He leads one of the biggest academy chains in England, is the only person to run two academy sponsors simultaneously and is still a primary headteacher – yet few people have ever heard of Steve Lancashire.
But the seemingly limitless ambition he has shown since establishing the Reach2 chain of schools means the chief executive is unlikely to go unnoticed for long.
The multi-academy trust (MAT) has expanded to 50 primaries in its first three years, and last month Mr Lancashire opened a second chain called Reach4, specialising in all-through schools. And he has done all this without the heavily branded approach taken by most major MATs.
Now, in a TES interview, he signals that his determination to improve the education of relatively disadvantaged children may not be limited to England. Asked whether he would take his approach overseas, Mr Lancashire (pictured, right) says he wouldn’t rule it out.
“What I think we’re demonstrating is [that] we’ve established Reach2, we’ve established Reach4, we’ve established a replicable model and I think that could be replicated anywhere,” he says. “And who knows, longer term, where that might go.”
Any overseas expansion would not quite be a first for English academy chains – this week it emerged that the Ark chain had opened a primary in Delhi, India (see panel, left). But it would make Mr Lancashire a pioneer.
First, though, the Yorkshireman has his sights set far closer to home. Last month, the Department for Education announced that Reach4 was to open, with a focus on improving secondary schools to create all-through academies in South Yorkshire.
A local lad
The move will be funded from the government’s £10 million pot for Northern academy sponsors and will involve Mr Lancashire returning to his home town of Sheffield, where his drive to improve education first took root.
“It’s a local lad come home,” he says. But he describes his own schooling as poor and says that without the belief in education shown by his parents – a coal miner and a dinner lady – he would have left school with few qualifications.
“In my primary school, I was deemed to be the responsible one, so I was made the milk monitor. In my final year, it meant I missed every maths lesson,” he says. “When I moved to secondary school, I didn’t even know what long division was. That’s just the way schools were in Sheffield at the time. It was a very poor education. And I am determined that that is not going to happen to anybody else.”
It is this moral purpose that Mr Lancashire says underpins his entire approach. It was what brought him significant success as headteacher of Hillyfield Primary Academy in a deprived area of north-east London, where he is still executive head. And it is what motivated him to set up an academy trust and expand his reach to support more schools.
The ability of the chain to take on ever-increasing numbers of schools – 13 were added in its first year – meant Reach2 quickly became a favourite among ministers and officials in the DfE. And with academy numbers about to dramatically expand again owing to the Education and Adoption Bill, Mr Lancashire’s approach to sponsorship could not have been better timed.
Expansion without compromise
The trust has shown how sponsors can grow quickly, providing the necessary capacity in the academy system without – on early indications, at least – compromising the quality of the education they provide.
“It went from zero to 13, 13 to 28 and then 28 to 50,” Mr Lancashire says. “We always knew we had to be at scale because of the challenges of being a primary-only trust. It has to be done at scale if you want to be successful.”
In some ways, Mr Lancashire and the Reach chains represent a new take on multi-academy sponsorship. Whereas earlier sponsors have come in for criticism for occupying expensive central London offices and prominently rebranding schools, Reach has actively avoided such trappings. The trust has no central HQ, and no expectations that its schools should bear its name or branding.
“I very much knew we did not want to be a London-based trust – part of the vision was to very much have a national footprint and develop a national voice for primary education,” he says. “We absolutely do not believe in central offices. We are not a corporate, branded trust. I know we’re doing well if I go to a new school and they have never heard of us.
“I struggle a lot with celebrating the trust, rather than the schools. One of our values is individuality, not conformity. How can you celebrate individuality if the first thing you say is the name of the trust?”
Whether Reach4 manages the same feats in the secondary sector that its parent organisation has enjoyed with primaries remains to be seen. But ministers will be crossing their fingers that Mr Lancashire’s homecoming is a successful one.
‘Big chains can be beautiful’
Reach2 was founded in 2012 and is now the largest primary-only multi-academy trust, with some 50 schools across England.
Responding to a report from the Reform thinktank suggesting that 30 schools was the “optimum size”, Reach2 chief executive Steve Lancashire insisted that “big can be beautiful” as long as relationships with schools were built in the right way.