Trust Matters’ Talks: Chris French


Chris French, CEO of Mercia Learning Trust, talks to us about the lessons he has learnt from his many decades of working in the education sector and his experience of preparing to retire.

Please can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO of Mercia Learning Trust? 

It has been quite the journey! I started as a geography teacher in Rotherham, then worked in West Yorkshire where I quickly rose through the ranks, taking on various leadership roles. One significant step, when I moved back to Sheffield,  was becoming a deputy in a school facing special measures, despite being advised against it. Yet, it turned out to be a pivotal move as I became part of the team that led the school out of that challenging situation within 2 and a half years.

After that success, I transitioned to a suburban school in Sheffield, where I took on additional responsibilities, including curriculum and inclusion. The leadership team there was exceptionally talented, with several members eventually becoming headteachers or executive headteachers. Subsequently, I served as an acting head and navigated the school through successful inspections and workforce reforms.

However, my journey took a notable turn when I returned to the original school that had been in special measures, now transformed into the country's first 3-to-16 school. This meant overseeing effectively 2 schools on 2 sites, both in vulnerable contexts despite their newly built facilities.

When I arrived at the school, I was told by a headteacher in the local authority that I was facing one of the most challenging situations in the city. At the time schools like this were facing huge pressure to be sponsored by supposedly stronger schools as part of the then government academisation agenda. Despite the circumstances, we resisted this forced academisation and focused on improving the school's performance.

When I arrived at the school, I was told by a headteacher in the local authority that I was facing one of the most challenging situations in the city

By 2012, our efforts had paid off, and the school was graded as ‘good’, with the primary section receiving an ‘outstanding’ rating. To maintain control over our destiny, we transitioned to academy status and took on the sponsorship of 2 struggling primary schools. Through collaborative efforts and strategic interventions, we managed to turn them around, with 1 achieving a ‘good’ rating within 3 years.

My vision for locality schools working together led to the establishment of The Brigantia Learning Trust in the north-east of the city. Additionally, we formed a partnership with a local sixth form college and took over a secondary school from a failing trust.

After gaining valuable experience, I joined Mercia Learning Trust in a different part of Sheffield. Over the past 5 years, I’ve led the trust, which comprises 7 schools: 4 large primary and 3 secondary schools. Four of the schools are ‘outstanding’, while 3  are rated ‘good’, and some are considered sector-leading.

Reflecting on my journey, it has been about continuously pushing boundaries and overcoming challenges. I've transitioned from being a teacher to a subject leader, then to the senior team, and eventually, to my first role as a deputy in a vulnerable space, where I took a risk that paid off. Moving to more conventional schools and then returning to a vulnerable one, I've consistently worked to improve outcomes, even in the toughest environments.

My journey hasn't been conventional, but it has taught me valuable lessons about leadership, turnaround strategies, and the importance of trusting in my abilities to make a difference, even in challenging circumstances.

How do you use the lessons in leadership to foster a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement within the trust?

It begins with establishing a shared moral purpose that everyone can rally around. In our case, it's about realising the potential of every child, and leading exceptional schools that pave the way for life-changing outcomes and opportunities for social mobility and justice.

We emphasise the importance of understanding the profound impact our work has, even if we don't always see immediate results. Personally, as a parent, I see the long-term ripple effects of a quality education in my own children's lives, which reinforces our commitment to excellence for all students.

We also prioritise clarity on what makes an effective school. This includes a strong focus on safeguarding, exceptional attendance, support for the most vulnerable students, clear values and expectations that translate into behaviours, a robust and ambitious curriculum, and leadership that sets clear priorities and relentlessly pursues them.

By aligning around these principles and constantly refining our approach, we ensure that our schools are not just meeting expectations but many are setting new standards for excellence.

 We ensure that our schools are not just meeting expectations but many are setting new standards for excellence

Once we've established our shared moral purpose, the next step is to assess our performance against it. We ask ourselves if we're truly delivering on our mission for every child, especially those with special educational needs or those who are disadvantaged. This assessment helps us identify areas where we can improve and allows professionals to come together naturally to collaborate on solutions.

However, it's crucial to focus on the right areas for partnership. We need to find the sweet spots where people see the benefit and prioritise those. Sometimes, this requires a bit of push, but it's also about cultivating a climate of trust within the trust itself. We work with headteachers and senior leaders to break down internal competition and emphasise the benefits of working together.

