December 2021 edition: Trusts: Networks of knowledge exchange and intellectual challenge

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Trusts: Networks of knowledge exchange and intellectual challenge

The rock tumbler smooths the stone by way of tumbling it against other rocks that enter the chasm with rough edges. The stone leaves the tumbler shiny and smooth. I like to think that effective Trusts act in a similar way - focusing on building the cultural levers that provide the framework within which ideas are developed, nurtured, tested, and contested, and formed for effective action. They then mobilise the collective intellectual capital and best practice for maximum impact for more children. Effective Trusts curate great ideas by connecting professionals in networks of exchange that build consensus around what constitutes the best practice. This consensus emerges from robust debate, diversity of thought and opinion, and a commitment to the principle of contestability. This happens best within a culture that is clear on principles and values – Trusts can do this well.

Effective Trusts cultivate and nurture professional energy - a collective impetus to improve and drive developments in teaching and curriculum quality.

John Camp

Leaders should focus on building effective connection between system thinking, academic research, practitioner experience and evidence of impact to develop policies, systems and approaches that improve curriculum, teaching and assessment. Putting these elements into the ‘tumbler’ and nurturing rich and informed dialogue leads to highly effective practice and highly effective practitioners. It also builds agency. Leaders can then focus on curating the best and most effective practice so that it can have impact at scale. Trusts can be quite unique in their capacity to do this. Mobilising at scale can be developed at an intimate local level, in hubs or clusters, as well as at a more regional or even national level.

In New Power (2018), Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans argue that the way power works in our hyperconnected world has changed significantly. They argue that old power works like a currency – it is held by a few and once gained it is jealously guarded. It is closed, inaccessible and leader driven. It downloads and captures. New power on the other hand works like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory and peer driven. It uploads and distributes. Like water or electricity, it is most forceful when it surges. It cannot be hoarded – it must be channelled. At Compass we find this a very useful way of conceptualising Trust leadership. Effective Trusts establish the channels for ideas and best practice to move rapidly around networks of practitioners – pulse-like and full of electric energy. It brings a dynamic that is incredibly powerful and puts practitioners at the heart of developments. It recognises that domain specific expertise cannot be held by those most senior in the organisation but must be nurtured and developed in others who can build the networks of exchange that ultimately lead to systemic improvements.

Effective Trusts cultivate and nurture professional energy - a collective impetus to improve and drive developments in teaching and curriculum quality. And just as the rock tumbler revolves time and time again to achieve a shinier stone, effective school improvement and development involves leaders having a relentless focus on the core things that make a difference and having the discipline to relentlessly ‘grind’ away at these whilst avoiding wider, possibly novel, distractions. I do not think this is necessarily as simple as it sounds; it is incredibly easy as a leader to become distracted by something new and full of promise. However, what Trust leadership can do is provide the space for new ideas to enter the debate and give time for these to be properly evaluated, whilst maintaining the focus on core business. To channel the ideas and the energy behind them so that they have timely and purposeful impact. If ideas are not channelled effectively in this way, you quickly arrive at a confused, chaotic state where there are lots of things of little impact taking up the time of practitioners.

At Compass, this is what leaders focus on. Building context for knowledge exchange so that ideas and theories are properly considered whilst remaining focused on our core principles for teaching, curriculum, and assessment. Myatt argues that we need ‘crystal clarity about our core purpose’ and therefore leaders need to ensure that everything else we do aligns effectively with this clarity. ‘Stripping back to the essentials is not easy – it takes real discipline. But it is worth it’ Myatt 2020. At Compass we are clear about the ‘essential things’ and focus on constantly improving these by testing, contesting and debating what the research offers us in relation to these agreed essentials. It is not about doing more – it is about getting the essential things better. Muijs 2021 reminds us that whilst ‘the teacher matters more to pupil attainment than the school the pupil attends’ (Reyonolds et al, 2014), ‘it is also clear that pupils benefit most when they are taught by a succession of effective teachers’ (Sanders and Rivers 1996). This is key – Trusts can focus on this. McKinsey and Company 2007 highlighted the outcomes of Sanders and Rivers’ research in its report ‘How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top’, arguing that ‘the main driver of the variation in student learning at school is the quality of the teachers’. On this basis, Trusts can focus on levelling the ‘pedagogical playing fielding’ across and within the schools it runs. Identifying and developing best practice, and mobilising this as the core focus of action, alongside curriculum shaping. This is the key equity lever that Trusts can pull to ‘level up’ and narrow the gaps between groups of learners.

Trusts must also be aware that mobilisation of best practice in the interests of equity can also lead to the seduction of genericism. Trusts must be clear about what it is standardising, why it is standardising it and what the collectively agreed outcomes of this are. There is an inherent complexity to achieving standardisation in key areas of function whilst building a culture that gives space for ideas, experimentation and debate. The key here is that Trusts can set the parameters within which this ‘shaping happens’ whilst mitigating the risks to pupil outcomes. Trusts of schools are alive with minds and experiences – conducting these, like conducting an orchestra, is key to success. Achieving overall harmony and symphony whilst ensuring the individual elements emerge and sing is what Trusts can do well.