Within our school-led system, the role of an academy trust CEO is still relatively new, yet it is increasingly defined as crucial to system-wide improvement. I remember my own experience of moving from executive head to a CEO role as the trust added more schools. I recognised at the time that I was taking on a significantly different responsibility to any leadership role I had held in the past. I became responsible for the education of thousands of pupils across multiple school sites as well as the development and performance of more than a thousand staff. Although the role had its challenges, it was extremely rewarding and one of my favourite leadership roles to date.
So what are the key functions of the MAT CEO, and what are the main challenges that need to be met in order to improve outcomes for children educated in the trust? In my view, there are three key elements to the role, which bring both great opportunities and challenges.
The first of these core functions focuses on the ability of the CEO to be able to navigate the trust landscape from a strategic perspective, whilst understanding the different contributions that each school within the trust can make to the fulfilment of its core vision. One challenge for the CEO is to be clear about what aspects of educational delivery are aligned across the trust, and which aspects enable innovation and creativity in individual schools.
Libby Nicholas, CEO of Astrea Academy Trust, recognises this challenge and I agree with her as she highlights that there are inevitably many ‘moving parts’ in a MAT and that it is not just the complexity of an individual school and its nuances, but that those factors are multiplied many times over. Libby further emphasised that “there are challenges around having systems and controls that allow you to have consistency and a quality assurance function, but which also allow the personality of each school and each area to shine through.”
In this way, when there is a synergy between the board and the CEO, the trust’s vision can be more effectively embedded into each of its schools. At this stage, it is also critical that the CEO is able to help parents and the local community understand what the trust does, and how it is able to improve and sustain educational standards. The wider community is then able to fully engage, not only at a school level but at trust level, too. When this happens successfully, CEOs can positively change the educational outcomes, not just for a single school, but also for entire communities.
The second core function of the CEO role is around the opportunity to design the best quality professional development experiences possible. My own view is that the CEO should continue to play a highly visible role in the delivery of CPD. I have recently seen some great improvements in professional development for future CEOs. For example, the National Professional Qualification for Executive Leaders (NPQEL) supports aspirant and existing CEOs to develop the skills and expertise they need to lead their organisations.
Chris Wheatley, CEO of the Flying High Trust, sums it up perfectly when he says, “In the past, so much talent has been lost or an individual relied on pure luck in career progression as development varies from school to school. The role of CEO has enabled me to support and nurture talent throughout all of our trust schools – this opportunity has been a tremendously pleasing and unique element of the job.”
Yet I also believe that the CEO role goes further than just the professional development of the team. The CEO has a duty of care to the workforce to understand the wellbeing of their organisation, by encouraging and structuring peer mentoring across the trust, nurturing middle leadership and guiding the next generation of senior leaders.
Finally, and above all, it is the opportunity to contribute to improving pupil outcomes and raising school standards for children across a wider geographical area and in more than one school. GCSE results day in August was always one of my favourite days of the year (usually!) when I was leading a single school, but it took on a new meaning when I was CEO of more than five secondary schools. The best CEO and the teams they lead have a trust-wide school improvement strategy, which balances the core challenges that most schools face with the need to provide bespoke support for issues specific to each school.
Greenwood Dale Academy Trust CEO Wayne Norrie also recognises the value of the MAT model and the vital part the CEO plays within it. He highlights the unique opportunity the role presents in leading people from occupations other than teaching. He recognises that this then presents the challenge of, “bringing a multidisciplinary team of professionals together with the sole aim of supporting children and young people to achieve their full potential.”
In recent years, there has been a huge increase in the number, and size, of multi-academy trusts, and academic standards have also risen during that time. 480,000 pupils are now studying in a good or outstanding sponsored academy that was previously a typically underperforming school before it converted. From what I have seen as national schools commissioner, the hard work and dedication of teachers and CEOs are at the heart of this wide-ranging improvement.
It is essential, therefore, that there is ongoing development of strong MAT CEOs through high-quality training and support. We have recently seen significant improvements in the professional development offer for current CEOs and the work of organisations such as Ambition School Leadership and the Association of School and College Leaders, Executive Leadership Consortium have been vital to this. However, to develop and nurture the next generation of MAT CEOs, we need to continue to look at how we develop and further define the CEO role and the credentials needed to be successful in it.
Sir David Carter is the national schools commissioner