`There is a risk that chains make mistakes'

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Academy leaders are offered training to cope with rapid expansion

Hundreds of academy chain leaders are to be offered government-approved training in "financial probity" and "risk management", in a bid to avoid further failures as they take over large portions of England's schools system.

The news comes in the same week that education secretary Nicky Morgan confirmed plans for legislation that would mean thousands of "coasting" schools - deemed by Ofsted to "require improvement" - could be forcibly turned into academies.

Giving chief executives of academy chains the skills needed to manage large numbers of schools has become a "critical issue", according to Heath Monk, chief executive of the Future Leaders Trust, which developed the training programme for the government.

"Given the announcements at the weekend, there is going to be a move to have more academy trusts and for those existing academy trusts to grow quickly," he told TES.

"There is a risk that trusts get too big, too quick, and make mistakes that could have been avoided. This is about building the capacity in advance of actually taking on the extra work."

The risks would only increase as academy chains grew in size, Mr Monk added. "Financial probity, making sure that governance works, and ensuring that you are not having fallouts between central teams and schools - all that becomes much riskier as you get bigger."

Too much, too soon

In March last year, the Department for Education barred a dozen academy chains from taking over more schools because of concerns about educational standards. These included the country's biggest chain, the Academies Enterprise Trust, which controlled 77 schools at its peak. Ofsted suggested in September that the organisation had expanded too quickly and was failing to give "too many pupils" a good enough education. Since then the trust has had to offload at least eight of its academies.

Frank Green, the government's national schools commissioner, has called for all academies to operate in groups because there are not enough "outstanding" headteachers to go around. He told TES in October that no more than a third of academies were in formal multi-school groupings. But that proportion is set to grow significantly under the new Conservative government's plans.

Mr Monk said that successful headteachers who were asked to take over struggling schools could find themselves working as academy chain chief executives "without realising it", and often needed preparation for a completely new role with a "different set of skills".

"Headteachers of individual schools are expected to be hands-on and to get to know students and staff personally," he said. "Executive headteachers can just about manage to fulfil a similar role if they're leading two or three schools.

"But once a trust becomes bigger than that, the role changes. Our belief is that the behaviours and working practices of a successful headteacher cannot be replicated across a trust.

"It is not that people lack knowledge. They know what governance is and they how school finance works. The challenge is, how do you do that on a much bigger scale? If you have got eight schools, you cannot be there all the time."

That question is at the centre of the course for academy chain leaders being piloted by Future Leaders. The programme covers "growth strategy", the need for "good political awareness", "driving school improvement" and governance. Participants have been encouraged to learn from the private sector about "brand management" and will undertake business placements.

The founder of the Innocent soft drinks company told the leaders about how the firm grew from a start-up to a global brand in 10 years. And advice about strategy and financial planning was offered by consultancy firm Deloitte.

Former headteacher Steve Taylor took over as chief executive of a chain of 12 academies in the South West of England in January. "It is really useful to have that perspective from business because this is something that is relatively new in the education sector," he said.

The pilot will be used to develop courses to be offered commercially from September, costing around pound;7,500 a head.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which will be offering its own training and working with Future Leaders, said: "The risk [of not receiving the training] would be that people take on these roles without understanding some of the additional responsibilities they are taking on. Therefore schools could get into trouble."

`The bigger you are, the harder it is'

Former headteacher Mark Ducker admits he has become an "accidental chief executive" at the Step Academy Trust, overseeing its expanding chain of six primaries in South London.

He says the Future Leaders course has emphasised the importance of being clear to schools how much autonomy they will have.

"The bigger you become, the harder it becomes, because people have strong allegiances to things they have always done in their schools," he says.

Learning about branding has also been "massively important" in creating a culture and "belief system" to galvanise schools in difficulty.

"We need to make those new schools that we work with feel that there is light and positivity," Mr Ducker adds. "Our logo has been really carefully designed - it shows individual bands going up in steps to show that schools are moving upwards.

"You don't get that in local authorities. Step [academies] are bound together by something far, far stronger - we have got something that we call Pupac, which is: passion, urgency, positivity, aspiration and commitment. All our children know it, all our parents know it, all our staff know it. It is the heartbeat of the organisation. That is what the CEO does."

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