February 2020 edition: Mapping the Territory for Leaders of School Trusts


Mapping the Territory for Leaders of School Trusts

In Robert MacFarlane’s ‘Mountain of the Minds’, he tells the story of cartography through the ages. MacFarlane describes how explorers were able to codify their growing knowledge of the world through the form of maps. These maps became increasingly accurate and sophisticated through the centuries, enabling others to understand new territories better, and follow in the explorers’ footsteps.

In the last decade, we have seen a significant and structural change to the way that schools are led and governed. Over fifty per cent of children in England are now educated in academies which account for 44% of the workforce. Increasingly, these schools are working together as part of school trusts.

School leaders are now known by titles unfamiliar to the English education system 10 years ago, such as Principal, Executive Headteacher and Trust CEO. More importantly than their titles, they have had to learn new things: a working knowledge of academies’ finance; the difference between members, trustees and new conceptions of local governance; and the technicalities of school re-brokerages, sponsor arrangements and trust mergers.

And even in more familiar areas of school leadership, such as the curriculum or managing teams, we have fresh questions to answer: what is the best way to organise the curriculum across my 20 schools? How do I line manage 7 headteachers most effectively?

A new domain of educational leadership has been established and with it, a challenge to prepare leaders to be able to successfully navigate this new territory.

In CST’s recent publication on the future of school trusts, ‘Systems of Meaning’, Leora Cruddas acknowledges that we have more to do as a system to establish a clearly-defined model of trust leadership beyond the current NPQEL and more generic or organisational models in the system.

In this paper, Cruddas makes an argument for more domain-specific approaches to trust leadership, emphasising that trust leaders are not ‘heroic visionaries’ but rather people with a ‘deep knowledge and understanding of the substance of education’.

At Ambition Institute, we’ve been thinking about this challenge for a little while. Since becoming the first provider of development programmes for trust CEOs back in 2015, we’ve been evolving our approach to supporting system leaders. In the last 18 months, we’ve developed a new programme for CEOs of medium-to-large trusts, with the aim of supporting them to navigate the most important challenges that persist across the system.

Underpinning this new programme is our belief that the first step to a more domain-specific approach is a better understanding of the most persistent problems that leaders in the system face. The second step is to build up leaders’ expertise around these problems. We believe this will help leaders be more prepared to think the unthought, solve persistent or novel problems, contribute to society’s conversation about schooling and shape the system’ – as Leora outlined in ‘Systems of Meaning’.

This draws on a growing evidence base that suggests that school leaders having deep knowledge of their core business (domain-specific) is important (Robinson, 2017). Artz et al (2017) refer to this as ‘boss competence’ and report two interesting findings: first, that boss competence ‘is the single strongest predictor of a worker’s job satisfaction’; and second, ‘that even if a worker stays in the same job and workplace, a rise in the competence of a supervisor is associated with an improvement in the worker’s well-being’. An emphasis on leadership being more closely connected to the actual work school leaders do has the potential to impact positively through training and professional qualifications.

Adopting a more domain-specific approach to leadership brings its own challenges. We have to understand in detail not just the broad problems that leaders face, but also how leaders are thinking about and responding to these. Through unpicking their ‘mental models’ and eliciting relevant knowledge, we can understand better how to build expertise in others – not just as formal knowledge, but through opportunities to practice.

A new do main of educational leadership has been established and with it, a challenge to prepare leaders to be able to successfully navigate this new territory.

Tom Rees

School trusts look set to play a greater role in our education system in the future and it’s essential that we can set their leaders up for success through understanding more clearly, the specific work they do and preparing them for this through high quality training. To do this, we need to be forensic in understanding the specific things leaders in trusts need to know and be able to do, to deal with the complex problems that persist in the school system.

As with those early maps, the better we accurately chart this new frontier, the more sure-footed will be those who venture there in the future.


Robinson, V. M. J., Le Fevre, D. M., Sinnema, C. E. L., & Meyer, F. (Eds.,) (2017). Open to Learning Leadership: How to Build Trust while Tackling Tough Issues. Moorabbin, Victoria: Hawker Brownlow.

Artz, B., Goodall, A., Oswald, A., (2017) Boss Competence and Worker Well-Being. ILR Review. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, 70(2) pp. 419–450.