Trust Matters’ Talks: Matt Freeston


Matt Freeston, chief executive officer (CEO) at The LEARNERs’ Trust, speaks to us about building a trust from the ground up, the challenges of managing rapid growth and why collaboration between trusts will become increasingly vital. 

Please can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO of The LEARNERs’ Trust? 

I began my journey to becoming CEO of The LEARNERs’ Trust in Derbyshire; it started with my first headship in a school that was struggling, but we managed to improve its rating to ‘Good’. Afterwards, I took on an executive headship in Rotherham overseeing 3 schools, all facing significant challenges and with high percentages of free school meals. When the opportunity arose to form a trust with these schools, we initially intended to stay as a 3 school MAT – but eventually we grew and schools in Derbyshire and Derby joined, creating The LEARNERs’ Trust as it is today.

The trust's foundation was inspired by our commitment to fostering a culture of learning, reflected in the learners’ code we had developed earlier. Since its establishment in 2016, the core principles and mechanics of the trust have remained largely unchanged. This reflects our enduring commitment to excellence in education, despite the challenges of growth and making rapid improvements along the way.

As we were building the trust, we initially relied on staff from within the schools to step up and take on additional responsibilities. We had a clear vision of what the organisation would look like at scale, so we identified key roles, such as HR officers, that could stretch across multiple schools. As we grew to about 6 schools, we started bringing in specialists like school improvement partners, IT technicians and a trust business manager, based on the model we had envisioned. Over time, we've also recruited people from outside the trust for specific expertise. For example, our chief financial officer (CFO), who joined us a couple of years ago, brings a fresh perspective from a non-education background and challenges our approaches in beneficial ways.

How would you describe The LEARNERs’ Trust? 

Our trust is relatively small, but complex. We oversee 18 schools spread across 3 local authorities, comprising 17 primary schools and 1 all-through special school. These schools are organised into 3 hubs of 6, each with dedicated school improvement partners, IT technicians, trust business managers and shared HR resources. We have a well-established central service offering, for things such as maintenance and repairs, ensuring efficiency and equity across all schools. Despite our size, our approach is yielding positive outcomes, with improvements in student achievement, Ofsted ratings and overall progress across the board.

As a leader, how do you foster a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement across the trust?

My approach involves careful consideration of the balance between centralisation and autonomy. It's essential not to overstep boundaries, recognising that while some aspects can benefit from a standardised approach (such as centralised services for maintenance), others require flexibility and innovation tailored to each school's unique context.

For instance, our collaboration with a building company streamlines maintenance processes, freeing up school business managers' time to focus on other priorities. By providing this centralised support, we empower the staff in schools to concentrate on improving teaching quality, implementing interventions and addressing specific challenges within their schools.

However, it's equally important not to stifle innovation by imposing overly rigid policies or solutions. We encourage staff to come up with their own ideas, recognising that they have valuable insights and creativity to contribute. This approach not only fosters a sense of ownership and purpose among staff, but also results in innovative solutions that we might not have considered otherwise.

This approach not only fosters a sense of ownership and purpose among staff, but also results in innovative solutions that we might not have considered otherwise

To facilitate collaboration and continuous improvement, we've implemented various structures and systems within the trust. For example, we organise regular network meetings for different school personnel, where they collectively identify priorities and work collaboratively to address challenges. These meetings are driven by the participants themselves, which means that the discussions are relevant and focused on their specific needs.

Leaders within the hubs meet regularly to share best practice, discuss common challenges and support each other in finding solutions. By creating these opportunities for collaboration and sharing, we foster a culture of mutual support and continuous improvement throughout the trust. This allows us to remain responsive to the evolving needs of our schools and pupils.

Can you share some of the key initiatives and strategies your trust has implemented to support the academic success and overall wellbeing of pupils?

Absolutely, fostering academic success and wellbeing among our students is a top priority, and there are several innovative initiatives and strategies we're excited about. One of our key focuses has been ensuring equity across all schools within the trust. We've achieved this by implementing a financial strategy that guarantees a world-class basic staffing structure for every school. This means that all students receive the same high-quality educational experience, regardless of which school they attend.

One of our key focuses has been ensuring equity across all schools within the trust

Additionally, we've established a stability pot within our financial framework, allowing schools to access resources for exceptional needs, such as supporting students with challenging special educational needs (SEN) requirements. This process is peer-assessed, allowing for full transparency and meaningful collaboration among school leaders in determining resource allocation.

Another innovative tool we use is an interactive risk register, which serves as a comprehensive school improvement framework. From classroom to boardroom, this risk register guides our decision-making process by identifying priorities and making sure that actions are aligned with our overarching goals. This system not only streamlines operations, but also facilitates collaboration and allows us to identify trends and priorities across the trust.

