The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

School Trusts – An “Insurgent Mission”

In their excellent book, The Founder’s Mentality, Zook and Allen talk about the insurgent mission as one of the key features of the founders of successful organisations. I believe there are useful insights here for school trusts. In this article, I will apply Zook and Allen’s thinking to trusts, so I unapologetically use their ideas but change the focus to trusts.

Trusts have waged war on endemic failure in certain schools and areas of the country – and they have done this with a relentless focus on putting children first. This is an insurgent mission.

Zook and Allen propose that the most powerful insurgencies have several mutually reinforcing attributes: bold mission, spikiness and the idea of a limitless horizon.

School Trusts create the conditions for deep collaborations among teachers and leaders to improve the quality of education. They are a new civic structure created with the sole purpose of advancing education for public benefit.

Leora Cruddas

Bold mission
The most successful school trusts have clarity of focus and purpose, both inside and outside the organisation. At its most powerful, the mission is found embedded in all parts of the organisation from systems and processes to staff development and decision-making. The mission comes first. It jumps out at you.

School trusts can do this because they are set up to do one thing – to run and improve schools. They don’t have lots of other duties and functions as local authorities do. They can focus relentlessly on their core purpose to advance education for public benefit. This is a powerful thing.

“Spikiness”
Zook and Allen cite the story of a young volleyball player who helped win the medal in the 1984 Olympics. Her name was Lang Ping and she was called the Iron Hammer. She was known for her spike – if you could set her up well, she would win the point. They apply this “spikiness” to organisations. Set up the organisation well, and you spike it for success.

School trusts, as organisations set up purely for the purpose of running and improving schools, are spiked for success. The best are highly specialist education charities and their expertise is improving the quality of education. Many have shown that it is possible to turn around schools that have failed children and communities for generations. These trusts take on ‘stuck schools’ and make them into good schools. At their heart, is a social justice mission, a civic mission, to contribute to the wider social good by creating schools that focus on the substance of education.

The ‘spike’ is the relentless focus on quality – on the front-line. In fact, the most successful trusts are obsessed with the front-line – the quality of teachers, teaching and the curriculum. McKinsey was right – the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Nor can the quality of a school or group of schools.

These leaders live and breathe the front-line, driven by a passion about every details of a child or young person’s experience.

Limitless horizons
The best trusts do not play the blame game – they do not account for the lack of success by pointing to the disadvantage in the community or any other limiting factor. Although of course these factors do make a difference. The mental models they bring to the task of improving schools is about how you solve or overcome persistent problems. They are not complacent – they are restless in their desire to improve the quality of education. They are driven. They have limitless horizons about what can be achieved by all children – but particularly the most disadvantaged.

Setting up organisations – specialist education charities – to run and improve schools to create a better future for children is not marketisation. Nor is it privatisation. And it is not fragmentation. It is sensible education policy.

There is now stronger evidence that groups of schools working together in a single governance structure are educationally and financially stronger. This is not an ideological argument for full academisation – notice I have not even used the term academisation – but an evidence-informed argument for the power of a group of schools working in deep and purposeful collaboration through what David Hargreaves called structural integration.

School trusts create the conditions for deep collaborations among teachers and leaders to improve the quality of education. They are a new civic structure created with the sole purpose of advancing education for public benefit.

So in this election period where lots of untrue and deeply unjust things are being said about trusts, stay true to your mission in everything you do. We will not be undone by pointless ideology if we stick to our insurgent missions and maintain our limitless horizons in our pursuit of the best education for our children.