It can be difficult for trust CEOs to spot problems before they become crises, but asking for a little help from fellow leaders could make the difference, says Peter Rubery.
Multi-academy trusts may be here to stay but there is still precious little support for the people who are expected to step up to the plate and take the reins of what are increasingly complex organisations.
The assumption is sometimes made - maybe even by some aspiring and established MAT CEOs themselves – that making the move from headteacher to trust CEO is a cakewalk.
I can tell you that that’s not the case. I am now a CEO of a six school trust in Cheshire that is likely to expand to eight by the end of the year. It’s going well now, but it was a journey to get here. I had to take my first steps in the dark, learning on the job with experienced colleagues both inside and outside the trust giving me valuable support, and it must be said boosting my morale when it started to flag.
"Heading up a MAT is a contrast to headship"
Many MAT CEOs will discover, like I did, that heading up a MAT is a contrast to headship. The biggest difference is that you have to lead a team of leaders, trustees, governors and teachers spread across the trust’s schools, spotting problems before they become crises.
And this is where some trust CEOs can struggle. Leading a large, complex organisation like a multi-academy trust can make it hard to get a clear picture of everything that is happening across the trust, such as staff performance and progress against your development plans.
Red lights are easy to spot when you’re head of a single school. They can be harder to distinguish when you’re responsible for several schools.
But there are now signs that these challenges are being recognised and addressed, not by government but by leaders working together - often with established training providers - to help MATs gain a clear view of improvement priorities across their organisation.
"Development of MAT leaders has been a neglected area"
I’m increasingly involved in this area myself, working as a leadership coach to trust leaders. I’m also set to work with MAT CEOs on supported peer review (SPEER). This technique helps MATs and individual schools make judgements on their progress with the help of other leaders trained in the approach.
Before the review gets underway the trust does its own self-evaluation, based on the Ofsted inspection framework. This process highlights any areas of development for the SPEER to focus on, such as pupil attainment and progress, leadership, professional development and financial management. We’ll use techniques such as 360 degree reviews – gathering the views of every stakeholder to get a detailed breakdown of strengths and areas to tackle – as part of the SPEER.
The review usually takes two days and involves a team of three trained in the SPEER approach: an external lead like me to plan and quality assure, a visiting head from a nearby good or outstanding school and a leader from the host MAT who can champion the review recommendations.
Once we’ve completed the review we’ll work with the trust leadership to agree how we’ll address any areas for improvement. This might involve bringing in training and services and support from an outside provider.
The point is, the trust will have a clear picture of where it needs to improve so that it can do something about it, well before it becomes a serious issue that threatens the performance of its schools – and well before the inspectors call.
Development, and especially support, of MAT leaders has been a pretty neglected area until now, but we are starting to see MAT leaders finding that support by working together. And in a system which could easily become fragmented and competitive, that’s encouraging.
Peter Rubery is Executive Principal of Cheshire MAT The Fallibroome Trust and lead consultant for Best Practice Network.