When asked to think about strategic priorities to make their trust an ‘employer of choice’, leaders prioritised professional development, and enhancing career pathways. This in turn led them to identify benefits for teaching staff, especially sharing best practice across the trust, career development, and working across schools and with peers.
This resonates with our experience of the trusts that we work with. From an early stage in their development, trusts often put in place some shared development, especially for middle and senior leaders. Collaboration in these early stages is often informal, light on systems, and through personal interactions – connections between principals and senior support staff leaders/managers. In our experience, a challenge in this approach is that it risks adding trust-level activities to already stretched working lives. A more transformational approach would see roles and structures redesigned on the basis of being a single group of schools, rather than a group of single schools.
Encouragingly, some respondents to The Key’s research, albeit a minority, also identified priorities that often signal this fundamental change. For example, 30% felt that being in a trust led to less planning and curriculum time for individual teachers, 10% prioritised a trust coaching and mentoring offer, and 6% were focused on workload mitigation. However, only 2% were focused on flexible working, something which will need to increase if we are to create roles which can retain a diverse pool of staff.
Achieving these types of benefits usually means moving from softer to harder forms of collaboration. Most trusts quickly see the need for common systems and policies for finance, HR, management information, safeguarding and child protection. They may also tackle the “Microsoft or Google” question. They will make decisions about what to centralise and what to leave at school level. Although this must be approached carefully and sensitively, The Key’s research shows that there are benefits not only for teachers but for office staff. For example, 64% of senior staff in central HR, operations and finance roles reported that office staff benefit from the fact that “fewer specialist tasks are performed by school staff who may not be trained for or confident in that area, e.g. legal.”
In my view it is a difficult journey but one that is worth making. It allows a trust to move beyond the possible confusion of uncontrolled autonomy, and beyond the straightjacket of top-down direction, to become what Dixons multi-academy trust have termed an ‘Agile Trust’. The emphasis can then be on the growth of teams which are focused on improvement, allowing experiments to be tried out, and collaboration to grow.
Management can focus on supporting individuals and teams to be highly aligned to the vision, and then encourage groups which will self-identify and form to tackle a problem. David Ross Education Trust, for example, operate a ‘team around the school’ where supporting functions meet with the Principal to fix issues and plan for the future. At Weydon Multi Academy Trust (WMAT), where I am a member, our ‘subject architects’ bring curriculum teams together half termly to develop subject passion, knowledge and pedagogy, middle leaders work together to complete the National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership and our senior leaders are working together to develop trust-wide strategies to improve student resilience.
Judging from the trusts that we at CJK Associates have worked with, the pain of this transformation to ‘agility’ is worthwhile:
- Releasing senior leaders to refocus on teaching and learning through improved operations
- Curriculum and assessment improvements through collaborative research and cross-trust roles
- Teaching and learning improvements through improved use of data, CPD, shared subject appointments
- Workforce improvements in terms of recruitment, retention, leadership support & career progression
- Principals experience strategic challenge, clearer direction of travel, purposeful accountability
- Trust to trust support provides the engine for a self-improving system, which is led from the middle and on a journey from ‘good’ to ‘great.’
It takes courageous leadership to focus on the quality of life for a Trust’s students and people when there is such high stakes pressure on finances and exams. The Key’s research is a valuable contribution to our collective understanding of how far the system has traveled, and the hopes and fears of the education leaders making that journey.