Sir David Carter Series - Part 1: David shares his playbook for school groups on a growth journey

Sir David Carter Series - Part 1: David shares his playbook for school groups on a growth journey

Former National Schools Commissioner - Sir David Carter - joins us to share his advice for school academy groups that are in the midst of, or are setting out on a growth journey.

1. Build the right team

MATs clearly are quite different organisations from schools and have to contend with a different set of strategic and operational issues. What type of workforce sets them up for success with handling those issues?

This is part of the evolution that we’re seeing now. I’ve talked quite a lot about this being MAT 2.0 time. We had 1.0 from the massive growth that we’ve seen in academies across the sector in the last 10 years and now we’re asking what the next 10 years will look like. The point that you just made is one of those features.

We’re going to see Trusts thinking very differently about the workforce they need to run and lead an effective organisation. So, whilst I don’t know the precise figure, I would imagine more than 90% of Trust leaders are former teachers, former head teachers. And there are a growing number of people coming into the CEO role who have not had an education background and are doing some fantastic work. And they’re very credible leaders across the sector.

Where you’ve got somebody who’s got that experience of being very school focused in the early parts of their career, they might not have so much insight into managing change, talent strategy, financial predicting and the metrics around financial sustainability. Those are not necessarily the habits of a head teacher, although they are a part of it. Then you see people beginning to look differently at it.

Leadership from inside the classroom

What might the Leadership Team look like?

Leadership & expertise from inside schools

The nature of the profession is that people who have really strong track records in improving schools are going to be in the vanguard of  top leadership roles. It’s very hard to argue with that, because the credibility of being able to create improvement strategies is really powerful. And I have no problem with that whatsoever. As long as you build the other professional skill sets around you that you may not have had or developed as a head teacher.

Also, leadership & expertise from outside of schools

I also think we need to be open minded to the point that people who have had other impacts, whether in the charitable sector or in other public sectors, or even the private sector, who have understood the concept of leading high performing organisations, also have something to offer us. I suspect that some of the medium to large sized Trusts will look at people who have got a very different background.

One of the real core skills that you need in your Trust leadership team is that of project management, because many of the things that you’re doing are projects.

They emerge from a project into a strategy, but fundamentally the change pathway from the initial concept of a great idea to it landing in classrooms and making a difference to kids, needs some really sophisticated experience to manage the projects. That’s another example of that relationship between project and change that I think we’re starting to see some variance around.

The other element of it is that people need to realise that if you simply leave to chance that the journalism profession will think that everything you do is great, you’re very naive. You have to be on the front foot with this. I’ve seen quite a few Trusts who have people with really strong expertise in communications coming in and rethinking the whole concept of communicating what they do, what they’re about and what their values are to a really diverse audience. Which on one hand is the DfE, and regional schools’ commissioners and at the other end, it’s parents and the community. And the same message wouldn’t necessarily land in both ways. I think there’s some real opportunities for people to diversify and think differently about who they bring in.

But do think differently from a school

If you are running a Trust of 40 schools across four or five RSC regions, I think the question I would always pose is, do you need another ex-head teacher in that role when you’ve already got 40 of them working together as a team? Or do you need someone different to run a really capable organisation that enables those schools to flourish? It’s an interesting debate to have.

I see it quite a lot in Trusts and boards at the moment where the founding CEO often is moving on to something else or retiring. They’re starting to have those debates with each other about what the replacement looks like. And I think that’s healthy.

2. Know your group (if you want to grow your group)

How clear should groups be about what it will mean to join them, and how should they do that?

When I’ve been working with Trusts over the last year who have been talking to me about their growth strategy, the first point I make is to ask whether the people they already employ understand the benefits of being part of the Trust. If you’re going into a conversation with a potential new school with any degree of authenticity, you have got to know that the people who you currently employ believe it, recognise it and benefit from it.

When you go and do your pitch to staff, governors or parents, don’t line up at the front as a group of people in smart suits. Take people from different aspects of the workforce. Take a teaching assistant, an NQT or somebody who is really working at the sharp end in classrooms day in, day out. They can talk about how their job as a classroom teacher is made easier because they’re in this Trust. Because the leaders would say that, wouldn’t they?

How do you get people from a diagonal slice of the workforce to say, “I was a sceptic, but I’ve had this experience, and now I’m absolutely committed to the Trust”? We have to think very differently about how to do that.

How are would-be joiner schools weighing up their decision to join or not join other groups?

What you can’t sugar-coat is that when you leave your status as a single Academy Trust or maintained school, you are giving up some of your freedoms. So, you’ve got to come up with a set of compensations that make it even more attractive to join, even though you’re going to lose some of that independence.

I know of a Trust where they’ve got a really big focus on the arts or on sport and other schools want to be part of that. But I think that compelling reason about the role of a good school in a multi-Academy Trust, get that right and I think we’ll begin to see some movement.

