They say that everything has a digital footprint. From the tiniest amoeba right up to the loudest, brashest American president, you can’t escape Google and its virtual tentacles.
Except, perhaps, if you’re a networking group for multi-academy trusts bosses called the Queen Street Group (QSG).
In existence for more than four years, it has made a point of maintaining anonymity and its success in achieving that is remarkable. Despite several meetings and sub-group meetings every year for several years, Google can just find four relevant links: two Tes articles from late 2017 and early 2018, and two references to a Companies House entry that followed incorporation last year.
There’s no QSG website, no social media chatter, no Twitter profile. Nada.
That’s all going to change, because the QSG is going public – slowly and carefully at first, but very soon it is going to be big news in education because what it is doing has the potential to irritate a fair few people.
My formal introduction to the group came last month. Chair Marc Jordan (of the Creative Academies Trust , below), and vice chair Steve Taylor (of the Cabot Learning Federation, above) had put themselves forward for interview and having heard whispers of the group previously, I eagerly accepted their offer of an interview.
Why does it exist? What is it for? What do they want to achieve? I intended to find out.
They told me that, at the start, the QSG was informal. The leading lights were Toby Salt (then running the Ormiston Mat and more recently an exam board boss) and Jordan (then, as now, the boss of the Creative Schools Trust). They, alongside others Mat CEOs, met at the offices of a law firm on Queen Street in London, one that was known for hosting sector round-tables. The first gathering – which was 10-strong – was chaired by former Labour schools minister Lord Adonis, no less.
The early meetings grew into more meetings and the "members" swelled to 17 – including the bosses of AET, Astrea, Oasis and Dixons. Things then got more formal: the group meets once per term to share ideas, meet politicians and talk about best practice in running groups of schools.
The main group then sprouted sub-groups for Mats’ finance directors, HR directors and education directors.
So far, so organic: just some people getting together for a chat, nothing to see here.
But pushing for more detail proves tricky.
What exactly is discussed, and why, is not subject to record and neither are its meetings with civil servants and politicians. Also as yet unclear is what the criteria of membership is, what they hope to achieve, how new members might apply to join and what a Mat would have to do to be chucked out.
For the avoidance of doubt, there is no suggestion of wrong-doing. But in a sector that is not short of either real scandal or conspiracy theory, such a lack of transparency is not a good look – particularly when you consider the members are in receipt of thousands of pounds of public sector cash.
And so, in a bid for clarity, I began with some simple questions. What exactly is the Queen Street Group?
“We are 17 trusts from around the regions who have coalesced,” explains Taylor. “We are generally mature, we’ve been around for a bit: we’ve learned, in this very young sector, one or two things about how it works and how it might not work so well. And there are some aspects of how Mats organise and how they work where sharing good effective practice is a real positive.
“We’ve now taken it to a stage where we’ve created a formal vehicle for [these] conversations.”
Could they give more detail of those conversations?
“We discuss what the big issues are that we’re facing as trusts, what kind of solutions we are finding for those challenges, what might be useful to feed back to the Education and Skills Funding Agency and the DFE, what changes we might see coming, how we can anticipate that,” he reveals.
“We are trusts of a certain maturity and that means we can have a conversation like that and if there is content that comes out of those conversations then we can share them.”
So why the lack of publicity? Taylor suggests it was because there is nothing to make transparent: these conversations have only recently become more than informal chatter between Mats.
“We’ve been having conversation with each other for a long time as you might do in a network. It’s only since this time last year that we’ve had a formal structure,” he explains.
This seemed odd to me. I have known, from reliable sources, that there has been a group that calls itself the QSG for several years. Tes ran a story in 2017 revealing that the QSG existed and it was clear back then that there had been meetings long before that.
“Yes,” concedes Taylor, when I remind him of this. “Informally.”
So these weren’t formal, minuted meetings?
“They were noted so others who couldn’t be there could know what had happened. Because we’re very much about sharing,” he offers. “We were not in a hurry to formalise – we [the members] are busy people. We were asking whether these meetings were proving useful. What’s the conversation going to be about? Am I getting what I want and what my organisation needs from it? What are they getting from my being here? Is the topic of conversation useful?”
Certainly, it would appear the DfE thought the group might be useful, as the department is known to have met them.
“The DfE has a range of different people that it speaks to and we might be interesting to them for some reason and they have come and spoken to us,” concedes Taylor.
A closed shop?
Of course, things like that don’t really happen by chance. That’s why lots of people worry that the QSG is a cabal, a closed shop, of being by invitation only.
One senior figure in the world of academies replies, when asked what the purpose of the QSG was, with a series of emojis meant to illustrate steak and red wine.
Indeed, there is no shortage of Mat CEOs who are unwilling to join the club. One tells me that they would never join because the organisation has been around for years but had failed to have a full and frank public exploration of what it’s trying to achieve. Figures such as these worry about the QSG having meetings of its members, and with the DfE, that are essentially in secret.
