Evolving Governance Within a Growing Academy Trust
For the last nine years I have had the huge privilege of serving as Chair of the L.E.A.D Academy Trust and this article offers a few reflections on that experience. It’s probably appropriate to start with a little background. The Trust has its origins in an outstanding primary school located in the St Ann’s area of Nottingham (one of the most socially deprived areas of that city), led by an inspirational leader, Diana Owen CBE.
Having turned that school around and led it to a series of Outstanding Ofsted’s, Diana sought to start influencing pupil outcomes on a wider scale and set up and became the CEO of the L.E.A.D Academy Trust in 2011 in order to do this. I welcomed the opportunity to support Diana with this work and I progressed from being the Chair of the primary school to the Chair of the new Trust in October 2011.
A vision and a set of values are fundamental to any successful organisation. In the case of the L.E.A.D , the Trust has benefited from the outset and in its forward momentum, initially as an umbrella trust and then as a multi-academy trust, from the existence of a set of core principles. Indeed these core principles were embodied in the acronym that created the name of the Trust itself.
Our approach to growth has been one of collaboration. No matter what a school’s current Ofsted grading we have always been as interested in what a school can bring to the Trust as what the Trust might be able to do for the school.
We have found this has been a very powerful way of ensuring that these values and principles have remained front and centre of everything the Trust does and, while the Trust’s strategic vision has necessarily been refreshed on a regular basis, these principles have consistently underpinned our strategic intent. Those principles are strong leadership at every level; empowering every child to aim high; giving every child the opportunity to achieve and constantly driving for improvement.
Over a number of years the Trust has steadily grown to become a 25 school multi-academy trust made up of 22 primaries and 3 secondaries covering the Nottingham City, Nottinghamshire, Leicester City, Leicestershire, Derby City, Lincolnshire and Sheffield Local Authority areas.
Our approach to growth has been one of collaboration. No matter what a school’s current Ofsted grading we have always been as interested in what a school can bring to the Trust as what the Trust might be able to do for the school. This has been important in setting the right tone for the relationship between our schools. None of our schools are passengers, all are valued for the unique things they bring to the Trust and all are expected to contribute to, as well as benefit from, the capacity within the Trust.
As our family of schools has grown the Trust’s governance arrangements have of course had to constantly evolve to ensure they have remained fit for purpose and in order to respond to a range of opportunities and challenges. What worked well for a small Trust of five or six schools does not work for a much larger Trust. What was effective governance in a primary only Trust does not always suit a Trust that has incorporated secondaries into its school improvement strategy.
One of the clear benefits of a multi-academy trust structure is that it encourages economies of scale in shared services such as finance, human resources, procurement and administration, improving value for money. Notwithstanding this, one particularly important issue that our Trust has invested heavily in has been seeking to achieve a consensus on what aspects of the Trust’s operational and governance activities should be run from the centre and what is best left to the discretion of the Head teachers of the schools in the Trust and to local governance. We have settled on an approach that is right for now but this is a fundamental dynamic within multi-academy trust governance that will require ongoing regular review.
Over the years as we have sought changes and enhancements to our governance arrangements critically all those involved in governance, whether Members, Trustees or local governors and including the executive management team, have maintained an inquisitive learning mindset, had a willingness to explore different options and have sought continuous improvement with humility and honesty. That mind set has served the Trust well.
Similarly my role as Chair has had to change and develop as the Trust has grown. Although there have been many things that have remained consistent, perhaps most significant among them is the importance of my relationship with the CEO, the job I do now is necessarily very different to that I did several years ago. Change is constant.
Bringing the story up to date, the last few months have of course been all about the challenges of the Trust’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The commitment and professionalism shown during this period, both from the executive and governance side of the organisation, has been extraordinary. While no one could have envisaged that the Trust would ever have had to tackle the implications of a global pandemic, it has been a formative experience in so far as it has affirmed in a very real way the value that is to be derived by schools who are part of a Trust. During this period our schools have been stronger and more resilient than they would have been alone, which was after all one of the aspirations for the Trust from its inception.