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'Academy chains can be both big and beautiful'

Steve Lancashire, chief executive of the REAch2 Academy Trust, writes: 

Today's report from Reform and Parthenon-EY essentially concludes that when it comes to academy chains, the optimum size is 30 schools plus to benefit from economies of scale and for children to reap the rewards of improved teaching.

Some will feel this is counterintuitive, particularly when you cast your mind back to some of the more troubling media reports over the last year or so denouncing some of the larger academy chains. However, as is the way in education, all is not black or white. Big can indeed be beautiful as we are proving at REAch2.

As the largest primary academy trust with a family comprising 35 schools – soon to expand to 53 – we believe that when used to full and best effect, being part of a large academy trust can bring dramatic improvements that change children's lives.

At REAch2, what this means in practice is that our schools are improving at three times the rate of the national average. What’s more the proportion of schools that were performing below the government’s required standards was 85 per cent before becoming an academy, now reduced to 4 per cent having joined our family. But if we are to allow a thousand flowers bloom, all of us have a responsibility to ensure that this revolution in school improvement is shared and championed as the number of academies continues to expand.

How are we doing it? First things first, our model is founded on what we call our “cornerstones” and “touchstones”. These are our hallmarks that set out REAch2’s ethos and values, and are modelled by all leaders and shared by everyone across our Trust. It should perhaps come as no surprise then that the word “family” best describes the relationship that exists between our schools and our pupils' homes that help and support each other.

REAch2 as a trust is the cornerstone of our academies, and as with any structure, the cornerstone is a solid and immovable foundation; a source of strength. Our foundation is built upon excellence because this sets our expectations, quality because all our children and staff deserve the best, delivery because we have to make our aspirations a reality and standards because this represents our achievements. In any building, of course, it’s not the cornerstone that’s seen or celebrated it’s what sits above. For us, that’s our schools.

The second important factor is that we are all primary schools. There are no secondary schools or other institutions in REAch2 – we stick to what we know. This is not unfriendliness, quite the opposite, we wouldn’t have the right expertise to bring to the table to support a secondary school, but we do know what great primary schools should look like.

By working together as a family of schools in an academy trust, by using our shared knowledge, experience and skill we can ensure that our touchstones give life to real colour to the time that our children have with us. Specifically, we are piloting an "11 before 11" initiative, where we offer 11 seminal experiences to every child before they move on to secondary school, such as climbing a mountain, growing your own food and cooking it, sleeping under the stars, going to the opera, visiting a capital city, and so on.

So, how do we ensure that each of our schools offers the highest quality of education and what does all of this mean in practice? As in every organisation, leadership is critical to success. At REAch2, academy status gives school leaders a genuine opportunity: to use their budgets more innovatively; to develop the curriculum so that it is ambitious and creative; and to work collaboratively with other schools to share knowledge and expertise to develop teachers and leaders.

REAch2 has a blend of sponsored academies and converter academies, and by bringing high-performing schools together with sponsored schools, we are able to ensure that the best head teachers, leaders and teachers influence improvements in behaviour, in teaching and learning, and create a culture of high expectations across our schools. In reality, this means that each and every person at REAch2 has a shared responsibility for every school and every single child's learning and outcomes. This is a very powerful shared foundation.

Leaders and teachers undertake reviews of one another’s schools, provide CPD opportunities and ongoing support across schools. They encourage and support staff secondments when specific expertise is needed. Sharing of best practice is the norm and an openness to scrutiny and to be challenged to do better pervades all our schools.

Aspirations and expectations are sky high because our outstanding schools in the toughest of areas lead the way in showing how all barriers can be overcome and undermine the pernicious, but sadly still prevalent, view: “Well, what do you expect from children from here”.

When it comes to academy trusts, size does matter. Not size for its own sake, but because when you know what works, you want to replicate it. When you get it right, big is indeed beautiful.

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