Sir David Carter Series - Part 2: School Academy groups. What the system has learned so far, and what might the future look like?

Sir David Carter Series - Part 2: School Academy groups. What the system has learned so far, and what might the future look like?

Former National Schools Commissioner - Sir David Carter - joins us to share discuss where we are at with academy group movement as a whole: what the system has learned so far, and what might the future look like?

Sir David Carter famously captured the dynamic within academy groups when he said:

“The trust is its schools and the schools are the reflection of the trust.”

As school trusts become predominant across England, the same is becoming true for its education system as a whole: a large number of small parts is becoming a smaller number of large parts.

The health and success of those groups is increasingly a strong proxy for the overall state of the system.

In this final part of our series with him, Sir David Carter joins to step back and reflect on where we are at with academy group movement as a whole: what the system has learned so far, and what might the future look like?

You have been running MAT diagnostics as part of your work with Trust leaders over the last few years. How did that come about?

Trust diagnostics was something that I had been thinking about for quite some time when I was in the DfE. I developed some self-assessment tools, which have gone down very well. The bit that I couldn't do as a civil servant, understandably, is to go in and test those self-assessments. I had to be reliant upon what the Trust brought to show me.

When I left the DfE, I was keen to look at what the review structure looks like around that, without it feeling judgmental. Which it absolutely couldn't be. So, the Trust diagnostics were a deep dive into some of the key areas that I thought were interesting and that Trusts, generally speaking, were either having success with or finding quite difficult to do.

Over the three years since I've left the DfE, we probably did around 30 of those in total, with all sizes and scales. We haven't seen any of the very large ones and I'm not entirely sure the model works for a very large Trust. I think there are probably other diagnostic tools that you might use with a very large Trust, but we did them for Trusts from about five up to about 20.

What did you learn from those reviews?

There are a couple of things that are really effective irrespective of the size and scale, or even how well the Trust is performing. One of those is a real correlation between the vision, values and beliefs of the Trust. Why was it set up and what does it feel like in the schools? And the way in which you balance up the high-level mission of the Trust, whilst allowing the schools to respect the context and the community that they serve.

I haven't yet reviewed or worked with a Trust where collaboration is not a really important element of that. I think there is a variance around it. There is a lot of collaboration that involves getting a load of people together and talking about stuff. And I'm not saying for one second that's not valuable. Because that starts to build a cultural capital. It starts to build trust and relationships between people who are not in the same building every day.

However, we shouldn't be too quick to assume that this is school improvement. There is another element to that, which is when you collaborate to talk not just about the narrative of the success. The really important stuff around the collaboration is how did we do this? What was the process that we went through to arrive at this new conceptualisation of assessment or feedback or marking or whatever it might be? That moves away from the idea of just take what we've done and copy it - you'll be fine!

What challenges do we still face within the MAT sector?

There is still a lot of work to do around conceptualising what a Trust school improvement strategy looks like. There are quite a lot of examples where Trust improvement is basically what the schools say they're doing. My view has been that every school in the country has an improvement challenge. I don't care how good they are. I don't care how strong they are in terms of all the metrics. I've never come across a school that hasn't got things they can work on.

That is the reality when you're leading an organisation full of human beings. Schools are either getting better or declining, I don't see much in between. So, this whole concept of continuous improvement is important. If you're running a Trust with half a dozen schools or more, you have to appreciate where your strengths and weaknesses are and how your strengths impact upon your weaknesses.

The second element is around governance. Governance has really improved. From when I started to work as RSC in the Southwest in 2014 up to when I left the DfE, there were some real car crashes to do with governance. Trust failure, school failure is a product of poor governance. We can identify poor strategy or poor decision making by school leaders if that's relevant. But fundamentally, the lack of governance oversight usually results in failure.

I'm encouraged to see the way that we have thought differently about that. We've started to think about what strong, capable, professional governance looks like. But there's still a bit of a tension between what happens at board level and what is delegated to local, school level.

What does it look like to get that delegation between Trust and schools really well defined?

