It is noticeable that in all the political chaos of the last few weeks, the Schools Bill has continued it’s passage through parliament. The flagship policy, namely the ambition in the White Paper and subsequent Bill that all schools will be part of a strong multi-academy trust by 2030 seems to have been far less controversial than a similar announcement made by Nicky Morgan in 2016. It appears that now we have well over half of pupils taught in academies, and further erosion of the capacity of LAs to directly manage schools, there is an acceptance, or at least a realisation that this change is coming.
As the CEO of a small but growing Trust, we have certainly noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of enquiries we’ve been receiving from maintained schools and single academies, and have a real sense that the number of schools now seriously considering conversion has grown dramatically. In our Trust, this has already led to conversations, school visits and a couple of information meetings for potential new schools.
To be clear, we welcome the interest – even though we are committed to remaining a relatively small Trust and don’t have any immediate imperative to expand, we are hoping for sensible and sustainable growth over the next two or three years. As a result, it’s easy to get drawn into a selling role when talking to perspective schools – there’s always a temptation to tell them what they want to hear in order to get that all important governing body vote over the line. I’m not suggesting that Trusts are not being completely honest with their answers, but they may certainly be painting things in the most favourable light possible.
In my experience, most of the questions we get are fairly straightforward and relate to systems and processes – contracts, TUPE arrangements, policies etc. They’re relatively easy to answer, and although there may be some differences in nuance, most trusts will be saying similar things. After a few years of the MAT system, most Trusts of any size will have employed competent specialists to deal with the operational side of things.
The reason, therefore, to join a particular Trust is not because they may shave a few pounds off your photocopying contract, or that they have a good bid-writing team that may get you a new class set of ukuleles. The reason is because you share their values and ethos, and that this is a comfortable home for your school – a partnership of schools that is a good fit for you, not just at the moment, but in the years to come.
Your questions, therefore, need to get to the heart of this – what’s important to this trust, what makes them tick? When the chips are down, what do they hold dear? You will be placing your trust in this person and their team, and that trust is precious. You are entering into a marriage without the possibility of divorce – the answers to your questions need to tell you not just what they do, but who they are.
So here’s some suggestions for questions that, if asked of me, would make me think, would reveal something of my motivation for the Trust – and may take me by surprise:
How would you define a strong Trust, and does your definition differ from the government’s?
Make no mistake, the CEO will have thought about this, not least because it has been highlighted in the White Paper. Although it did not make it into the proposed Bill, it is clear that MAT evaluations are on their way, and judgements will need to be made against some clear criteria. So what’s important to them? Achievement outcomes, presumably; Ofsted grades, probably; proportion of students going to university, oversubscription rates, sound financial management? How about exclusion / attendance rates; support provided for schools outside the Trust, engagement with parents and the local community? This may give you an indication of where their values lie.
When did you last permanently exclude a pupil, and where are they now?
As in most of these questions, there’s no correct answer, but it will certainly give you an insight into the culture of the MAT. Firstly, is this an exceptional event and therefore it has stuck in the mind of the CEO, or is it fairly routine? The most revealing element of this question is likely to be the second part – to what extent is the Trust committed to the long-term interest of their pupils, even (or especially) those who have failed?
How often do your pupils sing?
If the CEO starts talking about the medium-term planning framework for music, they’re probably missing the point of this question. Their answer should give an indication of the importance that the Trust gives to joy, wonder and awe in the curriculum, to a school experience that is broad and rich.
Are you an expert in teaching and learning? How do you keep your knowledge up to date?
Once again, the most important part of this is probably the second question. Whether someone defines themselves as an expert may tell you more about their own levels of confidence, but their commitment to keeping their own knowledge current is a key indicator. Do you want to be part of a Trust where the senior leader does not have a clear grasp of the key skills needed to do the job, or shows insufficient interest in their core business? Without this, how do they effectively support schools and decide on policy?
What does your Trust do for the most vulnerable member of your school community?
This, for me, goes to the core of the MAT’s approach to inclusion. Once again, look out for the glib, rehearsed answer that references Trust-wide policy. Firstly, who is defined as the most vulnerable member? Educational need, risk of exclusion, family upheaval? Then, does the CEO take an interest in what happens to them – to the point where they would become personally involved if that could make a difference. I believe that you can always judge an institution by the way it treats it’s most vulnerable member.
Do you get paid a bonus, and if so, what for?
You may get an evasive response here, but it’s a simple question. The level of executive pay is to some extent a matter of record, but the awarding of a bonus and the criteria for doing so is likely to be more obscure. Is it for growth, for pupil test outcomes, for financial performance? Can you be completely confident that the values of your school and the Key Performance Indicators of the Trust are fully aligned.
What’s the one thing I could say that would convince you that our school was not right for your MAT?
It’s very easy for a CEO to go into a sales mode in these conversations, and to be focussed on ‘closing the deal’. If that’s the case, then this might make them shift a little uncomfortably in their seat. Groucho Marx is famously quoted as saying ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member’. A Trust that would take any school is probably one that is not clear and confident in its ethos and values. So what’s the red line, and would you put it in the same place?
In your time as CEO, what’s the one thing you personally have done of which you are most proud?
Being a CEO is a strange job. For those of us who have spent most of our working lives in a classroom, we have to come to terms with the fact that the really important work is done with the pupils, and our role is to simply to create the conditions in which that can happen as effectively as possible. So are we most proud of the fact that we have grown the size of Trust, or received national recognition, or that we have intervened to support a pupil or a teacher?
In the end, it’s a question of faith, and whilst faith in the leadership is not enough of a reason on its own to join a Trust, a lack of faith is probably enough to convince you that this is not the right move. When it comes down to it, if I haven’t been made to feel at least a little uncomfortable under questioning, then I probably haven’t been asked enough of the right questions, and that’s not good for either side of the discussion. The only way to make this vital decision is with eyes wide open. Good luck.