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Engaging schools in your multi-academy trust
How can multi-academy trusts build positive relationships with their schools, and maintain that positivity during times of change? Leora Cruddas, CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts suggests four key steps trusts should take to strengthen links between a trust and its schools.
The growth of the multi-academy trust (MAT) has been remarkable. Since 2015, the number of MATs across the country has risen by a quarter, and it’s not unusual for some of the larger trusts to take on three or four schools in the space of 12 months.
And each of these schools comes with its own set of qualities, strengths and challenges.
Joining together as part of a trust enables each school to work towards improved outcomes for pupils, and can kindle a renewed sense of purpose in working towards a common goal. However, being part of a trust often involves changes in a school’s way of working.
So what are the key steps a trust should take to manage change and keep schools on board with the trust’s aims and visions?
One: keep communication open
Trust leaders should never underestimate the importance of communication when it comes to engaging schools with trust-wide initiatives. While many trusts have sound communications strategies in place to share major developments in MAT policy with their schools, it can be all too easy to overlook the importance of the day-to-day news, information and updates.
For Daniel Moore who is finance director at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Multi-Academy Trust, the best way to communicate effectively with schools across a trust is to map out an approach that uses multiple channels to reach school staff.
“We have learnt how to do this as we have grown,” says Daniel. “We now have fortnightly head teacher briefings, news bulletins and promote all our good news and success stories.”
Good planning is the answer according to Daniel. “Plan out where you want to be in the end – allow plenty of time and try not to rush it. They key thing is to get as many people on board as possible.”
When change is on the horizon, trust-wide communication becomes even more crucial. Some staff members may need added reassurance about how the change will affect them, and sending open, positive messages about how and why a process is changing can make all the difference. Sarah Appleby, finance director of the River Learning Trust recommends this approach. “If there’s a benefit, there’s no reason why people won’t buy into it. You need to understand how the system currently works, what the benefit is of changing it and if there are any unintended consequences that might throw a spanner in the works.
“So we make sure we have talked to people and made sure they understand why we think the change would be beneficial,” explains Sarah.
Two: maximise local knowledge
While schools in a trust join forces to work together for improved pupil outcomes, they still retain their own valuable skills and experience. Trusts stand to gain by tapping into these local hubs of expertise, and by doing this, they are also sending the message that local-level knowledge is essential to the trust.
At the River Learning Trust, school-level knowledge feeds into the central trust team, as Sarah Appleby explains. “We blend the local knowledge that the school has, which is invaluable, with the technical and accounting knowledge of the central school business partner.”
“Our structure has several school business partners spread across the trust who each work with six or seven schools so that they retain local knowledge. The local school business managers do the majority of the work in terms of finance, but the central business partner supports the school business manager with the more technical things like budget monitoring and producing a forecast.”
Each trust will have its own balance between centralisation and autonomy, but where trusts actively seek out local expertise, they are better placed to build positive relationships with their schools.
Three: prioritise staff wellbeing
To sustain these positive relationships, it’s also important to consider the extent to which staff members are content with their roles. The advantage of centralising some of a trust’s systems and processes is that school staff often have more time to spend on the central aspect of their job.
With the essential back-office tasks such as administration and budgeting taken care of, teaching staff can focus on helping their pupils achieve their potential.
Daniel Moore emphasises that most school staff entered the profession to do the job they are good at, and have trained for, and lightening the administrative load is something that would receive a widespread welcome. “It’s about making their job easier,” explains Daniel. “Letting them focus on education and school standards – the important elements of their role rather than being bogged down by finance.”
Sarah Appleby agrees. “Our staff work incredibly long hours and are so dedicated. If we can save them 10 minutes in the day – every day – by centralising a process so they no longer have to do it, that means they have got a slightly better work/life balance.
“If you times that 10 minutes over 20 schools, we are all then moving towards the same outcome. Whether it’s the school business manager’s wellbeing, or more money and time to spend on actually teaching children. It all leads to happier staff and happier pupils.”
Four: Engage staff in the vision
Having established stronger links with schools, and embedded a positive culture of staff wellbeing across the trust, it becomes easier for a trust to share its vision with schools.
But helping schools to see the big picture for the trust involves engaging them in every step of the journey. For example, to achieve a trust’s mission to improve educational outcomes for pupils, schools may need to shift their focus onto specific subject areas, or adopt a new way to collect attainment data.
This can involve an element of change, but schools will see the value of new processes if they share their trust’s overall vision.
Daniel Moore suggests talking to schools about a trust’s achievements in order to engage them in the journey. “It’s about winning hearts and minds, so whenever something works, like when we make a saving through pooling our purchasing might, we make sure everyone knows about it.”
“These small wins allow trust members to see the advantages of being part of a bigger group on a daily and weekly basis, and this is how you start to get everyone on board,” says Daniel.
Sharing a trust’s overall aims, from the very beginning is the best way to encourage schools to buy in and be part of those aims. Because, as Sarah Appleby says, “You can have the best idea in the world, or the best system, but if people haven’t bought into it – it will fail.”
By engaging schools right from the start, and building on the firm foundations of a strong and positive relationship, trusts can harness the power of their schools to share their common goal – improved outcomes for children.
Leora Cruddas is CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts. The views in this article are explored in greater depth in a PS Financials white paper, Checks and Balance which is available for download at www.psfinancials.com/checksandbalance/