Academy trusts and the importance of using stakeholder feedback to focus on what matters

Ernest Jenavs – CEO, Edurio

Please note that Edurio are part of a paid partnership with Forum Strategy. Forum Strategy also chooses its partners based on their expertise, experience and ethos

When talking about the role of schools in our day to day lives, Deputy Regional Director of Unicef, Philippe Cori made a post-pandemic observation: “A school is so much more than a building. It’s a place of learning, safety and play at the heart of our communities.” 

Of course, the same can be said for academy trusts which have huge potential to bring together and serve their communities through a wider network of schools and partnerships locally. Indeed, the narrative shaped by organisations like Forum Strategy and CST in recent years is about ensuring academy trusts maximise the potential of community-focused leadership and show civic leadership through deeper partnerships, rather than eroding community connection as our day to day distance from the frontline grows. Demonstrating community-leadership at this scale, however, requires trustees, CEOs and executive teams to take a strategic approach to the use of data, insight and feedback. It’s a shift that’s happening before our eyes.

When I speak at events, I often ask people to imagine their perfect school and describe what makes it unique. The response I receive usually includes such phrases as learning, passion, ambition, collaboration, wellbeing and support. I very rarely hear the words’ grades’ or ‘university admissions’ despite many school improvement plans usually focusing purely on academic outcomes. At a time when the wellbeing of young people has been in decline for some time, and the economy – notably the jobs market for young people –  is experiencing radical shifts, it’s unsurprising that communities are looking for something more rounded in terms of ‘success’ and that trust and school leaders wish to rebalance this notion too. 

We are seeing a growing awareness and belief that pupil and staff wellbeing, leadership dynamics, parental engagement, school culture, diversity and inclusion, and many other factors are all essential foundations”

There is no denying that the academic achievements and qualifications of our pupils are important. However, we are seeing a growing awareness and belief that pupil and staff wellbeing, leadership dynamics, parental engagement, school culture, diversity and inclusion, and many other factors are all essential foundations for securing good academic outcomes and better life chances generally. Yet, our schools’ accountability systems are usually rather narrow and ‘top down’ driven, rather than community driven, and can sometimes distract us away from these underpinning elements. Even though Ofsted emphasise that they are not looking for school improvement to derive only from its framework, trust and school leaders spend a lot of time and energy worrying about DfE guidance and Ofsted criteria, leaving little time to focus on those other things that matter to their perfect trust or school. The emphasis on looking upwards still, too often, trumps the desire to look outwards.

So, how do we create a better balance, with more strategic and less reactive leadership the result? As management author Tom Peters writes, “What gets measured, gets done.” Topics like parental engagement; equality, diversity and inclusion, pupil and staff wellbeing have traditionally been harder to measure and monitor, but tend to be intrinsically linked to the vision trustees and leaders have for their schools. If you improve staff wellbeing, you improve staff retention and cohesion, which will also see the improvement of learning outcomes. The same can be said for pupil wellbeing and parental engagement – these are essential foundations for improvement. 

So, how can trusts broaden their sense of what ‘quality improvement’ is? Well, Michael Pain considers how most successful organisations and sectors thrive through ‘pure’ accountability by focusing on the things they know matter to the people they serve first and foremost – be that staff, parents, pupils or other key stakeholders. By attending to the views of your communities, instead of focusing simply on what ministers and other organisations consider to be a success, you reflect to your community that you have goals aligned and are driven by what is important to them. This generates the trust, social capital, capacity and formative accountability upon which academy trusts thrive.

This use of pure accountability is incredibly significant for trusts. Once trusts and their schools know what is important to their pupils, staff and community, they’re able to focus their work on embedding their values and helping their community achieve success in school and beyond. Essentially, it is the opposite of leading based on a hunch. There’s no denying as a trust or school leader, you are an expert on your schools’ needs, however using stakeholder evidence as a basis for your growth is not just about learning more, it also serves a wider purpose in guiding your development efforts and how you invest precious resources. 

“By asking pupils, parents and staff about their experiences, you can radically change how you lead your schools because you’ll begin to speak the same language and acknowledge collectively”

Ultimately, trust leaders can achieve more by being strategic about the things they and their community care about, and one of the best ways to support this is through using stakeholder feedback. By asking pupils, parents and staff about their experiences, you can radically change how you lead your schools because you’ll begin to speak the same language and acknowledge collectively what your organisation stands for and what it values. Emphasising such elements as wellbeing, which are sometimes perceived as nice but not essential, as a part of your core school improvement strategy will ultimately make your trust and its schools stronger. 

At Edurio, we go further by building research datasets and national benchmarks for the stakeholder surveys we design because adding the sector perspective makes the data much more relevant. In the example below, while 31% of staff feel their workplace is ‘quite diverse’, which is above the national benchmark, only 9% feel their workplace is ‘very diverse’, which is below the benchmark. Adding the national benchmark alongside the school data gives the reader a much wider context.

With data such as this, trusts are able to give clear and transparent action plans using their stakeholder feedback. They are also able to reinforce their accountability to their communities, by benchmarking their successes or otherwise against how other organisations – nationally – are performing against the same metrics. When we build the national benchmark datasets, we also give back to the sector by collating our research in our insights reports which are used throughout the sector to generate discussion and help schools nationally discuss and discover what is important to their communities regardless of whether they have used Edurio for their stakeholder feedback needs. 

Focusing on local communities’ needs rather than just the national standards isn’t a new idea for schools or trusts – many have been able to keep both in balance. In particular, during the pandemic’s uncertain times, many schools have clearly prioritised being responsive to the needs of their people. With no surprise, the agile schools who were ready to adapt, time and time again, to help their community in a way that mattered to them were the ones who were able to retain the strongest sense of belonging through the pandemic. 

So for those who really want to have a more rounded focus on the things that matter to you – and academic success, wellbeing, engagement, community and leadership are all closely linked – we now, more than ever, have the ability to do so. Setting metrics, monitoring and improving those elements of the education experience is like drilling down into the foundations of educational success and making sure they are secure – very important if you want to get lasting improvement. Stakeholder feedback is an important tool enabling us to look deeper. Make sure you use it well!

Author

Ernest Jenavs

Further reading:

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

7 pillars of improvement at scale: Key questions for boards and exec teams | Forum Strategy
Evidence Driven School Improvement; Edurio – Edurio

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