A key part of my role as National Schools Commissioner (NSC) is visiting trusts around the country. I have been encouraged by the conversations I have had with a number of multi-academy trust (MAT) leaders about the value they add to the schools within their trust. What also interests me is how we can develop and grow practice that can work across the trust to benefit all its schools, teachers and pupils.
MAT leaders need to be clear about the support they offer to their schools. It is always intriguing to see whether the academies take full advantage of it and whether the offer meets their needs, which of course it must. In the best cases, the trust board challenges the executive on this very point and asks the academy leaders directly if they are getting the support they need.
Senior leaders have a responsibility to parents and the communities they serve to help secure improved outcomes for their pupils. I would, therefore, like senior leaders to think carefully about how common systems and curriculum and assessment models can help them to meet their schools’ needs, spread best classroom practice – and help reduce burdens on teachers. This is really important in ensuring that every pupil in the trust gets the same high-quality education.
Some trusts, particularly those that have been in place for some time or where there are more sponsored academies, may have models of curriculum, assessment and CPD that are broadly similar across the trust. Others – perhaps those that have come together more recently, or consist of higher performing schools – may have more variation between schools.
Vision and strategy
The strongest trusts have a clear vision and strategy for how they improve standards – and can clearly articulate the value that alignment adds to their schools. Such trusts have clear age-related expectations that are common for all pupils and there is clarity about who is leading different strands of improvement at trust, cluster and academy level. This clarity makes it easier to identify the educational activities that all schools do in common and those where school leaders determine what is best for their children. This is, therefore, more nuanced than a simple debate between alignment and autonomy.
Achieving this clarity and shifting a trust’s culture in this way can be hard to get to as well as a difficult change management process. However, the value in developing the most effective practice across the trust means that all children can benefit from evidence-based strategies that work and in my view, this is a fairer way to work. What a MAT decides to align will be determined to a certain extent by the current performance of the schools within it and the vision that the board and CEO has for delivering a better education for children. That said, in my experience, there are some clear areas where many trusts are now thinking about where a more collective approach works well. These areas include curriculum design, assessment strategies, moderation of outcomes, staff CPD and exam syllabi.
It has also been clear for some time that there is evidence of this in non-educational practice. For example, in a recent academy trust survey nearly all MATs with two or more academies told us that their structure facilitates collaboration and that their academies regularly cooperate in ways that deliver efficiencies, such as on payroll, catering and grounds maintenance. In this way, the best central teams are able to take pressure away from school leaders and teachers, enabling them to focus on standards. In doing so, they can create the flexibility needed to ensure that any school in the trust that requires support unique to their context can get it.
What's important is how we develop models where MATs can share and develop practice together in this way. For example, in the South West, trust leaders have come together to develop a framework that explores what great MATs do to drive improvement within, across and beyond schools. An early finding is that in the best MATs, everyone in the trust has a consistent answer to the question: “What do we want pupils to know and achieve?” This is drawn from the trust’s vision and can be born out in the design of a curriculum both rooted in a common model but also able to be developed to reflect the schools’ own context. A common assessment system drives consistent expectations and practice. In the very best trusts, a strong vision with clear expectations underpins the way teachers learn together, observing and developing practice drawing from the rich evidence base and from other schools beyond the trust.
We know that growing what works in practice can bring consistency and higher standards. We know that all can benefit from collaborative models of learning, within and between trusts.
By developing models whereby teachers and leaders work together and learn from each other, we can help retain a strong and capable profession that is attractive to teachers starting out in their career. Nurturing a shared vision and practice should also help us to avoid reinventing the wheel and reduce workload to help free up some of teachers’ time.
Sir David Carter is the national schools commissioner