Director of education: behind the scenes at an MAT

The increase in multi academy trust (MATs) has led to a number of new opportunities for ambitious leaders. One of the more exciting, and challenging, is the director of education. Simon Knight talks about his early experiences in the position.

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Having worked in a single organisation for some time, moving into the role of director of education was always going to be interesting.

I went from helping to run one school – Frank Wise, a special school in Banbury where I was deputy headteacher and had spent most of my career – to assisting in the support of the six schools that form the NET multi-academy trust. The learning curve has been steep.

First impressions

I started in September and, four months on, I am beginning to get to grips with quite how varied and rewarding this relatively new job in education can be.

At the core, the role is focused firmly on pupil outcomes: securing great leadership, consistently good teaching and implementing effective practice.

I report directly to the CEO and the board of trustees and I’m held accountable by them for the performance of the schools and the development of what NET does. I have key targets to achieve around building relationships between the schools and with other organisations.

Through challenge and support, it is my job to ensure that pupils in NET schools experience the high quality of provision necessary for an excellent education.

Early challenges

Inevitably, there are challenges to pursuing these aims. For example, I am particularly mindful of the risks associated with forming opinions based on fragments of information and documentation, of seeking to understand the whole having only seen a small part.

One of the risks in education is that we like to pigeonhole things. Here we’ve got schools that are all at different points on their development journey, they have different needs and the nature of what they’re focussing on is variable.

For me, it is essential to establish a thorough understanding of the individual schools and those who work in them. To do this I need to ask questions. Lots of questions. Yet one of the challenges we face in education is creating a culture where staff and schools are willing to shine a light on that which they do least successfully, in the knowledge that they will be supported to improve rather than judged.

Supporting teachers in context

Being able to support teachers and leaders to develop an awareness of a breadth of initiatives, policies and resources, when necessary, can help introduce opportunities for new thinking and raise awareness of effective practice.

How I do that has to be heavily context dependent. I have to dedicate time to getting to know each school really well and that knowledge should underpin everything I do.

One of the things we’re currently looking at is the development of our curriculum, and the tension between wanting to have a curriculum that has a consistent offer for NET schools whilst also being responsive to the needs of the local community and reflects the children that attend each school.

It’s about finding a balance of what we want NET schools to be, whilst also allowing them the freedom to retain that sense of their own identity. What works in one setting may not necessarily have the same impact in another and the contextual diversity within a trust can highlight this.

Spending time in school

My role is a split and the time I spend in schools varies significantly. I currently work for half of the week for the schools specifically and half of the week for NET’s charitable trust. We do a lot of work on pupil premium, SEN, leadership development and school reviews.

It’s a massive variety. It’s a continuum from the operational support of effective practice to the strategic development of the organisation.

A typical week might include a day in one of the schools, or maybe two, and then working collaboratively with colleagues on new ideas to support the schools more effectively. Some of the week might be spent delivering school improvement services to schools outside of the NET group.

That’s the most significant shift from my previous role to working across six different schools; that feeling of not necessarily being rooted in one community. One of the things that is really important to us is creating a sense of community across all of our schools, so that if you’re part of NET you feel part of a cohesive organisation.