In terms of resource distribution, we prioritise need over equity. This means that resources are allocated where they are most needed, whether it's for school improvement or building upgrades. For example, in our primary and secondary schools, we've pooled our capital resources to address disparities in site/building  quality, which ensures that every school has a conducive learning environment.

Ultimately, collaboration within the trust is like being part of a family – everyone is treated fairly, but there are times when different needs require different approaches. The key is to ensure fairness in the long run and to reinforce the reciprocal nature of collaboration, where everyone contributes and benefits in their own way.

Of course, none of that comes easily, and it often comes with some challenges. What would you say are some of the most significant challenges that you have faced in your time as CEO, and how did you work to overcome those?

One of the most significant challenges I've faced as CEO revolves around ensuring school effectiveness within the trust. While trusts are designed to support schools in improving, schools must also operate effectively on their own. The challenge lies in maintaining and enhancing school effectiveness amidst changing contexts, leadership transitions, or loss of momentum. It's akin to spinning plates – once you get them spinning, you must move between them to keep them going. It’s  essential to avoid complacency because maintenance can result in regression rather than progress.

To address this challenge, I've focused on fostering a culture of curiosity while avoiding the trap of obsessing over weaknesses. Instead, I strive to recognise and build upon our strengths, akin to the practices of high-performing organisations. Additionally, drawing from past experiences, I've worked to minimise vulnerabilities within the trust, ensuring a smoother path forward despite the ongoing challenges.

One significant challenge I've faced is in shaping the organisational identity of the trust. Multi-academy trusts, being relatively young organisations, often struggle to evolve from a loose federation of schools into a cohesive entity with a shared moral purpose and operational model. It has been an ongoing effort to instil a sense of allegiance and commitment to the trust among staff and stakeholders, alongside their individual school affiliations. Promoting the benefits of partnership while ensuring that everyone understands that they are part of the trust has been crucial. We've undertaken various initiatives to enhance our identity, including promoting our values and ethos, organising conferences to bring everyone together, and ensuring my active involvement in school activities to foster a sense of unity within the team.

Promoting the benefits of partnership while ensuring that everyone understands that they are part of the trust has been crucial

Another challenge I've encountered relates to managing multiple vulnerabilities within the trust. While pursuing transformation and spreading good practice is inherently rewarding, it can stretch organisational capacity and hinder sustainable growth. In my experience, this challenge has underscored the importance of prioritising sustainable growth over rapid expansion. Instead of focusing solely on growth, we emphasise improving the quality and identity of our existing schools. This approach ensures a more measured and sustainable pace of development, with a keen focus on maintaining organisational coherence and effectiveness.

What advice would you give to other trust leaders when it comes to effectively managing and empowering their teams and colleagues?

When it comes to effectively managing and empowering teams and colleagues, my advice would be rooted in the concept of aligned autonomy, a model we embrace at Mercia. It's about striking a balance between aligning on core goals and best practice and empowering individual schools to maintain their unique identities and take ownership of their responsibilities. This involves having open and rigorous conversations with headteachers to establish clear priorities and holding them to account for progress without micromanaging.

Giving space for developing priorities and strategies, along with providing support and encouragement, is crucial. Trusting in people's abilities and being there to support them through challenges fosters commitment and effectiveness. Trust and accountability go hand in hand, and it's essential to demonstrate the leadership behaviours you expect from others.

Ultimately, it's about creating a culture of trust, accountability, and continuous learning where everyone feels empowered to contribute to the collective success of the trust.

So, as you prepare to retire at the end of the academic year, I'm curious to explore your approach to succession planning. Have you actively cultivated leadership talent with the anticipation of this day, or has it been a natural progression aligned with your leadership philosophy?

Throughout my leadership journey, succession planning has been a key focus, although it's never a straightforward process. We've successfully recruited talented individuals and also nurtured talent from within the organisation. Transitioning from a head to a CEO role is a significant step, and I've realised the importance of providing support and guidance for this transition.

Transitioning from a head to a CEO role is a significant step, and I've realised the importance of providing support and guidance for this transition

Reflecting on my experience, I believe there could have been more emphasis on executive leadership development. Going forward, I think there is a need for a more strategic approach to succession planning across the sector. Currently, we're prioritising our people and succession strategy to address recruitment challenges and ensure smooth transitions within the organisation.

