Review: the Diverse Academies CEO blog

December 2017

Christmas greetings
As the autumn term draws to a close and our thoughts turn to a well-earned Christmas break, I wanted to take this opportunity to start my first blog, as acting CEO, with a thank you to all our colleagues.
 
October’s Star Awards - our annual celebration of just some of the wonderful things that our staff are doing - was a particular highlight. To read and hear about your successes is an absolute delight, and I know it is the tip of the iceberg of what we can and are achieving locally within our academies.
 
Many of you will have been involved in the full academy review (FAR) process – whether supporting, leading or participating. The value of this programme of work cannot be underestimated. I have always said that ‘Outstanding’ is not a destination, and so it is of critical importance that, together, we continually seek out ways to improve and be exceptional in all that we do. The FAR is one part of how we ensure we’re on the right track. As I will go on to explain further, it also offers colleagues a valuable CPD opportunity, meeting with and seeing for themselves how others tackle similar challenges and demands within their academy settings.
 
I feel very privileged indeed to lead and work in such a wonderful trust.
 
Joining up the dots – what will MAT leadership look like in 2018?
 
There isn’t a week goes by when the media does not draw attention to apparent ‘failings’ in education. So much so that we could be forgiven for concluding that the school-led system of state education in England is currently in terminal crisis. Apparent turbulence in central government; apparent education policy fragmentation; apparent lack of MAT accountability; serious financial challenge… I could go on. And yet, in the Diverse Academies, educational life goes on – we feel that we are motoring, and so do Ofsted and the RSC. The roots of our self-confidence are many, but most clearly seen in our approach to joined up leadership. Stephen Morales, CEO of ISBL (formerly NASBM), has coined the term ‘the 3 pillars of 21st century school/academy leadership’ – governance, pedagogy and business management. We borrow these terms unashamedly, and use them frequently as we evaluate the impact of our joined up ‘leadership triangle’. At the centre of the triangle are, of course, our students.
 
Governance
The DfE is rightly and increasingly interested in the quality and impact of governance – at all levels and across the system. Over the last three years, we have focused intensively upon the quality of our governance. We are wedded to a fusion of strategic trust level deep accountability, with significant delegated local powers in each academy. Thus, we have removed any blurred ‘dual’ roles. For example, all chairs of local governing bodies used to sit on the trust board – not now; all members were also trustees – not now. In addition, trustees were rarely recruited from outside the group – some are now, and have provided very effective fresh pairs of eyes.
 
Two years ago, trustees decided to engage the services of an external ‘strategic partner’. A high calibre education professional who could provide suitable challenge for the trustees and the executive. This has been a pivotal decision and a key part of our improvement journey. Our partner performs a number of functions – including, crucially, the performance management of the CEO (along with the trustees). Our governors and trustees are also more interested in the quality of our MAT’s work than simply in its compliance. Yes, they expect robust safeguarding, accounting and audit compliance – but they are always interested in doing MAT business better, more cost effectively.
 
Pedagogy
Our core business is just that – placed front and centre in all we do. As a result, our joined-up leadership model ensures maximum, but rational, accountability. Executive principals lead clusters of academies and operate as autonomous leaders in those groups. They enable effective support and challenge to be routine in our academies – a simple feature of everyday academy life. These very senior leaders comprise the key members of our Senior Strategy Team (SST) – effectively, our MAT senior leadership team – along with the CEO and the chief operating officer (COO). 
 
Cross-MAT professional development groups; a professional research and development institute; an established teaching school (and more planned); robust links with other MATs, academies, schools and local authorities; partnerships with high performing universities; national executive activities in/on key bodies (FASNA, NASEN, ISBL) – among others – enable us to ‘professionally magpie’ the very best that is out there, and not only with regard to pedagogic strength.
 
Business management
Our commitment is to ‘do MAT business better, and more cost effectively’. As a result, academies now have access to the very best quality professional and technical services in a variety of areas. Our chief operating officer (himself a former senior HR professional) leads an expert team – providing the best possible corporate infrastructure.
 
Cliché and overused as a term it might be – but our academy leaders do, truly, get on with leading the business of pedagogy. As a former secondary headteacher myself, I have not so fond memories of trying to do, and be, all things to all people. A role which was ridiculously demanding – and fuelled by nonsensical, thank goodness now archaic, expectations of the ‘hero headteacher’. I am proud of the fact that our MAT actively discourages such inhuman demands of its professionals.
 
Challenge, support and intervention (CSI)
The glue around which all of this operates is our approach to CSI, and is the approach we take to school improvement. All three pillars articulate and practice a clear route within our CSI programme – and this is evidenced in a plethora of ways.
 
How do we know joined-up leadership works?
All three pillars evidence rapid, far reaching and sustained improvement. A few metrics:
  • Local board governance is at least ‘Good’ in all of our established (more than two years in the MAT) academies
  • All of our established academies are at least ‘Good’ (in their most recent Ofsted inspection)
  • 2017 has brought record examination results in all key indicators and across phases. Many indicators evidence that we are among the top 5-10% of schools/academies in the country
  • We have RSC approval for further planned MAT growth
  • We have attendance, punctuality and exclusion rates which are well below (or above!) national averages
  • Student admission figures, at all ages, are at record levels.
In conclusion
Joined-up leadership, done properly, works. It requires a clear, uncompromising vision of exacting rigour and high expectations – in all three pillars. Each is umbilically linked; each requires equal emphasis and equal scrutiny.
 
We need to celebrate our successes far more publicly – meeting our noisy critics and doubters head on with hard evidence. The school-led improvement system is not ‘broken’ or ‘fundamentally flawed’ – it just needs unashamed courage from those who live its successes to shout loud and proud. The Diverse Academies will remain amongst the loudest!
 
Debbie Clinton
Acting CEO