Trust Matters’ Talks: Paul Kennedy

paul kennedy

Paul Kennedy, chief executive officer of The Good Shepherd Trust, talks to us about developing trust-centric mindsets, leadership lessons, and burst pipes!

Please can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO of The Good Shepherd Trust?

Oddly, I'm a computer science graduate – and you don’t find many of us in education! Despite this background, I found myself teaching maths because computer science wasn't taught in schools at the time. 

After several years, I transitioned to working in IT work for schools, but eventually returned to teaching as an assistant headteacher, then became a deputy headteacher and finally a headteacher. I then became CEO of a trust, and I did that for about 4 and a half years. Now, I'm CEO of The Good Shepherd Trust – my second CEO role.

How would you describe The Good Shepherd Trust?

Our trust has come a long way since its inception 10 years ago. Initially, we focused on schools facing challenges. Over the years, we've grown to include 19 schools in our trust and we work with 25 schools in total. Our trust is mainly primary schools, and none of the schools is particularly large. Our school sizes range from around 60 to 700 students. 

We are a Church of England MAT, but we have articles that mean we can take non-Church of England schools, so we do have a non-Church school in our trust as well. We serve the Guildford Diocese, which includes all of Surrey and a small part of Hampshire.

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

This is a top priority for me. It takes deliberate effort and hard work. It's crucial to create a clear vision for the trust, and to make sure that collaboration and improvement are central to that vision. 

It's crucial to create a clear vision for the trust

When I started, we had a 3-year plan: year 1 was alignment, year 2 was better, and year 3 was aiming for good results. 

We called year 2 ‘better together’, focusing on working as a team to improve. We shifted from being 16 individual schools in a trust to being a cohesive, unified trust of 16 schools. It required a conscious effort to change the culture, by consistently emphasising teamwork and improvement.

What are some of the key initiatives and strategies that the trust has implemented to support academic success and the wellbeing of students and staff?

I joined the trust right before COVID-19 hit and we quickly pivoted to remote collaboration. We co-ordinated risk assessments and HR support across all 16 schools, allowing them to stay open and function effectively during the pandemic. We did that really well, and it allowed the schools to focus on staff and pupil wellbeing. 

We then divided the trust into 4 hubs, which now have 4 to 5 schools each. The hubs have been a game-changer for collaborative working. We have networks within each hub – for designated safeguarding leads who do peer supervision and support each other, and for caretakers who band together in emergencies. A prime example: when a pipe burst in 1 of our schools, caretakers from all the hub schools rushed in with their pumps and had the water cleared by lunchtime!

Caretakers from all the hub schools rushed in with their pumps

We've also set up subject-specific networks across the trust which are invaluable. Subject leaders meet regularly and share ideas, resources, and best practice. They use a shared online workspace to easily access and contribute to the collective pool of knowledge. This reduces duplication and encourages teamwork.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your time as trust CEO, and how have you worked to overcome them?

As a relatively new CEO in an established trust, you have to earn the respect and trust of your staff. It's about building relationships and understanding the trust's culture, history and values. You have to be humble and respectful, and let your actions do the talking.

You have to be humble and respectful, and let your actions do the talking

Maintaining financial stability is also a big concern, due to declining enrolment and funding. We've had to get creative in our management and leadership to stay financially sound. We have to make sure we're getting the most out of every penny. Our systems are now running smoothly, and that’s been a game-changer. For example, our new HR system saves our headteachers hours of time. It may seem mundane, but having efficient systems makes a huge difference.

Shifting from an individual school mindset to a trust-centric one has been challenging, especially for schools that have been deeply ingrained in their communities for generations. We must approach this shift with sensitivity and understanding. 

Ultimately, I think of the word ‘trust’ in 2 ways: ‘Trust’ with a capital T, meaning ‘who we are’; and ‘trust’ with a small t, meaning ‘is there trust in my decision-making and leadership?’.

How do you see the role of trusts, and your trust in particular, evolving in the coming years?

I see the role of trusts, including ours, becoming more integral to the operations of schools. Joining our trust means we'll be actively involved in your school's operations – we won't be sitting in the background. We have to provide more services centrally, and we have to do more centrally. With our limited funding, we need to maximise our impact across all our schools, big and small. We're increasing the level of central services we provide, so we can operate more efficiently and effectively.

To protect classroom teaching, we need to do more centrally and make the trust the hub. This means schools become branches, not standalone entities. We'll preserve each school's individuality, but the trust will take on more responsibility to fill the gaps that schools can't cover. Systems are crucial in making this happen.

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

Clarity is key. We recently had an Ofsted MAT summary evaluation, which emphasised the importance of prioritising the trust-level approach to curriculum development. In response, we're creating a curriculum charter that defines our core values and boundaries, ensuring uniformity and excellence across all our schools.

I'm passionate about having a unified approach to teaching and learning within our trust. To achieve this, we've appointed a head of curriculum and pedagogy to lead this effort. In the past, our approach was voluntary, but we now understand the benefits of having a common framework, shared language, and consistent practices.

I'm passionate about having a unified approach to teaching and learning within our trust

Alongside that, you need a robust performance-management process. Our process is designed to be constructive and supportive, not punitive.

We're committed to a consistent curriculum approach, a robust teaching and learning framework, and an effective performance-management system. Together, these 3 pillars create a solid foundation for a successful, supportive, and inclusive learning environment for both teachers and students.

What does good leadership look like to you?

What I've learnt over quite a few years of senior leadership is that being open, honest and consistent builds trust, and if you've got trust you can probably do most things without kickback. The goal is to foster a culture of improvement, not punishment. This makes difficult conversations easier, as it's not about personal attacks, but rather about identifying and addressing areas for improvement.

I’d say it’s taken me 2 years to get to that point with everybody. Occasionally, I still get a bit of kickback, but most of the time I can have those conversations, because they know we're looking to make things better.

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

Colleagues will agree that looking forward is one of the most difficult things to do in education, because we don't know what is coming round the cornerPlanning ahead in education is a moving target: changes to funding, Ofsted frameworks, or government policies can throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans.

As a midsize trust, growth is important for us, but our small school sizes pose a financial challenge. Despite our relatively large student population, we're not as big as people might think. We have to be nimble and creative to make things work.

We need to grow to reach the 9,000 to 10,000 student mark – that's the sweet spot for us to maximise efficiency and impact. To achieve this, we need to strengthen our central services and support structures, so that schools can focus on teaching and learning.

A major goal is to create a 3-year balanced budget with confidence; this would provide a lot of peace of mind. Significant and unexpected expenses, like the teacher pay rise, can throw our plans off course. For a trust 3 times our size, a similar unexpected expense could amount to over 1 million pounds – that's a real headache.

We're also placing increased emphasis on the wellbeing of our headteachers – it's crucial

We're also placing increased emphasis on the wellbeing of our headteachers – it's crucial. We're exploring innovative approaches to support our headteachers, because they face considerable pressure. It's important to make sure they're taken care of, so they can continue to provide the best education for their students. Stay tuned for the details – I don't want to spill the beans just yet!

To read more interviews like this, sign up to Trust Matters.

If you’d like to find out more about The Good Shepherd Trust, visit the trust’s website.

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