Does Taylor worry about that?
“We’re not secret,” he replies, in very matter-of-fact fashion.
In reality, though, the meetings were not of public record and there was no effort by any member to be open about the meetings. Indeed, the fact they have been so under the radar must have taken some effort.
It is at this point that Jordan, hitherto silent, steps in.
“We’ve been trying to figure out whether the time spent was actually feeding back into schools to improve the outcomes for children,” he says.
Taylor expands: “Before last autumn, if you’d asked what the QSG is for, you’d have got lots of different answers. The notion of forming a more formal vehicle is because there are 17 trusts and CEOs who think this is really fruitful. Increasingly they can see that their colleagues who have domain-expertise in certain areas get to meet other people in similar circumstances.
“By the time it came to be 17, I supposed they – the ones remaining – thought there was some value in it.”
It feels like we are going slightly in circles, so I push on to ask about membership.
What is the criteria for membership? How does one become the 18th member of the QSG? Is it a secret handshake?
“There’s no secret handshake,” reveals Taylor. And then we go back to the argument that there are no membership rules – just as there was no secret – because before this point it had all been rather ad hoc.
“There’s a group of people who think this is a good idea and have now decided to formalise it,” Taylor explains. “And now we exist, we have to ask the question of what does membership mean and how do you become a member? And I think it’s clear in our annual report [the first of which was published last month], that we must clarify that for anyone who’s interested.
“This will be something that is in the public domain and if people knock on the door and say, 'Can we join?' then we need to have an answer to say that this is not a closed door, but we do not have a clear answer as to what you have to do to be a member.”
Is the failure to decide on a membership strategy tied in with the fact they still don’t really know what the QSG actually is for? (In its annual report the stated aim is “to advance education for the public benefit”.)
Taylor and Jordan are insistent that QSG is not a “sector body”. And they say it won’t take positions on hugely controversial issues such as the size of some Mat bosses' pay packets.
“We’re not going to mount a passionate defence of CEO pay,” explains Taylor. “In terms of our position, we don’t have a position. The Education and Skills Funding Agency [ESFA] financial handbook has a position on this.
"Every time we [the QSG] have a conversation about the kind of conduct we might expect from members of the QSG generally, we expect highly ethical behaviour. Every time we get to a stage whereby we might define it, the ESFA’s academies handbook takes that space. We’re not going to rewrite the handbook just for the sake of it.
“But of course, all of our members sign up to a sense that we must act ethically.”
I push them further. Do they think some Mat CEOs are paid too much?
“That is a matter for their [trustee] boards to decide. We don’t discuss that,” replies Taylor.
What about the pesky issue of related-party transactions (RPTs), the issue of financial impropriety that the academies sector can’t seemingly shake off?
“In the past, we’ve discussed RPTs, including what kind of experience do you have in your trust,” says Taylor. “But the ESFA handbook has made it difficult to have RPTs.”
But [the handbook] doesn’t ban them outright. Would you look unfavourably on a member if it did have RPTs on their books?
The reply from Taylor is, based on previous replies, slightly predictable: “I think we’ve been pretty clear about expectations. Not that we impose them on our members.
“There have been a number of developments in the sector that many of us have found frustrating where there has been a failure of governance perhaps where RPTs have overstepped what we consider to be acceptable and have not put the sector in a very good light. These create a negative perception about the sector and we understand why that might be a frustration.”
But surely if the QSG is going to be an organisation sharing financial best practice among Mats it should go one better than the ESFA and be whiter than white?
This is the signal for a second intervention from Jordan.
“We’re not a policing body,” he says. “But we do think that transparency is important. That’s the crucial issue.”
It seems clear that the QSG knows what it is not. Or rather, what it would not like to be seen as. But I feel we are still no clearer to knowing what it does want to be.
For example, how does it relate – if at all – to the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), a membership organisation for Mats that actively seeks to be a “sector body”?
“We [at Cabot] are members of CST,” reveals Taylor. “They are seeking to represent all academies and Mats. Leora Cruddas [its CEO] has been very successful in creating a narrative and a direction of travel for the sector. We [at the QSG] don’t have a narrative. We are pragmatic. We work within the parameters that currently exist. We want to be as successful as possible within the existing frameworks.
“We are not a sector body, we exist for our members and for them to share practice. We’re simply Mats that have been around for a while.
“The point is that we’re not seeking to replicate CST, we’re complementary – there’s no reason why we can’t co-exist.”
Again, definition appears to rely on a point of difference that is unspoken. I thought I might be able to help. A couple of years ago – long before the senior officers claim they were thinking of incorporating as a formal organisation – a high-profile educationalist who was working with the QSG told me that it wanted to be considered like the Russell Group.
The Russell Group is a mission group. Mission groups are membership organisations made up of varied formations of universities seeking to promote a vision of what higher education is for.
