The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

A choice and a commitment

The premise of Patrick Lencioni’s excellent book, The Advantage, is that the single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organisational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders – and in education – most leadership development programmes.

At Dixons, we have made organisational health central to everything we do. We think this is about creating clarity, over-communicating clarity and reinforcing clarity! So, we asked ourselves four critical questions to achieve clarity for everyone in our Trust.

Why do we exist?
The first question is about why we exist. Quite simply, the Dixons Academies Trust exists to challenge educational and social disadvantage in the North of England.

How do we behave?
Our second question is about the behaviours we expect in our Trust. We think this is simple:

  1. Work hard: we are determined to get things done
  2. Be good: behave with integrity and honesty
  3. Be nice: show humility and be a positive team player

That’s it. Simple and clear.

What do we do?
Our third question is about what we do. This follows from the first question about why we exist. At Dixons, we establish high-performing non-faith academies which maximise attainment, value diversity, develop character and build cultural capital.

How will we succeed?
Our final question is about how we will succeed. And I want to spend the rest of this article looking in more detail at our answer to this question. Our answer comes in three parts:

  1. Academic rigour: we believe children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world – without it they remain dependent upon those who have it
  2. Aligned autonomy: we want to find the optimal balance between consistency and self-determination
  3. And finally, talent first: we believe talent is king – talent, even more than strategy, is what creates value

Academic rigour
We believe all children are entitled to the powerful knowledge which maximises life chances. Children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world. Without it they remain dependent upon those who have it.

Powerful knowledge is cognitively superior to that needed for daily life. It transcends and liberates students from their daily experience. So, our curriculum is led by, collaborated on and delivered by high-quality subject specialists.

We know that a good curriculum will always be contested… if we don’t care for quality then the very thinking of our students will be dumbed down. So, the grammar of each subject is given high status; the specifics of what we want students to learn matter and the traditions of subject disciplines are respected.

In our education philosophy, skills and understanding are seen as forms of knowledge. We do not believe that there are any real generic skills that can be taught outside of specific knowledge domains. That being the case, the curriculum should be planned vertically and horizontally giving thought to the optimum knowledge sequence. It should be designed to be remembered in detail. Our schools serve diverse communities, so we believe the curriculum should embrace and value the most powerful knowledge from a variety of cultures and traditions.

At each Key Stage, the curriculum should focus on closing gaps, early intervention, and developing the core literacy and numeracy skills for success at that level. Curriculum breadth and cultural capital are key to our mission.

Regardless of setting, streaming or mixed ability classes, students of all abilities are entitled to the most powerful knowledge they can retain. And most importantly, they are entitled to high currency qualifications which improve their life chances. So, at Dixons, we believe in preparing students thoroughly both for national assessment and for further study.

Aligned autonomy
There is much debate at the moment about standardisation versus autonomy. We find these terms unhelpful and distracting. We would prefer to try to find the optimal balance between consistency and self-determination.

It is fundamentally important to us that we share the same mission and values. All Dixons students and staff should benefit from our best collective practices. And we all benefit from the collective resources, brand and reputation of the Dixons Academies Trust.

So why then do we retain the term autonomy? It is because we believe leadership and personal accountability are founded on ownership and self-direction. A culture of conformity kills innovation and drives away the best staff. And standardisation fails to respond to changing needs and fails to adapt to a changing environment.

We think it is the concept of aligned autonomy that is the foundation of our success so far: we are aligned on our mission, vision and values – these are our non-negotiables. But because we are determined to create a healthy organisation, the people who work for us must also have agency and self-determination.

We believe all children are entitled to the powerful knowledge which maximises life chances. Children need powerful knowledge to understand and interpret the world. Without it they remain dependent upon those who have it.

Luke Sparkes

Talent first
Talent is crucial to our success. Talent is king. Talent, even more than strategy, is what creates value.

And we believe there are three critical moves to unleash talent:

  • Most vital people must be in roles where they can create significant value
  • They must be free from bureaucratic structure
  • They must be afforded the training and opportunities to expand their skills

So, working at Dixons involves a choice and a commitment – a choice to work for a Trust that exists to challenge educational and social disadvantage in the North of England and a commitment to get things done, behave with integrity and honesty and to make a difference in the lives of children through academic excellence.