The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Trusts and their schools – a network of excellence

The growth of multi-academy trusts provides the opportunity for organisational added value. However it presents too, the risk of non-value-adding bureaucracy and control. This is a challenge faced by multi-unit organisations whether they are businesses, charities or public bodies. There are lessons to be learnt across all sectors.

Firstly, in my experience, if you want to decide on the most effective organisation for your Trust, start with the needs of the customer. Every organisation has a customer and in schools it is the pupils and their parents. The ill-fated NHS re-organisation of 2012 was focused on giving doctors more power through the CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) and saving money. The needs of the customers (the patients) were seemingly secondary.

Secondly, be careful not to be obsessed by structures when deciding how to build the multi-academy organisation. A few lines on a piece of paper may be necessary but this will never shape how the organisation will function in practice. I remember a course I attended a few years ago when we were asked to bring a symbol of our leadership. Conductors’ batons, and various other symbols were produced, but one CEO brought out his management organogram. Looks of pity were sent in his direction and he disposed of it – quite a lesson!

Thirdly, it is essential to get a consensus on what activities should be run from the centre or head office and what is best left to the discretion of the schools in the group. In between there is a mass of activity that can be done in either place or shared. We will come to that later. In a multi-national business, the finance function is nearly always controlled at the centre, but field sales are the responsibility of the local unit. The parallel in education is that finance too is best done centrally and the interaction with parents and children in the school. But what about the other activities?

The process of deciding on the locus of activities, whether definitively led from the centre or the individual academies will vary from one trust to another. Factors that need to be taken into account are the vision, values and systems of the trust; but above all the educational and business plans. A fast growing trust might be short of capacity and therefore for a time at least would not want to extend the centre’s remit. On the other hand a stable trust with strong systems might well want to bring activities into the centre to increase efficiency. In my experience good school leaders understand these choices, and it is vital they are brought on side when change is needed.

I would say that trusts are adapting well to the processes I have described. It is a dynamic situation with responsibilities moving in both directions between the centre and the academies. In the trusts with many schools the opportunity for clustering say 5 schools in a locality, provides new organisational opportunities. Resources can be shared or pooled and a value-adding network built, with empowered Heads. One really important aspect is the facility it provides to offer development opportunities for teachers whom otherwise might leave the trust. In United Learning we are committed to this cluster initiative.

The growth of multi-academy trusts provides the opportunity for organisational added value. However it presents too, the risk of non-value-adding bureaucracy and control.

Richard Greenhalgh

Finally as a trust chair I think it is important to align governance with the chosen organisational model. So a trust which devolves much responsibility to its individual academies will want to have local governing bodies that have a broad remit and are aligned with the local decision taking processes. In other trusts a narrower, specific role for the LGB may be appropriate.

Politically we face uncertain times ahead, but most multi academy trusts have the capabilities to grow. Providing they organise according to their values and systems, and above all the needs of their pupils and staff, they will have a platform to add the value we all seek.