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'Schools can and should choose their family - join an academy trust'

Many people think there is something sinister about 'academisation', but by joining an academy trust schools will see many benefits – and they will retain their individuality, says the chief executive of one such trust

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Sometimes, a number of seemingly disparate issues and challenges come together to form not a perfect storm, but an alignment of the stars.

Take for instance some of the main headlines in TES over recent weeks: the government’s position that all schools are to become academies by 2020; schools' preparedness to navigate the turbulent waters of budgetary pressures; struggling with the entrenched issue of teacher recruitment and how we can get the best in our profession into the parts of the country that need the most support; and Ofsted’s latest pronouncements on the increasingly entrenched North/South divide.

So what's the solution?

“Academisation” has become a verb. And whilst it does what it says on the tin, it also polarises people. For many, there is something vaguely sinister to this recently minted term. It has the flavour of something being done to you, perhaps with a subtle note of: “Nurse Ratched will see you now, Mr Lancashire…” 

But becoming an academy should not be seen as something done under sufferance with your arm twisted behind your back. In fact, every single one of the 50 academies in our trust has chosen to be there and has not looked back since joining us. Even those who at the outset were deeply sceptical, including the formidable finger-jabbing grandmother who had concerns about the school where her daughter was taught joining an academy trust, have come to see the benefits.

Fear often lurks in the unknown, so with all of the above, plus the imminence of the Education and Adoption Bill, I'd urge all schools that are not yet academies to strike out and find out as much as they can about the options they have.

Go and visit different academy trusts; go and speak to the teachers and leaders who work in them; go and see for yourself what they stand for, what their vision and values are – and ask, do these sing out from every pore of the organisation and in every school in the trust?

As well as the vision and the values, there are also “nuts and bolts” benefits to joining a wider trust. Consider going from being a single primary school with a typical turnover of £2 million to joining a family whose financial value is in excess of £100 million.

With considerable financial heft comes considerable purchasing power, from payroll to photocopying. Imagine the deals to be struck when you're buying 5,000 iPads instead of 50. A recent procurement exercise saw a £50,000 saving on just glue sticks! Another will slash our gas bill by £150,000, and there are other significant cost savings elsewhere too – ICT, textbooks, cleaning contracts – it all adds up.

Another very practical benefit of being part of a strong family-oriented trust can also help tackle head-on the very real challenges around teacher recruitment. We all know how difficult and frustrating this can be. With the right team in place under strong leadership, spectacular change is possible – even in a short space of time. Just look at Eastbrook Primary Academy, where the fantastic Julia Sherlock led her school from special measures to outstanding in under two years. That sort of transformation just isn’t possible if you don’t have the right team in place.

Again, we have found that size matters here and we pool our resources and our creativity to make sure that we are straining every sinew to attract the best teachers to join our family. Last year, with 60 vacancies in the Staffordshire area in our academies, we hosted a Saturday open day and invited teachers from far and wide to come along and find out about us. Over 200 people turned out, and from those we filled all our vacancies with superb professionals in one fell swoop.

But of course, it’s not just about persuading individuals to join your organisation. As leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure that we develop each and every one of them with the same care and diligence that we apply to each of the children and young people in our schools. 

Ultimately, this is about talent management. Take a look at the top tier organisations across any sector – every single one of them takes this area deadly seriously. They invest in it properly and it pays off.

The same applies in education, and yet as a sector, we have not been great at looking after our own. And I mean, really looking after our own – nurturing their talent, tapping into their energy, guiding their career – as well as being there on the days when it just doesn’t quite work out as you planned.

We have a saying: “Join us as an NQT and you should never have to – or want to – leave us.” We have to get better at this as a sector – it is the only way to build capacity and truly transform some of the more challenging and entrenched educational blackspots.

Which brings me to the North/South divide. It is an absolute indictment that a third of our secondary schools in the North and the Midlands are not good enough and “languishing in mediocrity”. I say that as a Sheffield boy who had a pretty dismal experience of school myself.

The fact that same experience appears to be so prevalent today in so many parts of the country is unforgivable. At both a personal, as well as a professional, level then, I am extremely proud that REAch4 has been established; with the explicit goal of helping to support schools in the North of England tackle this educational apartheid.

But the reality is, whether you are a school in London, a school in Sheffield or a school in the shires, joining a family of academies can – and should – be a positive, proactive choice. It is not a clinical process that lobotomises and strips out all individuality; it is a process that is about forming long-term relationships that nurture and challenge and, as a result, ultimately are stronger than the sum of their parts. Those who say, “you can’t pick your family” are wrong; you can, and what’s more you should.

Steve Lancashire is the CEO of REAch2 and REAch4 academy trusts. 

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