Summer Blog 2021: Academy trusts have proven they are good in a crisis, now we need to get strategic again!

I could begin my Summer blog this year with words and phrases such as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘new normal‘. I won’t! I do want to begin however by recognising the incredible work of those leaders, teachers, wider professionals, administrators and support staff working in trusts and schools this year. Every single parent and young person knows what a difference you have made to them. In a world of noise and social media self-promotion, much of this great work – undertaken day in, day out, without fanfare – falls under the national radar. It mustn’t.

As an organisation that supports and informs the development of the trust system – and challenges it to be even better – the pandemic has helped us to understand more about the model’s benefits and where future priorities may lie for academy trusts.

In this article, I want to share 3 things that I think we have learnt about the academy trust system this year.

  1. The trust model has demonstrated its potential – but there is more to do

Being a headteacher, teacher, or business manager in a standalone school has been enormously challenging this past year. Whilst you may have an LA supporting you brilliantly, that LA has many many other schools to support too, and a wide range of other responsibilities. In many cases leaders and teachers have had to reinvent wheels in their own schools that are also being invented in others – from implementing ever changing guidance, to developing online resources and teaching practices.

In many trusts (but still not all), the proximity of a central team of experts who can provide professional advice in areas such as HR, health and safety, and technological advice (amongst other things) has been a huge benefit for many. For teachers the ability to share new and ever evolving resources across schools rapidly and confidentially, has not only divided effort and energy, it has also – no doubt – contributed to improvements through collaborative refinement. And headteachers in trusts have had other headteachers to meet with regularly and confidentially, to discuss worries and concerns, and to access central support in response.

New research published this week has shown that the trust system has fared better in terms of leaders’ sense of support and resilience, with 55% of leaders in trusts agreeing or strongly agreeing that they felt supported, compared to 38% in LA maintained schools. Indeed, recent research in April from Nottingham University found that “CEOs and their teams, by being overwhelmingly responsive rather than reactive, had ’buffered’ the headteachers of their academies by centralising responsibilities for the development and implementation of policies relating to, for example, health and safety, HR and finance, and building and personally supporting relationships and networks of intensive interactivity. This had brought a degree of stability to the leadership of individual academies, which were then able to focus on the welfare of pupils and their families more easily, and the wellbeing and capacities of teachers to provide and enhance their teaching.”

However, we cannot escape the fact – despite trusts seemingly doing better than other models – still 45% of leaders do not feel adequately supported.

Action: We’ve got to do more to capture the learning and experiences of those leaders in school trusts that felt supported during the pandemic, why that was, and then disseminate it more widely across the trust system

  • 2. There’s still an obsession with numbers of schools as a success metric for trusts; let’s be more thoughtful and sophisticated than that!

I’m on my hobby horse here (as many will know!), but most CEOs and boards still describe their trusts first and foremost by the number of schools within them. This is the ‘what’ – it is neither the ‘why’ or the ‘how’ of trust leadership. Yet the huge focus on trust partnerships and mergers seems to take us back to a time when the size of a trust or its scale was seen as a panacea. We know full well from the implosions of the some of the early ‘super trusts’ that this is not the case, and we need a more sophisticated approach to measuring growth and success if we are going to build a sustainable and impactful trust system.

So, what is the metric of success we should be looking for? Well, trusts with their autonomy and freedom have the potential – should they be bold enough and creative enough to use it – to define success in more profound and relevant terms. The recent Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 found that 66% of public said CEOs should take the lead on change rather than waiting for government to impose change on them and 65% CEOs should hold themselves accountable. Meanwhile, the Institute for Customer Service has suggested that organisations include customer satisfaction and employee engagement as key elements of their environmental, social and governance agenda and reporting. As we will see in a moment, people – including young people – care less about the size of  structure of an organisation, than its ability to respond to key challenges such as health and wellbeing, a changing employment market and career prospects, diversity and inclusion, and climate change. How are we doing on these fronts? Young people and their parents will increasingly want to know!

What does all this mean for trusts? The Coronavirus brings us to a unique moment in time. The accountability system – league tables and performance tables – are on hold for many. What we are advocating is that leaders across the education sector use this time to shape something that rebalances these important but very narrow measures of success, to something more sophisticated, for which trusts are accountable at a local level: a ‘purer accountability’ as we have described it. This is an opportunity for leaders to take the initiative in creating a parallel and much more intelligent accountability system – at a local level, that doesn’t see staff or children’s mental health as acceptable collateral but as a priority. There is a window of opportunity here that won’t stay open for long.

