In March, HMCI Michael Wilshaw wrote to the then Secretary of Education, Nicky Morgan, stating his concerns about the performance of seven of the country’s largest MAT chains.
Some of the trusts named in the letter include major chains Academies Enterprise Trust and E-ACT, which have recently come under fire from Ofsted. Wilshaw’s comments surely came as a dampener to government enthusiasm for academies and MATs - having been held high as the ultimate solution for school improvement, and improved outcomes for all. Sir Michael’s letter highlighted the contrary is true, particularly for disadvantaged pupils:
‘Given that the academies movement was initiated principally to improve the performance of disadvantaged pupils, it is particularly concerning that many of the academies in these trusts are failing their poorest children.’
HMCI criticised the seven MATs further on 15th June at the Commons Education Select Committee for their ‘Wal-Mart style approach’ to taking over academies: ‘You know, pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap. It was empire building rather than having the capacity to improve these schools.’
Following this, Sir Michael commissioned HMI to gain a better understanding of the key components of successful MATs (read the full report here). HMI focused on seven stronger performers – chosen to reflect a range of different sizes, age phases and contexts.
Common characteristics shared between the stronger trusts included:
- Recruitment of ‘powerful and authoritative executive leaders’ with a clear vision for bringing about higher standards
- A well-planned, broad and balanced curriculum that ensures every pupil and ‘not just those whose parents can afford it’ has the chance to benefit from trips abroad and cultural experiences
- The importance of education in a ‘calm and scholarly atmosphere’
- High priorities given to ITT, leadership development and CPD of teachers
- A cautious and considered approach to expansion: the ‘initial focus has been on securing sustainable improvement in a smaller number of academies.’ Most of the trusts, Wilshaw states, work to a ‘three to four-year consolidation plan’ before they consider expanding to more schools.
Should ‘powerful and authoritative executive leaders’ be recognised as the fundamental element for bringing about higher standards?
Of all the elements listed, the role of executive leaders is emphasised as ‘the key to success.’
The crucial narrowing of the attainment gap is credited as the successes of executive leaders: leaders of Ark and the Diocese of Westminster are highlighted as examples, having success in narrowing the attainment gap for those attaining 5 or more A* to C GCSEs – 12 and 18 percentage points respectively, compared with the national 28 percentage point gap.
However, the achievement of Pupil Premium children is the responsibility of every teacher within a MAT, all being accountable for their attainment and progress. Reducing the difference in pupil outcomes relies on teachers, support assistants, inclusion leaders, assessment coordinators, and middle and senior leadership working collaboratively to plan and evaluate provision for pupil premium children. It relies on a culture of high aspirations lived and breathed by all staff; not solely initiatives implemented and led at the top.
Similarly, ‘the leadership qualities of those at the top’ (referring to executive leadership) are highlighted as being ‘seen in the provision of a carefully planned curriculum.’ A ‘strong focus on scholastic excellence,’ and ‘high-quality personal, social and cultural’ experiences were, unsurprisingly, highlighted as a key to success. Curriculum development will no doubt involve teaching specialists from all phases of the establishment. And it is subject leaders, supported by heads of department and middle leaders, who drive the improvement of outcomes in individual academies. It’s no secret that successful leaders delegate, work collaboratively, build the capacity of their team and develop talent.
Caution must be exercised regarding the emphasis of the importance of the role of the executive leader. Earlier this year, One Education commissioned a research paper ‘Taking a lead: how to access the leadership premium,' authored by James Croft of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE). The paper investigates school leadership models by providing a comprehensive review of the current evidence base, allowing us to inform strategy and policy in schools. A key finding was that much of what we think we know about effective leadership is based on a relatively small body of topical thinking, rather than a strong evidence base of quantitative research; more research is needed to enable us to determine what comprises effective leaders.
The paper also discusses the concept of the ’hero head,’ the enigmatic personality leader that is often attributed to rapidly improving outcomes. Effective leadership looks and feels very different depending on the context of the school or academy; what works well in one setting may have the opposite effect in another. As a former headteacher, I found working in partnerships, with senior leaders, governors, community leaders and a growing range of other agencies an increasingly important aspect of the role: success is more closely linked than ever to the fostering of good relationships. There is reason to look deeper into the systems and processes of leadership at all levels in successful MATs, only then can we begin unpicking the complexities that equate to effective leadership and have positive impact on pupil outcomes.
One Education offers a range of bespoke school improvement work, including Maximising the Impact of Leaders at all levels, tailored specifically to the needs of your school or MAT. To discuss how we can work with you to achieve Outstanding Outcomes for your pupils, please contact our School Improvement Team on 0844 967 1111.
Authored by Fay Gingell.