How was your experience of making the announcement to your governors and the board, and then communicating it to the parents and schools?

It was a bit of a rollercoaster, to be honest. I had to make the announcement quite early because of the recruitment timeline for my successor. It felt odd having to spill the beans so soon, even though I wasn't mentally ready for it myself. We had to get the ball rolling months before I was even comfortable talking about it.

Then there was the challenge of timing the announcement before the summer break. But we figured transparency was key, so we went ahead with it, reassuring everyone that it was for the best and would pave the way for finding the perfect replacement. The response from the organisation has been very positive, thankfully.

Now that we've found someone to take over, the transition process is underway, which provides some much-needed stability.

If you were speaking to someone who is considering leaving the education sector after a long time in a similar role, what advice would you offer about resigning and ensuring a smooth transition, especially considering your own experience?

I'd say, first and foremost, it's about timing. For me, hitting my 60th birthday and my daughters finishing university, it felt like the right moment to prioritise time with family and friends over career progression. Reflecting on the relentless nature of the role, there comes a point where that level of engagement becomes unsustainable. So, it's crucial to consider why you're stepping down and what you plan to do next, even if retirement is a bit of a mystery.

Reflecting on the relentless nature of the role, there comes a point where that level of engagement becomes unsustainable

Being transparent is key. I initiated conversations early with my chair and vice-chair, followed by informing the board and establishing a recruitment strategy. We formed an inclusive group, hired top-notch recruitment consultants, and meticulously planned the process. Staff, parents, and stakeholders were all kept in the loop to minimise any period of uncertainty during the transition.

We approached it openly, emphasising the need for a strong successor and ensuring a smooth transition. Everyone was kept informed about the recruitment process, with details about the new CEO shared in winter newsletters. The new CEO will also have a thorough induction over the next month and a half. Predictability and clear communication were key to reassuring those affected by the change.

We also made it clear that the organisation is more than just the CEO — it's the entire team of 649 people, each contributing to its success. Continuity and preserving our trust culture were priorities during recruitment, ensuring the right cultural fit for candidates.

It's challenging to plan ahead in such a demanding role, but I focused on finishing the year strong and maintaining consistency to pass on the mantle smoothly. Staff appreciate stability, so it was important to keep things running smoothly as always.

You mentioned how challenging it can be to look ahead sometimes, but often looking back can be much easier. Reflecting on your time in the education sector, what are you most proud of?

I'm proud of my career journey, starting from Nottingham, going to university in Sheffield, and building a life here. I never expected to run multiple schools or lead a multi-academy trust when I began. Over the years, I've worked in diverse settings, from leafy suburbs to inner-city areas, serving various communities. This diversity has been fulfilling.

The legacy of working with colleagues to support schools and positively impact individual children is something I cherish. Whether it's encountering former students in unexpected places or witnessing the transformation of vulnerable schools into secure, thriving communities, these moments underscore the importance of our work.

The legacy of working with colleagues to support schools and positively impact individual children is something I cherish

Ultimately, I hope I've been seen as a sensible, ethical leader who prioritised the achievement and wellbeing of both students and staff throughout my career.

I would say just listening to this interview, I think you most definitely would. Shifting gears, could you share some of the most challenging moments you've faced throughout your career, not just as CEO?

Some of the most challenging moments in my career have been the intense scrutiny on social media, which can be unfair and overwhelming.

Dealing with the deaths of both students and staff members has also been incredibly difficult and impactful for the communities involved.

Additionally, navigating the multiple vulnerabilities of schools, especially as a trust leader, has been a constant challenge. It's tough to make decisions that affect the entire community and to continually place trust in others in vulnerable situations.

The relentless nature of the role, where the job becomes all-consuming, has also been a significant challenge.

Finally, what are you most looking forward to in your retirement?

As I prepare to step back, I'm looking forward to taking some time to reflect on what comes next. People often warn about being bored, but I see it as an opportunity to pause, evaluate, and decide what truly matters to me moving forward; spending quality time with my wife, family, and friends is high on my list. I'm eager to reconnect and enjoy the simple pleasures of life, like going on holidays, cycling, walking, reading, and soaking up some more sunshine.

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If you’d like to find out more about Mercia Learning Trust, visit the trust’s website.

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