Action: How can trusts define what they mean by quality and ‘success’ going into a new era, for which they can be held to account by their local communities, not least parents and pupils themselves? This is a radical shift – one that requires exceptional and thoughtful leadership – going beyond growth as something that is simply about the number of schools we have or whether a regulator feels they have ticked the boxes.

  • 3. Trust have some complex and profound challenges ahead, which will require a new level of strategic leadership

The next phase of trust and school leadership is going to be defining. We have seen trusts thrive in crisis management and in dealing with the complexity that this pandemic has presented. From delivering online learning at scale to supporting headteachers respond to ever changing guidance, the resilience has been clear.

Yet, some complex and profound challenges present themselves, and only some trusts and leaders have managed to get them onto the agenda. The digital divide is about to be exposed further, and according to research from organisations such as UNICEF and Carnegie UK, it will be defining. Indeed, at Forum Strategy we have long talked about the ‘have and have nots’ of this generation of pupils not simply being defined by issues such as poverty or lack of qualifications, but also whether they are masters or servants of technology.  Even with technology in their hands, are pupils safe using it? Are they using technology to broaden their horizons, to create, and to enhance their learning and knowledge? Or are they the ‘mere addicts’ of technology, scrolling through a world of mis-information, feeling pressure from superficial ‘influencers’, and tapping into social media into the early hours – affecting their sleep and concentration as a result. 

The world is experiencing the dawning of a fourth industrial revolution, one where the ability to use technology as a force for good, and as a solution to many of society’s intractable challenges – from tackling climate change to enhancing health care – is becoming evident. Many pupils are – as I write this – developing the skills and experiences in order to prepare them to thrive in this world, and to live fulfilling lives in doing so. Others are either simply stumbling at the first hurdle, or developing an unhelpful at best, harmful at worst, relationship with technology. This will define a generation. Simply pretending schools have nothing to do with ensuring young people are equipped for the safe, healthy and creative use of technology – through policies such as banning mobile phones – is a rather naive and unambitious outlook. Those policies miss the bigger picture.

Then there are other huge challenges such as the lack of diversity in our system – amongst leaders and teachers – that fails to demonstrate to so many young people a sense of representation and possibility that we should be doing. There is the determination of this generation of children and young people to tackle climate change, and their expectation that the schools that they grow up and are educated in should be symbols of those efforts, not contributors to the crisis. And there is the health and wellbeing crisis, whereby even before we consider learning and educating, we have some of the lowest level of life satisfaction and wellbeing amongst children in the developed world.

These are all enormously complex, and profound issues. Yet if the academy trust – generally – can move away from a narrative focused on bigger numbers and structures, and use its structures and partnerships to create the capacity, collaboration and innovation to respond to the evolving context around it, we can change the game at a time when the premium of leadership is huge.

Action: Trusts must respond to an increasingly complex and strategically challenging landscape at a time when they are still dealing with crisis management. Young people and parents value the support through the pandemic, but expectations are growing in these other areas that will define young people’s lives in the new era. Trusts must seriously consider and be responsive to the evolving context, and invest in the expertise, partnerships, and initiatives necessary to prepare children and young people for it.

The last year has shown me that some of the answers to the strategic challenges set out above already exist within some trusts; there is some excellent practice emerging – it’s just that we all need in 2021/22 to be even better at capturing great practice and disseminating it across the system, to trust schools and all schools beyond.

In the words of William Gibson

‘The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed yet’

Our work at Forum Strategy – as a national network of CEOs, is to keep learning, capturing and distributing strategic insight and practice in the next academic year. There’s no time to lose!

Michael Pain is the Founder and CEO of Forum Strategy and author of ‘Being The CEO’ (John Catt, 2019). Alongside its regular events and leadership development work this year, Forum Strategy has run 3 CEO Strategy Groups focused on staff and pupil wellbeing, remote learning and working, and environmental sustainability, helping trust leaders to approach these key and emerging priorities with strategic insight and collaborative approaches.

Further reading from Michael:

PURE ACCOUNTABILITY: An accountability vacuum? Let’s shape a purer, more community-focused alternative.

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

Why addressing the ‘digital divide’ is the strategic educational priority of our age


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