My view about the scheme of delegation is that these are the defined things we need to think about:

  • We need local Academy groups or boards to think about the experience of children in school. Think about the workforce's experience, the experience of parents who send their children to that school.
  • The board has to be an ambassador for the Trust. If you keep it really simple like that, it makes a difference in terms of what happens at board level and school level.
  • The Trust is one organisation rather than the product of a group of schools that work together. The Trust is its schools, and the schools are the Trust. The giveaway for me is when you're in a meeting about the Trust diagnostic and somebody in the school talks about "them", or "the centre" or "over there", as if it's an opaque third party that's got nothing to do with anything that the schools do.
  • When you really see it flourishing, the school leaders behave like Trust leaders. They have a genuine sense of concern for standards in all the schools, without abdicating responsibility for their own kids.

That's a bit of an evolution as well, thinking of it as one organisation. We should think about the Trust like a large university campus. The university is made up of lots of buildings that come together to make up the totality. A Trust of 15 schools, for me is like one university on 15 campuses. And whilst it's not the same, the mindset can be. Becoming more than the sum of your parts is one of the big goals that the Trust set has got to crack.

We built Habitude to solve process and infrastructure for MATs. It’s very evident that we have a real scalability issue with how groups are operating within the sector. We're not good at doing admin at scale, and we're not good at linking pieces of work into processes. The spill-over effects of this are felt by headteachers, senior leaders and front-line staff and direct energy away from school improvement work.

That for me is so needed in the sector, processes matter a lot. To pick up on a previous example, the due diligence process in some cases isn't good enough. So, evidence of a key document is not the same as knowing whether that document is good enough. Ensuring that this work is done correctly, every time, is vital for the health of a growing MAT. When we discover later on that things are not really working, are not effective enough or are not what they seemed then we have to fix them.

This applies in so many other areas of MAT and school logistics. When we ask an already busy finance director, chief operating officer or business manager to take on work on top of their day job, I think there's a chance that things get missed.

The investment up front in something that can give you real confidence that the processes are robust, I think pays for itself.

How often do you see urgent work getting in the way of important work? How do group leaders move beyond today's operational issues to get onto the high value stuff?

Education is busy, isn't it! Schools are busy places and very unpredictable places. I wonder whether the art and the skill of prioritisation needs to be brought into play here. One of the things we do in education, and I'm sure it's true in other professions as well, is we are very good at problem solving. We get our credibility first as middle leaders, then deputy-headships and then headships, etc. Because basically, our capability is demonstrated by the fact that we solve problems. Immediate ones that happen today and need to be fixed right now, and the longer-term problems like raising standards.  

We are good at taking a problem and solving it and moving things forward. And that means that we sometimes default very quickly to the "what" of the why, how and what.

As leaders, we sometimes need to be better at prioritisation. So, if we are going to wrestle with this particular challenge, what are we going to stop doing to create the capacity to do this better? Because the danger is, you just add it to the to-do list and the to-do list becomes even longer and more demanding. Then people feel frazzled, because they never feel they're getting anything done. They're just busy being busy. Not because that's how they've chosen to work, but that's the reality of what's been created.

What can we change to become less busy and more productive?

There's something about the way we think about our role and responsibility as leaders in terms of prioritising workload. The difficulty with "urgent versus important", the urgent things are important at a particular point in time. That's why we prioritised it. We need to create a sense of reflection on whether we dealt with the right things.

That is a big role that coaching can play. I'm a fierce advocate for coaching and if it was affordable, I would give everybody in an organisation a coach. It's probably not realistic but organisational leaders absolutely need to have someone they can talk to about their role. There isn't time for self-reflection during the working day. You can argue that when you're on lunch duty walking around the playground, you can think. But that lasts about 30 seconds before the next thing comes up that you've got to sort out. So, there's something about the role of coaching in that as well.

The complexity of education means that coaching has to have a big role. For the benefit of both the individual and the organisation. If I was back in that role, I would ensure that my Trust leadership team had individual coaches. I'd also recruit somebody to coach my team, so we were being open and honest with each other about the challenges.