The ambition, though, seems strange: the two defining characteristics of Russell Group members is that they are highly selective and research-heavy, neither of which is true of the QSG’s members. So was the high-profile educationalist wrong?
“I don’t think we’ve said we’re seeking to replicate the Russell Group,” Taylor replies, guardedly. “If others have that perspective, well it’s not part of our DNA.”
“The trusts who are members have selected to become sponsors of schools in challenging circumstances. There is a degree of moral purpose in each of the trusts that says that that is important work and we have 200,000 kids in our trusts and many of them are in schools that have had challenges.”
This sounded very much like a group set up to maintain and guard the original idea of the academies movement: taking over failing schools and focusing relentlessly on transforming them. Are they the keeper of the original Blairite flame?
Taylor does not bite.
“It is true that a disproportionately high number of our members – compared to the national picture – have been around for 10 or 12 years,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it is exclusively for older Mats. But there are definitely some elements of that.”
It appears we have hit another wall. So a third tack: given that both Taylor and Jordan are insistent that the main focus of the QSG is to shape operational best practice, then surely Taylor has thoughts on the best way of running a Mat?
Should it be centralised – with the Mat deciding everything from curriculum to the colour of the walls – or with most powers devolved to schools?
All Taylor will say is that “most of these models have examples of great success and most models in their purest forms have met obstacles”.
What about the issues of curriculum and pedagogy? Does the QSG have an evolving model of best practice? Again, the answer is no.
On Ofsted, though, we get a little light: clearly how to ensure the inspectorate looks on a school favourably is a topic of conversation.
“One of the conversations our education group did have in the last year was about curriculum because we were anticipating one of the biggest shifts in the inspection framework that we’ve seen for a long time,” Taylor admits.
“So we are now talking about how we interpret the narrative emerging from the framework into a scenario that best suits our trusts and that…best suits the context that we share. And how we prepare our schools to perform well under inspection and by doing so have a really strong education offer for the kids.”
Does the QSG believe the new framework will succeed in its stated ambition of reducing teaching to the test and focusing schools’ work on the how and the what and the why of what they teach?
Inevitably, Jordan steps in. He doesn’t want to go there.
Should Mats be inspected? It is Taylor who responds: “We don’t have a position on it. We don’t have a narrative on it. It’s not the burning issue around inspection: that’s the new framework.”
Amorphous does not begin to describe it. But perhaps it really is simple: maybe, I decide, the QSG’s been misunderstood, and it really is nothing more than a framework for sharing HR best practice?
But then something odd happens: Jordan, to my surprise, elects, without my asking, to start talking about the QSG’s relationship with ministers and officials.
“Let’s talk about the purpose of meetings with the DfE,” he announces. “It is sort of about who influences [ministers and officials]. To develop good policy they need to understand what it’s actually like at the operational end – the sharp end – of running a Mat. And that is the prime reason for liaising with them, and they appreciate that.
“They [ministers and officials] don’t have obvious channels to a broad spectrum, across the country, of Mats. They don’t have ready access to knowledge of what it is like to be the CEO or the HR director or director of education of an organisation like this. And they need to and they want to and that is good for the system.”
This was a slightly surprising statement given that many of the QSG’s members are some of the highest profile Mats in the country, who have undoubtedly been influencing DfE thinking for years.
I put it to them that the QSG wants to present itself as being outside the bubble but it really looks like just another group of the DfE’s mates, informally setting the agenda without any external input. Indeed, I offer, the QSG itself has been characterised to me on several occasions as a conduit for the DfE’s pet Mats…
Jordan takes the lead in responding: “Obviously [the QSG members] are known to the DfE and we’re considered to be of good standing, as they used to say, and some of us are part of a group who are regularly consulted – but the majority of trusts here are not regularly in and out of the doors of Sanctuary Buildings [the DfE’s Westminster HQ] and because of that, and the regional distribution, I think that represents the opportunity for the DfE to have different perspectives and that must be a good thing.”
The role of the QSG in influencing the DfE appears to be the most solid of the roles it appears to wish to adopt. But if the DfE is consulting the QSG on policy then surely it is essential that there is a public understanding of what it takes to be a member and the processes it uses to come to the positions it takes to ministers, and what they are?
“The point is that we are trying to find solutions to some of the challenges that Mats have,” says Taylor. “Hence the focus on the operational aspects: working in HR or finance in a Mat is still relatively new and we are trying to work out what works best.”
And with that our time is up. The QSG’s motives are admirable – and it could certainly evolve into a useful forum for sharing best practice among Mats – but first it has a lot of work to do on transparency and messaging. There is only so long you can dodge questions around purpose, and membership, and key issues before people start assuming the answers instead.
Whether those answers are forthcoming, and when, is anyone’s guess. But perhaps they could start with a website – even the freemasons have one of those.