Securing Improvement Leadership Capacity

Back in November, members of the East Midlands #TrustLeaders network had the opportunity to engage in a fascinating discussion with Lesley Massey – CEO of Advancing Quality Alliance (AQuA) – an NHS-focused organisation based in the North West of England, but operating nationally.

The parallels between the two sectors were striking. Lesley reflected on the key issues facing the healthcare sector; including staff recruitment and retention, succession planning for senior improvement leaders, and managing the expectations of the regulatory system. AQuA – much like Forum Strategy in education – undertakes a lot of work with NHS Trust Boards to help them focus on achieving high quality outcomes as well as efficiencies, including convening ‘improvement collaborations’. Its ultimate aim is building a system and culture of continuous improvement within the health care system.

This particular CEO network session was focused on ‘enabling improvement at scale’, an area where there is much to learn from AQuA’s insights and experience. AQuA’s report – ‘A Sense of Urgency, A Sense of Hope’ – distils the common characteristics of outstanding NHS providers to describe a framework for building an improvement organisation, and is focused on five essential areas: vision; leadership and culture; capability; developing an operating system; and aligning support services.

Core to this approach is assessing organisational capability, determining which staff have improvement capability, whether the organisation has a shared approach to improvement, and whether training needs have been identified to support capability at all organisational levels. Lesley described how organisations taking a systematic approach to improvement have a “skills escalator” in place, describing the improvement habits and behaviours exhibited at each level of the staffing structure and enabling a shared literacy around the language of improvement at scale. This is an area where, so far, there has been little debate or discussion in the world of academy trusts.


AQuA has developed a “dosing formula”, describing the proportion of staff at each organisational level and how they are expected to contribute to capability building, staff engagement and improvement outcomes.

Lesley discussed the importance of ensuring that senior leaders demonstrate their commitment to improvement, in order to have a positive impact on staff engagement and morale at all levels of the organisation. In starting their journey toward improvement at scale, as well as paying attention to their own personal and professional resilience, Lesley suggested senior leaders in trusts should pay attention to some key actions:

  • Commit – constancy of purpose of and commitment to improvement by leaders is more important than the improvement model itself to assuring success.
  • Plan – having an organisation-wide plan for who needs to understand what, and at what depth, is vital, otherwise you won’t be able to sustain, scale or spread improvement.
  • Understand – leaders must understand the key concepts of quality improvement – as opposed to quality assurance (QA measures compliance to standards, QI is continuously improving processes to meet standards).

In discussing Lesley’s session, #TrustLeaders members were struck by the similarities between the work being undertaken by AQuA to enable and support improvement capacity across the NHS and the work being undertaken within their own academy trusts to develop and embed school improvement at scale.

Indeed, Forum’s ‘7 pillars of improvement at scale’ begin with a clear and compelling vision for the trust, which defines the other six pillars. Forum’s second pillar is all about building the capacity for school improvement (SI) at scale within the academy trust – which aligns strongly with the work Lesley described around building the ‘capability’ for improvement at all levels in the organisation.

With regard to academy trusts, we at Forum describe this capacity in terms of both SI leadership and SI delivery. We describe SI capacity in this way because our experience working with over 150 academy trusts has shown that making this distinction and ensuring capacity for both elements is essential for trusts to secure school improvement at scale and crucially to sustain this improvement over the long-term. We think of SI leadership as being undertaken by colleagues with experience of successfully co-ordinating school improvement at scale; with strong analytical and project management skills and the ability to coach and mentor others to build SI capacity. These are people who have traditionally had experience of being a National Leader of Education or Executive Headteachers. As we outlined in the Summer, these leaders are becoming in shorter supply and recruiting and retaining people into improvement leader positions in trusts becoming harder: An emerging challenge for trusts! We think of SI delivery in terms of the day-to-day ‘work’ of school improvement, undertaken by those with professional expertise in a given subject area, underpinned by engagement with the latest research and thought leadership.

The AQuA model describes the roles of ‘Expert’ and ‘Advanced Improver’ as being individuals with expertise and experience of improvement who are able to inspire and lead improvement at scale (similar to improvement leadership). The other improvement ‘delivery’ roles of ‘Practitioner’, ‘Champion’ and ‘Foundation’ all describe how individuals at different levels of the organisation contribute to improvement capability (similar to SI delivery); and indeed the model expects all staff to be aware of their organisational approach to improvement – so that “improvement is everyone’s job”.

Not only does this model help to reinforce our distinction between improvement leadership and improvement delivery in academy trusts; the emphasis on improvement being the responsibility of everyone was a really powerful message for academy trust leaders to take back to their trusts to underpin their work on developing and embedding school improvement at scale. Some trusts are already creating distinctions between the various levels of improvement leadership skills and capacity within their organisations. This is reinforced by appropriate training and development offers at each level, and the use of regular talent audits – encouraging all staff to contribute innovative ideas to support whole-trust improvement. On the latter, one such example from The Keys Federation Academy Trust in Wigan   gives any member of staff the opportunity to present a new idea they feel will lead to improved pupil outcomes; and if accepted they have the opportunity to lead the new strand of work as a “leader of purpose”. This is an excellent way of building a culture of improvement leadership.

This is just one example of many from across and beyond our #TrustLeaders networks where academy trusts are taking increasingly innovative approaches to build and sustain school improvement at scale. Having the opportunity to hear from leaders in other sectors, such as Lesley Massey from AQuA, helps to reinforce and enhance the great work of academy trusts in securing improvement leadership capacity.

Sarah Ginns is Research Manager at Forum Strategy.


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