element of improvement at scale. It states that this“enables the trust’s board to be given consistent information so that they can quickly see and make comparisons of the performance of each school, both as a whole and in particular areas (such as the impact of pupil premium funding). It is also easier to identify areas of strengths and weakness within individual schools and, therefore, where schools can support each other.” Indeed, standardised reporting allows school improvement leads, MAT SLT, trustees and headteachers to be able to compare and contrast key data across schools and to quickly identify where strengths and weaknesses lie – deploying support accordingly.
It is important that these systems of reporting include a number of elements: they are regular and routine; the routines are well understood and adhered to by all involved in data capture and reporting; all those involved in gathering intelligence and data are sufficiently trained to do so; intelligence is captured from a range of sources – providing a sufficient degree of triangulation; and the processes of data capture and reporting are workable.
Adherence to the routine of reporting is essential to keeping a large improvement organisation ticking. Indeed, the reporting of data should be a standard operating procedure, a non-negotiable for all leaders and others involved in its capture. However, this should be tempered with a commitment to making intelligence gathering and data capture manageable – ensuring that the quest for intelligence does not in itself impact on leaders’ and practitioners’ ability to actually do the job and therefore present a risk to standards. Again, reliance on a few individuals to capture data is not characteristic of a scalable improvement model.
This is partly overcome by the importance of using a range of sources to gather intelligence and data. Depending on the same sources or conduits of information is a characteristic of smaller trusts that have relied on one or two individual leaders for both improvement and quality assurance expertise, and it is important that this reliance is addressed as MATs move to scale.
The journalist and war veteran Donald McLachlan once wrote “Reliance on one source is dangerous, the more reliable and comprehensive the source, the greater the danger”. McLachlan was writing here about the lessons learned from Germany’s almost exclusive reliance on spy networks and in England and the Middle East that were actually controlled by the Allies. As the military writer Michael Handel says “the corroboration of any potentially valuable information by other independent verifiable sources such as air reconnaissance, radio and radars, and different sensors is imperative. In retrospect, Germany’s reliance to rely so heavily on one (or few) sources is astounding.”
So MATs must ensure that their monitoring and reporting models build in the inputs of a range of sources and conduits of intelligence. This could include regular anonymous surveys of staff to gather views on workforce motivation, wellbeing, professional development and their perceptions of school performance; admissions data (always a good sign of whether improvement is taking effect or not and easily accessible); peer review undertaken by other schools either within or even beyond the MAT (beyond can bring more independence); parental surveys; and – of course – putting sufficient onus on the reporting role of the Local Advisory / Governing Board.
Of course, to ensure we maintain and enhance the focus on children and young people through growth, it is also key that MATs not only listen to them, but take on board their views as ‘customers’ and as agents of improvement itself. As Adam Sewell-Jones of NHS Improvement told our MAT Leaders network in the East Midlands recently “keeping the customer’s voice – be they patients or children – at the heart of the improvement process is key”, This is, arguably, something that many other sectors are far better at than education, and it must be a priority as the MAT grows and – inevitably – its senior leaders become that little more distant from the ‘day to day’ experience at the chalk face. Indeed, children and young people are a great, but often untapped, resource for school improvement.
The Kyra Kids Council, is an excellent example of this in action – albeit operating within a Teaching School Alliance rather than an individual MAT. The Kyra Kids Council is a representative body of children from over a dozen schools within the alliance and they play a really valuable part in school improvement through their learning visits to other schools. When the Kyra Kids Council visits a school within the alliance, there is usually an opportunity for the headteacher to identify an area – very often based on the school’s improvement plan – for the children to review and provide feedback on. Previous examples include a maths learning walk in a junior school and a review of reading areas within another school. The learning visits usually involve a learning walk, pupil interviews, and the chance for children to complete a feedback form, which is then shared with the school’s headteacher. A number of heads have described the visits as being amongst some of the most powerful school improvement intelligence they have received. It is certainly about putting the voice and the views of children at the heart of school improvement activity wherever possible.
CASE STUDY: Watch a video on the work of the Kyra Kids Council’s work:
- Ensure that ‘the customer’s’ voice – that of children and young people – is heard as part of the intelligence gathering process. Children provide a unique (and very honest!) perspective, and they can be drawn upon to not only provide feedback on their own schools, but on other schools too. Engaging pupils in this work can also help to develop a sense of responsibility and being part of the wider-trust amongst children.
- Ensure that the school improvement model builds in clear and non-negotiable routines and expectations for data capture, from a wide-range of sources.
- Ensure there is sufficient standardisation of reporting so that clear comparisons can be made between schools and groups of schools to inform school improvement activity.
Our article on the other three pillars: process, improvement activity, and quality assurance will be published later this month.
For more on Forum Education’s support for multi-academy trusts, please visit: Support, training and resources for multi-academy trusts
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