The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Changing the narrative – telling your trust’s story

Once upon a time, schools were schools. Some of them were good, some of them less so. But they were all schools – and they were all called schools, whether they were grant maintained, comprehensive or foundation.

Then the Labour Government of Tony Blair conjured up academies, failing schools taken out of local authority control run by sponsors in a bid to raise standards. Today there are 8,500 academies, some of them free schools, some studio schools, and some others university technical colleges. And they are all still schools. It’s just some of them aren’t so obviously called that.

With England’s ideological and political education battleground as fervent as ever, it is easy to see why the language around schools has been so polarising. The Conservative Government, which has accelerated the academy programme, is quick to celebrate achievements by academies or academy trusts; while the anti-academies movement pounces the moment a trust flounders, or whips up protests when schools consider leaving a local authority to join a trust.

Yet all these schools – whether part of academy trusts or run by local authorities – are staffed by teachers trying to achieve the same thing: delivering a first-class education to children. They are all free to attend. They are all inspected by the same regulator, Ofsted. And their pupils all take the same tests at 11 and the same exams at 16 and 18.

Looked at in this context, isn’t the “academies versus LA schools currency” now old money?

That doesn’t mean, if you are a pupil, parent, teacher or leader of an academy trust, that you should avoid using the name “academy trust” or “academy”. The academy movement, and so many trusts and schools within it, have a huge amount of which to be proud, not least the high academic standards that are now commonplace from Newquay to Newcastle, made possible by the freedom leaders have to run their schools and teach their children how they see fit and how they know best.

Because of the politicised debate that they have been born out of, academies need to publicise and shout about their achievements even more than most to reassure and educate parents. Their stories might be academic or sporting, cultural or extra-curricular, but they should tell those stories, to local media, the trade press and the nationals. They should celebrate that the contribution that their academy trust makes goes beyond education – they are large employers, whose staff collaborate to improve themselves and one another to provide even better education for their pupils. They are anchors of the communities in which they operate. They a charitable force for civic good, beyond solely their primary role.

The need to raise profile and change perceptions is exacerbated by the tiny minority of trusts which have failed, damaging the brand for all. Schools don’t want to be, however unfairly, associated with the few bad apples, even if many of those few cases would not have become public had it not been for the oversight and governance common to academy trusts.

Changing the narrative means not solely talking about successes but also adapting the language a little.

Academy trusts should not be shy about describing themselves as such, but their stories should also remind people that they are education charities; and they should remind their audiences that the academy they lead is also a state school.

Because of the politicised debate that they have been born out of, academies need to publicise and shout about their achievements even more than most to reassure and educate parents.

Ollie Lane

Because once people are reminded that an academy is simply this, a state school led by an education charity, to improve a child’s life, knee-jerk opponents might think again.

It isn’t the case that we like one type of NHS hospital, cheering when its heart surgery survival rates improve, but oppose another and demean its achievement when it does likewise – we celebrate that they are both successful component parts of the NHS, each existing to improve people’s health, free of charge.

Academy trusts should not forget what they are, and indeed should be proud of that. But they should not let people forget that they exist, like all state schools, with the aim of achieving one objective above all others – to give kids a great education, free of charge.