February 2022 edition: Understanding what Makes a Strong Trust

Understanding what Makes a Strong Trust

With a white paper nearing, expected to include more detail on the government’s ambition for all schools to be part of a strong Trust, there is a pressing question that needs to be grappled with: what is a strong Trust?

Instinctively we might feel that Trust beauty is to some degree in the eye of the beholder. That is to say that each of us will have our own experiences, views and biases about what we think a strong Trust looks like, but the importance of this question goes beyond personal preference. Rather, it speaks to the need for us to build consensus where we can about the facets of effective practice in Trusts so that we can mobilise this knowledge for the benefit of all Trusts and, ultimately, the children within them.

Knowing more about how the most effective Trusts function will allow those responsible for training to create programmes that develop the next generation of leaders and trustees. It will allow for better regulatory decisions about which Trusts are best placed to take on a new school in a given area. And it will allow for collective knowledge building.

As the sector body, we feel it is right that CST plays its part in exploring and codifying what it means to be a strong Trust. Importantly, we think its unlikely to be the case that there is single best model given the structural and contextual differences within which Trusts operate. But to recognise difference does not mean that we can’t look for common features at an appropriate level of analysis.

In our recent discussion paper 'What is a strong Trust?’ Leora set out to do exactly this. The paper proposes five characteristic areas where strong trusts excel:

1. Expert governance

2. Quality of education

3. Workforce resilience and wellbeing

4. Efficiency and effectiveness of operational structures

5. Public benefit and civic duty

We think that while there may be qualitative indicators that illustrate how well Trusts perform in relation to these areas, such qualitative indicators alone are not sufficient to build a system-wide understanding of a ‘strong Trust’ around. Part of our rationale for this is drawn from what we’ve already said about regulation and the need for us to go beyond a restriction of ‘bads’ towards the promotion of ‘goods’. Accordingly, understanding what makes a Trust strong is not only an act of measurement, but also an act of explanation and ambition-setting. As Leora argues in the paper, "to promote goods we need more aspirational framing, which is more than a minimum to be met and more an ideal to strive towards.”

We also think it’s important to build our understanding of Trusts as coherently as possible. You can see this in the similarities between the facets of strong Trusts above and the core responsibilities of CEOs we published a few months ago. This work identified six inter-linked areas of a CEO’s responsibilities:

1. Strategic leadership - Trust values, culture and strategy

2. Quality of Education

3. Finance, sustainability and compliance

4. People strategy

5. Governance and accountability

6. System leadership and civic responsibility

You can see there is helpful alignment between these and the aspects of a strong Trust outlined above. This alignment should help CEOs to locate their knowledge and practice within the wider understanding that is developing around what it is to be an effective Trust. And it’s worth noting that these responsibilities were not just plucked out of the air, they were developed in collaboration with a range of experts and consulted upon openly with the sector. The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive.

...it speaks to the need for us to build consensus where we can about the facets of effective practice in Trusts so that we can mobilise this knowledge for the benefit of all Trusts and, ultimately, the children within them.

Steve Rollett

We hope the sector will similarly engage with the five domains of effective Trusts we’ve tentatively proposed. We value your feedback and believe strongly that the sector should be leading this discussion. We also believe there is a job to do to build an evidence base. To that end we have already commissioned the highly respected academic Daniel Muijs to undertake a literature review.

As Leora says in the paper, "We are at an exciting point in the history of education in England where, with care and attention, we could become the best system at getting better. If this is to become a reality, we must ask difficult questions, interrogate the evidence, commission more research and put the mission to advance education for public benefit at the heart of all that we do.”

This is important thinking and we are delighted to be doing it in partnership with you.