Some of the hesitation comes from - and this is probably an unpopular view, but it needs saying - adults battling for their autonomy at the expense of what’s on offer for the children. So, whenever I hear people tell me about how important their autonomy is to them, the answer is nearly always about how that benefits the adults, not how that benefits the kids. Because I cannot buy into an argument that says that by working on our own as one school, believing that we can work within the confines of our building and solve all the challenges that we’ve now got post-pandemic is a better place to be than working in a formal partnership.

So, there’s something here about the autonomous head not wanting a boss. And the reality is, we all have a boss somewhere even if it is the chair of governors or trustees. So, we need to change that mindset. But the argument around how to get schools to join is an interesting one.

What are the different ways you are seeing groups increase the size of their activities?

One thing you have to think about is what growth means. Obviously, growth means more schools joining you, but I think there are other definitions of growth.

So, it could well be the same composition of schools, but having your schools always at 100% capacity. More children attending your current schools in your existing Trust, that would be growth.

Or it could be, how do we play a wider role in the sector? How do you work with other multi-Academy Trusts, and either help them to grow or to become more effective?

That’s another definition of growth, as is the associate membership model. The legislation makes it very clear that a school that fails, certainly in the maintained sector and more than likely in the academy sector, has a structural, formal consequence of that failure.

Growth strategy planning meeting

3. Once you’re growing, do it smartly

What’s your advice to a single school or small MAT that now wants to enter a growth phase?

Before you grow

Let’s talk about what you should be doing now ahead of growth. And then what you should be doing after growth. Number one for me would be to do the most astute and high-quality due diligence you can possibly do. I still think that probably even the most effective due diligence gives you about 80% of what you need to know. The 20%, which will be the bit that will be hard, comes later.

Doing that due diligence is really important and part of that due diligence is to do what I call the compatibility test. So, how far apart is the gap between the values of what the Trust believes in and what that school believes in? And how difficult is it going to be to get them into the culture?

Secondly, if you haven’t got one yet, find yourself a brilliant project manager. Because if you’re in a small Trust and you’re the CEO, you can’t project manage that and run the Trust. I’ve seen too many examples of a CEO being deflected, quite rightly so because they’ve been the only one that can do it, to the needs of the new school. That eye off the ball stuff has created a problem back at base. So, the expertise of an experienced project manager is really important.

Thirdly, what do people say about working for your Trust? What’s the evidence that being an employee of your organisation makes their job easier? Whether that evidence is via poll surveys, a series of roundtables, or a more direct piece of research with the workforce, you have to have the answer to that question. That authenticity that you need to persuade somebody can’t be just rooted in what you think is true. It’s got to be backed up by reality.

As you grow

When growth is starting to happen, the transition point is what role does that school play in my Trust? If it’s a school in special measures, the challenge is to get it out of trouble quickly. But once the problem that has led to poor standards is resolved, they will have a defined role within the Trust.

You need clarity around what the offer is, what they will be asked to do and what are the non-negotiables that will inevitably fall out of this transfer. But also, how will they benefit as a result of it? Some of that will be unique to what that school can offer. If it’s a secondary school with a science faculty that is better than anything you’ve already got, that’s a clue to where you might invest. The Trust might overstaff that science faculty so staff can help improve science standards elsewhere. Those tangible examples of what we will do and what the school is being commissioned to do are really important.

The final part of that is due diligence, which is often perceived as something that you do until the school joins you. I think due diligence carries on for a year after that. Because at that point, you’re testing what you found out. You’re also testing whether people’s perceptions are changing about being in this Trust. Because if you’ve gone through this roller coaster of experience as a member of staff being moved from one employer to another, and all the potential turbulence that goes around that, there can sometimes be an underwhelming sense that nothing much has changed. So, what is the process of inducting the new school into a Trust that makes people realise that this is different, and things are going to be done differently?

Bring all of your constituents with you

It’s not always possible, but it is useful for the Chief Executive or their team to have a one to one with everybody in the school that is joining you. Because there’s no other way to find out what they think, and no other way to find out what they would like to do. One of the questions I always used to ask is, “What are you going to be doing in three years’ time?” And that would be an interesting question in terms of getting people to think about where they’d like their career to go. It gives you a sense of their aspiration and ambition and how you can help them.

Due diligence doesn’t run out of steam when the transfer happens. It actually carries on afterwards. If you put all that together in a mixing pot, you have some sense of making the growth strategy realistic and deliverable.

There is a real difference between the mindset of a school that joins a Trust and the school that formed the Trust. Particularly where you’ve had a situation where a key leader goes and works with another group of people. It sometimes leaves the original school feeling a bit bereft and destabilised. Whilst people rightly put all their energies into schools that have failed to try to improve them, the founding school can suddenly feel a bit isolated and left out. You absolutely have to find a way to continue to keep original donor school engaged so that they continue to be strong. Because in the early days, it’s likely that some of your capacity to improve another school will come from them.

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