These initiatives highlight our commitment to continuous improvement and equity within The LEARNERs’ Trust, making sure that every student receives the support and resources they need to thrive academically and personally.

What would you say are some of the most significant challenges you faced, and how have you worked to overcome some of those?

Of course, with every success comes its fair share of challenges. One of the most significant challenges I've faced as CEO of The LEARNERs’ Trust has been managing rapid growth while maintaining operational effectiveness. As we expanded to 18 schools within 3 years, we encountered difficulties in balancing the educational aspects with financial and operational demands. This led to a notice to improve a couple of years ago, highlighting the need for enhanced expertise in these areas.

Navigating through this period was incredibly stressful, as we had to address external accountability measures while implementing necessary changes within the trust. However, the collective belief in our mission and the dedication of our team helped us overcome these challenges. We drew upon our shared commitment to improve practices and emerged from this period with a stronger, more resilient framework.

We drew upon our shared commitment to improve practices and emerged from this period with a stronger, more resilient framework

Today, I'm pleased to say that our management report reflects significant progress and positivity. We've strengthened our team, particularly with the addition of a capable CFO and our chief operating officer (COO), who played a pivotal role during this challenging time. While it was undoubtedly a tough journey, we've emerged better equipped and committed to making sure that we never encounter similar challenges again.

What advice would you give to other trust leaders when it comes to effectively managing and empowering your staff?

Navigating the journey of leading a trust is far from smooth sailing, especially as it involves managing a growing team with diverse skill sets. My advice to other trust leaders is to focus on providing clear structures and systems that empower individuals to excel in their roles. With the complexities that come with managing a large team across multiple schools, it's crucial to simplify processes and ensure visibility into key areas, such as SEN provision and safeguarding measures.

We've implemented tools like our interactive risk register, which provides instant insight into various aspects of school operations, enabling swift identification of areas needing improvement. Additionally, we use frameworks like ABC (Ambiguity, Barriers, and Complexity) to analyse challenges and streamline decision-making processes.

By prioritising effective operational models and fostering a culture of clarity and transparency, trust leaders can empower their teams to perform at their best, ultimately driving success across the trust.

What would you say good leadership looks like to you?

In my experience, good leadership in this sector involves being an architect of long-term, sustainable improvements. It's about implementing solid change methodologies to drive school improvement at scale, rather than relying on personalities or egos. Additionally, servant leadership is crucial, where leaders both perform and expect others to act in service and support of one another.

In my experience, good leadership in this sector involves being an architect of long-term, sustainable improvements

Having a clear culture that emphasises being helpful and serving others is key to fostering a collaborative environment. Being a mentor and coach to others, especially emerging leaders, plays a vital role in nurturing talent and promoting independence.

Ultimately, good leadership is about aligning actions with values and purpose, whether it's at the CEO level or within any leadership role. It's about starting with operational effectiveness, embodying servant leadership, mentoring and coaching others, and staying true to one's beliefs throughout the journey.

How do you think the role of trusts will look in the sector across the next 5 years?

Looking ahead, predicting the future role of trusts is challenging given the uncertainties in the educational landscape. However, 1 thing is clear: collaboration will become increasingly vital due to diminishing resources and complex challenges. We anticipate a shift towards genuine collaboration, where trusts and stakeholders come together to address pressing issues, rather than simply sharing best practice.

We anticipate a shift towards genuine collaboration, where trusts and stakeholders come together to address pressing issues, rather than simply sharing best practice

Trusts are also likely to take on a more prominent civic-leadership role, advocating for children and families within their communities. This involves not only educational matters, but also issues such as securing adequate funding for children with SEN.

Additionally, there's a trend of smaller trusts seeking to expand. As they grow, ensuring effective support for these evolving organisations will be crucial to avoid pitfalls experienced during growth phases. The LEARNERs’ Trust is committed to sharing our experiences and lessons learned to assist smaller trusts in navigating their expansion journey. It's an exciting yet challenging time, and we're eager to see how the sector evolves in response to these dynamics.

Looking ahead, what are some of your long-term goals and aspirations for the trust, and how do you plan to achieve them?

Our long-term goals and aspirations for the trust are centred around our mission: effective wellbeing, enriching lives and achieving high levels of academic success. We're committed to continuous improvement, focusing on marginal gains to enhance our impact. This involves exploring growth opportunities and diversifying our approaches to better serve our families and children.

We'll continue to evaluate our work through the lens of ambiguity, barriers and complexity, seeking innovative solutions to drive progress. While we'll stay true to our core model established in 2016, we remain open to refining and improving aspects of our approach to better fulfil our mission. Overall, our commitment to our mission remains steadfast, as we strive for ongoing improvement and effectiveness.

To find out more, visit the The LEARNERs’ Trust website

To understand how The Key can support your trust's current priorities and long-term goals, contact our team.