Trust boards and CEOs: Why ‘staying strategic’ matters more than ever this Summer

At a time of significant new initiatives for academy trusts, Rachael Gacs calls on CEOs and trust boards to ensure they also stay focused on the bigger picture and the wider societal trends that will impact upon their organisations and the young people they serve. In this article she makes the case for strategic and proactive leadership.

Recent weeks have seen the first major policy announcement on academy trusts for more than five years. The renewed emphasis on trust growth by the Government, and the launch of the Trust Partnership model intended to spur it, is going to be a big focus for boards and CEOs in the coming months. The model will allow more schools to ‘try before they buy’ and experience working with a trust to access the capacity, the expertise and the collaborative benefits it brings. It will be a positive opportunity for trusts to begin to forge relationships with new schools, to work together for the benefit of a greater number of pupils and staff, and, ultimately, to grow.

However, while Trust Partnerships are, of course, going to be an important focus in the short to medium term, they may also bring with them a potential pitfall if we are not careful. There is a danger that they will overly dominate the strategic focus and agendas of trust boards, CEOs and leadership teams over the next year or so, at a time when some key trends are set to define organisational success for the longer term.

“while Trust Partnerships are, of course, going to be an important focus in the short to medium term, they may also bring with them a potential pitfall if we are not careful”

Indeed, at a time of radical societal and economic change, it will be more important than ever for boards and their Chief Executives not to lose sight of the bigger picture, and to ensure their priorities secure the health and positive development of our young people, and staff, post-pandemic. Therefore, we urge boards and CEOs not to let the ‘what’ of Trust Partnerships completely dominate strategic discussion this Summer, and to remain just as focused on the ‘why’. These other key strategic challenges and priorities must not be allowed to slip down – or even off – the agenda.

There are three key areas that we at Forum Strategy feel absolutely need to be on the agendas of CEOs and trust boards in the coming months: workforce wellbeing & retention; the mental health and career prospects of young people; and digital capacity and security across trusts.

1)    Staff

Wellbeing

The current trends around workforce wellbeing in education are concerning. Recent statistics from Schools Advisory Service show that from January to the end of April this year there has been a 28% increase in absences due to mental health issues. Worryingly there has also been a 26% increase in mental health problems that pose a ‘risk factor’ – which has meant much more crisis intervention has been necessary. This isn’t just an issue for the education sector; there is data coming from across sectors that tells us that workforce health and wellbeing is becoming a critical factor as we come out of the pandemic. 77% of outperforming CEOs surveyed in the IBM Institute’s most recent CEO study, report that they plan to prioritize employee wellbeing even if it affects near-term profitability, compared to 39 percent of underperformers, reflecting that the surveyed leaders of top organizations are heavily focused on their people in this moment.

Staff wellbeing has always been important, but it has never been more important. Issues such as mental health, wellbeing and work/life balance have seen an increased emphasis in the workplace since the beginning of the current pandemic, and we cannot afford to lose this emphasis post-pandemic. It is imperative that trust leaders and trust boards continue to make workforce wellbeing a priority and build upon any work that has already taken place in this area.

“Issues such as mental health, wellbeing and work/life balance have seen an increased emphasis in the workplace since the beginning of the current pandemic, and we cannot afford to lose this emphasis.”

This will mean putting a great deal of careful thought into strategic planning around how best to invest in your staff wellbeing moving forward, including what initiatives and support are going to be put in place to help to achieve better staff wellbeing across your trust. Forum Strategy’s #TrustLeaders Strategic group on Staff and Pupil Wellbeing has explored a range of ideas which may support you in doing this work. Summaries of the first three sessions can be found on our website, and all our CEO members are welcome to join us in future sessions.

Retention

Developing strategies to help ensure workforce retention should also be a top priority for trust leaders and their boards in the months ahead. Whilst the Covid-induced recession has provided a temporary boost to the teaching profession, with teacher training applications having increased considerably since March 2020, this does not tell the whole story. Despite this recent surge in teacher numbers, research shows that teachers who are drawn into the profession by a recession are also more likely to leave once the labour market recovers; so it is important that the sector does not become complacent.

“In terms of retention… the perfect storm may lie ahead.”

However, we believe that the biggest concern right now is the impending loss of a sizable number of senior leaders and experienced staff across the sector, many of whom are, post-pandemic, considering bringing their retirement forward. On top of this, the demographics tell us that we have a bulge of people in our population who are just about to enter into their late 50s/early 60s. In terms of retention then, the perfect storm may lie ahead. So what can trusts and boards do? Talk to those staff who are considering leaving, or who may be considering early retirement; ask what can be done to help to retain them, to support them, and to hold on to their experience for a few more years. Productive conversations which show staff just how valued they are, and that show willingness to support them in staying on that crucial bit longer, can go a long way. As we move into this critical time of recovery, their expertise is going to be key.

If we don’t have the right people on the bus, and a healthy, motivated, expert workforce, it’s going to become incredibly challenging to serve children, young people and communities in the most powerful way possible.

2) Pupils

Mental Health

The statistics regarding the mental health of our young people are especially stark at the moment. NHS Providers published the results of a recent survey on 25 May, which revealed the growing pressure on mental health services for young people, which are increasingly overstretched, despite significant support and investment. 100% of the mental health trust leaders surveyed agreed that demand for treatment had increased over the past six months, with 84% saying waiting times had either got significantly or moderately worse. Health Trust leaders also noted that the symptoms that young people are experiencing are increasing in their severity and complexity, meaning that they are also taking longer to address. Growing concern over the mental health of our young people is an issue that every trust leader will be keenly aware of, and, just as with staff wellbeing, it must remain a top priority for trusts in their strategic planning in the months ahead and beyond.

