It is wonderful to be able to write this piece as CST’s Deputy Chief Executive. My only regret is that I’m not doing so in happier times. That said, in the midst of this difficult context, I am so grateful for the way the CST community has welcomed and supported me in these first weeks. Indeed, if school trusts are the manifestation of educators working in partnership, then CST must surely be the meta-partnership of school trusts.
I have seen first-hand the many messages we receive from members seeking advice, guidance and reassurance – as well as sharing resources and good practice. I imagine the dynamic is similar within your own organisations, with schools and central teams working to support each other through these troubling times. Indeed, I’ve heard many people say that Covid-19 has underlined more than ever the value of school trusts.
Which got me thinking, what is it that policy makers might learn from school trusts in the Covid-19 context and how might this lead to better policy making in the future? To help explore this I draw on research from Gilberto Campano (2020), who has written extensively about how governments can make policy which can endure unexpected events. Most recently, he has analysed the Italian Government’s health policy response to Covid-19. It is a fairly blistering critique of the how Italy came to be the first epicentre of the pandemic in Europe. I think it also provides some clues as to why, in many ways, we’ve seen school trusts leading the nation’s response to Covid-19.
"A country can only be what it is, and its government can only behave according to its routines, known practices and procedures.”(Capano, 2020)
At first reading this may seem like a depressingly apathetic comment on the ambitions of nations and governments at the time of Covid-19. But this is not Compano’s substantive point. Rather, his argument is that policy decisions during a crisis don’t sit separately from the way that public institutions and governments routinely operate in ‘normal’ times. So, it may be as important to think about how we worked before the crisis as much as how we did during it.
His top-level observations include:
1) Experience and preparation matter. Without
these, policies default to existing practices and incremental responses –
which may be insufficient to cope with the pace and scale of the crisis.
2) Complex processes and structures can lead to
inter-institutional conflicts, which can obstruct effective decision
making and reduce capacity.
3) The agility and flexibility associated with robust responses must exist before the crisis.
Firstly, his observation about experience and preparation is significant. This speaks to experience not only in the ‘lived’ sense, but also in terms of evidence-based practices: "good policy design is characterised by the capacity of policy formulators to base their decisions mainly on evidence-based knowledge, learning, clear goals, and consistent and coherent policy tools”(Campano 2020).
For some time, our education system has been moving towards a greater recognition of the vital role played by knowledge. As well as relating to the curriculum, this also includes the growing focus on the primacy of the professional knowledge of leaders over and above notions of ‘styles’ and persona. Such knowledge not only makes us better placed to make the right decisions during a crisis, it also enhances our ability to anticipate and prepare in advance.
The institutional knowledge-building capacity of school trusts has been at the fore during the past six months. From work going on within trusts to clarify and disseminate information drawn from government guidance, to the incredible feat of Oak National Academy, trusts have shown themselves to be highly efficient knowledge-building organisations. And of course, many trusts have been at the forefront of evidence-based work on teaching and the curriculum in recent years. This knowledge base seems to have been vital in helping teachers adapt to the requirements of remote learning. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that much of the best work in this area has come from the trust sector. Indeed, it is hard to look at the post-Covid world without anticipating even more schools joining trusts for this reason alone.
On Campano’s second point, there is sometimes a misconception in the public consciousness that school trusts are an expression of ‘middle tier’ bureaucracy. Covid-19 has shown quite the opposite. We have seen that the trust model provides an efficient and effective means of implementing policy across large numbers of schools. Effective executive leadership and governance has given trusts oversight of large numbers of pupils, helping them to ensure safe practices and effective learning are in place.
Moreover, we have seen how trusts have worked collaboratively and powerfully with each other, local authorities and other schools and agencies to solve the complex local challenges that children and communities face, including, for example, the distribution of free school meals. This is the embodiment of trusts as civic structures – something that CST has been setting out on your behalf for some time.
If there is a lack of coherence in the system it is in its current half-reformed status, with some schools left isolated from the support provided by being part of a school trust. If Covid-19 is to leave a positive legacy in the education system, it must surely be to accelerate the reform journey so that all schools, and all children, can benefit from being part of a strong and sustainable group.
If Covid-19 is to leave a positive legacy in the education system, it must surely be to accelerate the reform journey so that all schools, and all children, can benefit from being part of a strong and sustainable group.
Finally, with regard to agility and flexibility, Compano argues these must usually exist before the crisis. Again, we can see many school trusts have, over many years, built the capacity and capabilities that make them better placed to cope with uncertainty. From procurement to the curriculum, we have seen the capacity that trusts generate and bring to bear on behalf of children and young people. Indeed, had we known several years ago that this pandemic was coming, it would have been unthinkable for government not to have ensured all schools were heading into it as part of a team.
So, to return to Campano’s comment about the routines and procedures of government, it is essentially a call for governments to proactively design into systems the structures, routines and practices now which will allow for continuity tomorrow – even in unexpected circumstances.
If Covid-19 reveals anything about our education system, it may be that the development of effective school trusts was the single most important policy that has helped schools to cope with the challenge they now face – and this was a policy made long before Covid-19 came along. With that realisation we can see that the school trust model is not an arbitrary organisational structure. It helps to make groups of schools more than the sum of their parts.
This gives us hope for now and the future. In the words of
Helen Keller, "alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”