Getting bogged down in the urgent sometimes means we take our eye off the big things. Closing the disadvantage gap is immensely challenging. Probably too hard for education to crack on its own, but it's important. There are some things that you probably have to test your workload against.

"If you're saying this is urgent, tell me how that's going to impact upon the disadvantaged kids in the school."
That would be a question you might ask.

Finally, let’s make some predictions for how the next ten years might play out.

There are many strategic choices for MATs to take and we’ll see huge variances in their approaches over the next ten years.
In your view, what will the most successful groups of schools look like in ten years' time? And what types of strategic choices will they have been likely to make?

There's something about scale and size of Trusts which is quite dominant in people's thinking at the moment. So, if we're 9,500 academies now, let's imagine that in five years' time, we were up to 12,000 academies. Could we grow to 12,000 academies without ever having another Multi-Academy Trust approved? And does that mean that some of our tiny Trusts will have to merge or be taken over? I think the answer is yes. I have no doubt a Trust of two or three schools can be effective. But to do some of the things we've talked about, there's a limiting factor of size. So, I think the first one is scale and size and the general MAT footprint about where you operate.

Trusts will need to build upon the relationship that they've developed with their local communities through Covid. Trusts have really supported communities. I've seen more MAT-to-MAT interventions and collaborations in the last 12 months than I've seen in the previous five years. And it's interesting how that focus upon community regeneration and community support through the lens of education will become one of the big civic leadership challenges.

There are still too many Trusts that haven't won the debate about standards yet. Performance of schools is not incrementally better than it was before they joined. That's not going to get any easier, as we think about the challenge of closing the education disadvantage gap. Trusts have got to put themselves out there and invest in strategies that we know work and create new strategies that we haven't tried before. To give disadvantaged young people an opportunity of catching up.

What impact has the pandemic had on the future of MATs?

The next 10 years is going to be challenging for those who were in the 16–25 year age group when the pandemic struck. They've not had the same experience as their older brothers and sisters. So, Trusts need to create a relationship with 16- to 25 year-olds to help them navigate the next 10 years.

This is a really interesting challenge and one which some of the big Trusts are beginning to grapple with. They sometimes wrapped that up around alumni, which is a mechanism for doing it. I don't really care what the mechanism is, butI think there's a responsibility to do that.

Online learning during the pandemic

If we chatted in 2030 looking back over the past decade, what would you hope to be talking about?

I'd like to think that some of the most innovative, creative, incubated, well researched, well, created strategies for new ways of thinking about educational delivery, were attributed to the MAT sector. Not to national strategy, not to the DfE but to the sector. If I look at the quality of some of the people that I'm privileged to work with in the Trust sector, these people will go on to have national roles beyond their Trusts. Those will involve thinking about curriculum assessment, teaching and learning, pedagogy development.

I hope they will also consider what a school day looks like. What does a school year look like? How are we going to challenge the orthodoxy that we've been operating in throughout my career, which is now 40 years long, that has never been changed?

How do we think about education and future proofing it so that if we're ever in a position of a global pandemic again, it's a seamless transition for kids from where they'd been in school to home learning or hybrid learning, or whatever that might be? If we don't start thinking about building that kind of infrastructure and support into the sector, whether everybody's an academy or not, then actually I think the education system will have been deemed to fail. I think the public will be less forgiving next time of our lack of readiness. And we've got to get something right around that.

You said before we started that you're finishing up your work with the Trust you've been supporting. For people that follow you, where might they expect to see you pop up next?

I will continue to do my trustee work, so my work with Centre point is something that's very important to me. And I will continue to support Trusts and do some of the mentoring and coaching I've done with CEOs. I will probably do a little bit less of the high-profile keynotes, I've done quite a lot of those over the last 10 years. So, where there are opportunities for me to help people, I'd like to work with them and do that. But it will probably be a little bit more under the radar than the high-profile roles that I've had in the last 10 years.

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