‘It’s quite difficult to argue for school autonomy’

17th August 2018 at 00:00
Rowena Hackwood is one of a growing number of multi-academy trust leaders with no experience of teaching. Here, the chief executive of David Ross Education Trust tells Martin George why it’s a plus to have the ‘different perspective’ of a business background and explains how removing power from individual academies can help to raise standards

“I felt quite strongly that I was definitely not going to go into teaching, so it’s quite hilarious that’s where I’ve ended up, actually, in an education environment.”

So says Rowena Hackwood, the daughter of two teachers, recalling her career plans as a student. This month, she is marking a year at the helm of David Ross Education Trust.

With 34 schools – 22 primaries, 11 secondaries and one special school – in the East Midlands, London, the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber, it is one of the largest academy trusts in the country.

It is also one of the oldest, having been set up in 2007 by the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, David Ross, who acts as its sponsor and chair. And today, running the trust is the responsibility of a former management consultant who is clear that there is no longer a place within it for school autonomy – one of the original goals of the academies movement.

Hackwood joined the trust after a period of turbulence, in which several trustees resigned, including former education secretary David Blunkett, who left his position as chair. Staff numbers were also reduced to save money. However, Hackwood is optimistic about the trust’s future, partly because of the “standardisation” she has already achieved.

She is one of a growing number of multi-academy trust leaders who have not been teachers, and whose path to the chief executive’s chair has not involved a spell as a head.

‘Curator of ideas’

It is a trend that national schools commissioner Sir David Carter has warned carries risks (see bit.ly/NonTeach). But Hackwood does not believe her lack of classroom experience is a hindrance. Instead, she feels that it allows her to be a “curator of ideas” from other areas.

“I think it definitely brings a different perspective, but my job is not to be a classroom teacher,” she says. “My job is to run an organisation where an awful lot of my members of staff are classroom teachers.

“A phrase I quite often use is that ‘it’s not for me to be brilliant in every role in the organisation’. My job is to make sure that all of my staff are brilliant in the roles that they are employed to do.”

Hackwood’s own education took place at state infant and junior schools in Nottingham, and at an independent school, Nottingham Girls’ High, through the Assisted Places Scheme, which provided a free or subsidised private education for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“That gave me access to a whole world of education that really sparked off my imagination, and I just grabbed everything with both hands,” she says. It is an experience that influences her thinking in the role she holds today: “Having been to an independent school, I have seen what fantastic education looks like in all of its breadth.

“The key thing about our vision at the David Ross Education Trust is that our strapline is ‘broadening horizons’. What we are aiming to do is to make sure that every pupil has access to the best possible education that we can provide them with, and as rounded an education as we can provide them with, irrespective of their starting point in life.”

She points to the trust’s enrichment programme, which she describes as “among the best in the country”, as one of her big reasons for joining David Ross.

Another was the local connection. “I’m from the East Midlands. I grew up in Nottingham. I still live in the area. For me to be able to lead a trust that has a big impact in an area that is home to me, that’s really attractive, because making an impact in your local area is something that does it for me, I guess,” Hackwood says.

After studying at the University of Cambridge and pursuing an MBA at Warwick Business School, her career took her into the private, public and charity sectors – including two and a half years running the trust of the historic Auckland Castle in County Durham.

“What has always fascinated me is how to help the private sector understand better and think more from a values base, and with a bit more of an ethical purpose, and helping the public sector to think in a more business-like way,” she says. “Those two sides of the same coin are the things that light my fire, and that’s what I try to bring to this role now.”

Hackwood’s management consultant background is evident in both the approach she has taken at the trust and how she explains it. Her number-one priority in her first year was about: “creating an organisation that wasn’t 34 different organisations with a head office that was simply seen as an overhead, but to create a corporate organisation that felt [as though] it all belonged together and where everybody felt they were in it together – this idea of a collective endeavour”.

It is a process that goes to the heart of the debate about what it is to be a school in a MAT, and where the balance between autonomy for academies and conformity across the trust lies.

“I suppose that, on the continuum, we are very much on the standardised end, but we are not absolutely at the cookie cutter end,” she says, citing the need for some differences to accommodate the wide variety of sizes and locations among the David Ross academies.

“We are creating a family. We have a network of schools. Autonomy doesn’t really have a place within that, in my opinion, because it’s quite difficult to work up an argument that says, ‘This is why I want to be autonomous; this is the benefit I get from being autonomous’. Because when the trust had 34 different schools behaving in 34 different ways, quality standards were incredibly varied. It’s really important that we recognise that the value of us all working together is very much greater than the value of everybody working independently.”

One example of this approach is the single primary curriculum that was rolled out across the trust towards the end of the year. This standardisation goes hand in hand with a conscious attempt to “demystify” what it means to be part of a MAT.

‘Some kind of black magic’

Hackwood acknowledges that “there has been some kind of mystique about ‘the head office is over here and we’re not quite sure what they do – there’s some kind of black magic going on there’ ”.

One symbol of her efforts to break down these barriers is her decision to move the headquarters of the trust from an industrial estate in Grantham to one of its schools: Charnwood College in Loughborough. Another is the six-weekly One-Trust Call, a one-hour session in which all the MAT’s 2,000 members of staff are invited to grill Hackwood – in person, over the phone or anonymously.

“I have people asking why I haven’t given staff pay rises, why I think standardisation is a good idea and ‘Does this take autonomy away from classroom teachers?’ People go straight for it,” she says.

In terms of its recent performance, David Ross Education Trust is neither one of the high-flyers lauded by ministers, nor one of the failures targeted by academy sceptics. Last summer, it had an overall Progress 8 score of 0.1, putting it 20th out of the 62 MATs in the Department for Education’s league table, while its primary school scores were around the middle of the pack.

And an Ofsted letter that followed a mass inspection of 13 of its schools last September painted a mixed picture, saying “too many pupils are underachieving by the end of key stages 2 and 4”, but noting that many schools’ Ofsted grades had improved since they joined the trust. The letter also highlighted the trust’s “long-standing record of success” in allowing pupils to participate and excel in music and sport.

Hackwood lists three priorities for the coming year: attainment and progress at the trust’s schools; closing the disadvantage gap – something she says it has made great strides on in this summer’s Sats results; and mental health and resilience.

Increasing the size of the trust is not among these immediate priorities. Hackwood says: “We have still got some way to go on all three of those fronts, and I think that is OK. I have been with the organisation for a year, and we are absolutely driving things forward. I’m sure that, in time, we will want to grow and consolidate our geographic areas, but let’s do that off the back of success.”


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