I was the headteacher of Hillyfield Academy in Walthamstow when the Department for Education approached me to ask whether I would consider setting up another academy or two. At the time, I thought “Why not?”: the school was performing very highly, day-to-day things were running smoothly, and I’ve always felt strongly that if you have a model that works in education, you are morally bound to offer more of it where it is needed.
Little did I know that, four years on, I would be overseeing Reach 2 – a family of over 50 primary academies. Nor did I anticipate that the family would have replicated to create a “sister” trust – Reach4 – to operate in another part of the country, responsible for both primary and secondary education.
Along the way, I have learned – and continue to learn – a huge amount. But chief among these lessons has been the world of difference between running a trust that has around five schools and a trust that is operating in the multiple of tens of schools. The former can operate perfectly well as a cluster of schools, like a small family unit, that knows each other inside and out. The latter is more like an extended family: it can be a formidable force to be reckoned with, both in good times and bad, but has the potential to provide a source of strength and support when needed.
The simple fact is that size matters, in all manner of ways.
First and foremost, scale allows a trust to offer the type of staff development that you simply don’t see in smaller trusts. If we want our people to be true professionals, then we must start treating them like professionals. We want staff to join us as new teachers and never have to leave us – both because of the investment that we can make in them as professionals by way of formal training, but also by dint of the opportunities we are able to offer across our schools.
The same principle applies when it comes to recruitment. We don’t have to rely on the stand-alone advert to attract new teachers or senior leaders. We can be more creative, and instead host whole-area careers fairs. We took this approach in Staffordshire recently, where we needed to appoint 60 new teachers in the schools that we had taken on there.
We opened up one of the academies on a Saturday morning and, having promoted the day through every type of social media and word of mouth, were delighted to welcome over 200 teachers to the fair. What’s more, we filled every single one of the 60 posts with exceptional practitioners, who we are now proud to have in our family.
And, of course, the other significant benefit of scale is the buying power that comes with it. If you are a single primary academy with a typical turnover of around £2m, you simply cannot compete when it comes to the leverage that an organisation whose financial value exceeds £100 million has with its suppliers. This applies to everything from gluesticks to gas bills – a recent procurement exercise saw us save £50,000 on the former, and £150,000 on the latter. There are competitive deals to be struck on all manner of things – ICT, textbooks, cleaning contracts, payroll, and so on.
There are, of course, challenges along the way. The most important lesson is not to become distant from your schools. This sounds obvious, but too often we have seen academy trusts grow and become ever more remote from their schools and what is going on in them. It’s all very well having a shiny central London head office, but unless your academies all happen to be in Zone 1 the risk of disconnect is high. At Reach2, we are based in our schools. That way, we know for sure that the family link is alive and well.
Linked to this is the challenge of getting the right people in the right posts. This applies from the CEO down. The biggest wake up call for some, has been the revelation that being a CEO of a trust is not the same as being a head. It requires an entirely different set of skills and, having experienced this myself, individuals need to be supported and coached while they acquire and develop those skills.
How to make it a success
First, investing time and money in staff at all levels. This helps ensure that the vision and values of the organisation are shared, but it also engenders loyalty. The saying goes that good people move on – well we want them to move on with us. From TA to teacher, from teacher to school leader, from school leader to regional leader, and from regional leader to the team running the organisation.
Second, you have to get the governance right. And that is both from the structural side, but also the quality of people in governance roles. We have a clearly defined governance charter – a living and breathing document capturing exactly how we work.
And third, make sure you have a balanced portfolio. By this, I mean a balance between those sponsored academies that need a lot of extra support and help, and converter academies, which create capacity and headroom by bringing in additional talent.
And how to know when to stop
The model we have created is quite deliberately replicable. So, for example, in Reach2 we look to grow a geographical cluster of schools at a time, each with its own infrastructure to support it. This method is far preferable to the scattergun approach that others have adopted.
But this isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a numbers game. Running a large MAT should not be akin to an educational arms race, where trusts compete to see who can collect the greatest number of schools in the shortest period of time. It should be about considered and responsible growth: replicating what has been tried and tested so that more young people and their families can benefit.
Sir Steve Lancashire is CEO of Reach Academies Trust