Career Prospects

Alongside, and in some cases intertwined with this problem, is an issue more specifically affecting students coming towards the end of their time at school, and that is employment prospects. The employment market has been radically affected for young people aged between 16-24, who have borne the brunt of job losses, and the economic fall out of the pandemic. The subsequent impact on your students, especially those aged 15+ who will be looking ahead to the world of work and to their employment prospects, cannot be underestimated; there’s concern, there’s worry, and young people are re-evaluating their career prospects as a result.

“The employment market has been radically affected for young people aged between 16-24, who have borne the brunt of job losses.”

We urge trust boards, CEOs, and leadership teams to keep these trends in mind, and to continue to prioritise the mental health of pupils, and the wellbeing provision offered within your trust. Preparing pupils for the transition into the next stage of their lives is an important part of this if you have secondary schools in your trust, so consider your current careers provision, and whether it could be further prioritised, invested in, or improved upon. Forging strong connections with local business and industry in your community could also open up opportunities for students about to embark upon the world of work. 

It is vital to keep engaging in strategic planning around mental health, wellbeing, and employment prospects; considering what investment, what strategies, and what support needs to be put in place within your trust in the months ahead to ensure that you are well-placed to support all your pupils as far as possible.

3) The Digital Agenda

Supporting pupils to be the masters – not the servants – of technology

The technological capacity of trusts has been brought into sharp focus over the past 18 months in a way that could not have been anticipated or predicted in 2019, and technology is another area which must remain a priority, with two key areas which we suggest need to be particularly considered. 

The first is the role your trust can play in supporting young people to navigate the increasingly pervading influence of technology in their lives, in a healthy and productive way. As technology has become an even more crucial part of everyone’s lives in the past year, the need to help our young people to become the masters rather than the servants of technology – a concept that we have long advocated at Forum – is ever more crucial. 

For many young people, technology is becoming a dominant force in their lives, and this is a trend that has clearly been exacerbated by the pandemic. We know that a significant number of young people are struggling to temper their use of technology, and to use it as a positive force in their lives. The former Children’s Commissioner wrote during her tenure that: much more needs to be done to create a supportive digital environment for children and young people. At the moment, children are not being equipped with adequate skills to negotiate their lives online. Offline, adults should aim not just to ‘educate’ children as they grow up, but to help them develop resilience and the ability to interact critically with the world; recognising that without these ‘softer’ skills, they cannot grow up as agents of their own lives.” This will become a defining issue for children and young people’s preparedness for life – both socially and economically.

“Ask yourself, what can your trust do to equip your young people to be more resilient in the face of technology?”

At its most extreme there are young people who, outside of school, struggle to tear themselves away from the screen to go outdoors, exercise, or spend time with peers – all things which are not only important for mental health and wellbeing, but also for a well-rounded childhood. In 2018 the former Children’s Commissioner shared the bleak statistics which show that today’s children are the least active generation ever, with only 1 in 4 boys and 1 in 5 girls reaching the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise; and it is unlikely that these figures improved during the pandemic. 

Ask yourself, what can your trust do to equip your young people to be more resilient in the face of technology? How can they be supported to use technology in a way that helps – rather than hinders – their lives, their learning, their mental and physical health, and their future success?

Cyber Security

Another aspect of technology which all trusts must prioritise is cyber security. Over 70 ransomware cases were recorded in the school sector during the pandemic, and in March the National Cyber Security Centre published an alert regarding the increase in ransomware attacks on schools, colleges and universities in the UK. It has urged all organisations to follow their guidance on ‘Mitigating malware and ransomware’ which details a number of steps organisations can take to disrupt ransomware attack vectors and enable effective recovery from ransomware attacks. 

“A breach of cyber security is becoming an increasingly real risk for academy trusts, with several trusts already having been significantly affected by cyber security issues.”

A breach of cyber security is becoming an increasingly real risk for academy trusts, with several trusts already having been significantly affected by cyber security issues. For this reason, it is imperative that cyber security is another key issue that remains on your radar, and on your agenda as a trust leader. A recent CEO Study from the IBM Institute has found that the majority of organisations who outperformed expectations during the pandemic have cyber security as one of their top five priorities. Your trust needs to ensure that any potential risks to cyber security are being identified and addressed as far as possible, and, ideally, that you are connecting with and learning from other trusts who may be more advanced in this area. Lionheart Academies Trust have already shared their pioneering work on cyber security with our member COOs, Chairs of Trustees, and Central Teams, and on 23 June will be presenting on cyber security at our National #TrustLeaders CEO Network. 

How can we help?

At Forum Strategy, we are committed to supporting trust leaders and chairs of trustees to ask the right questions, and focus on key strategic priorities, while learning from one another, as well as from experts within and outside of education. Alongside our national CEO network and strategy development support for trusts; our three CEO Strategy groups, on Staff and Pupil Wellbeing, Environmental Sustainability, and Remote Learning and Working, take place termly, and are designed to keep leaders focussed on – and continually learning more about – these important strategic areas.

Join our Chairs of Trustees meeting on 16 June for further discussion on the topic of this article Chairs of Trustees – 16th June | Forum Strategy

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