Carol Dewhurst and Tessa Mason

chief executive and chair, Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust

Perhaps a female trait is we look out for each other

The chair and chief executive of Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust learnt about the importance of the CEO-chair relationship when they worked on academisation for the Department for Education. Seven years into their partnership, the former DfE advisers reveal their lessons along the way

Carol Dewhurst, chief executive, and Tessa Mason, chair, of the Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust (BDAT), are a fascinating powerhouse pair to lead an academy trust by anyone’s standards.

Dewhurst is a chartered marketeer, a non-teacher specialising in marketing strategies, who spent years on the Department for Education’s academies programme. It was there that she met Mason, a former primary school headteacher working as a DfE consultant on the same programme, in 2012 – the feverish early days of academisation.

So, when Dewhurst left the civil service to become BDAT’s chief executive in 2014, she rang Mason straight away after her original chair, the archdeacon of Bradford, stepped down.

“I’d always been very excited by the way Carol worked. Our paths had crossed at DfE, and she had enthusiasm and a can-do attitude,” beams Mason.

Dewhurst, who prior to the DfE had worked on the Children’s Workforce Development Council, the quango that delivered the ‘Every child matters’ programme, was conscious of not having an education background herself.

She also found herself surrounded locally by big trusts with a national profile, including the likes of Dixons Academies Trust. BDAT was small, with just three schools that had struggled. Dewhurst wanted to reposition the trust as a home for excellent schools and felt there was no better way to persuade them than have a former experienced headteacher and a high-powered civil servant at the top.

“Tessa was well respected and steeped in a schools background,” she explains. “And I gave it credibility in that I’d given up this career as a civil servant to join this embryonic MAT. There was that degree of credibility that we’d chosen to take our next career steps here.”

Dewhurst and Mason with year 8 pupils at Immanuel College

Dewhurst had left the civil service to be closer to the action in education, she explains. The words echo former DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, who in an interview with Schools Week said civil servants end up spending too much time in a room with each other, rather than with those on the frontline.

“I really enjoyed my time at the DfE, but I thought I could do more on the frontline,” Dewhurst adds. “In the civil service you’ve got a job to do, but you’re one step removed from children and families.”

I’d given up this career as a civil servant to join this embryonic MAT

Since Mason joined in 2015 the trust has grown to 17 schools (14 primaries, four secondaries), and there is another primary school joining in July. Only three will not have a Church of England denomination.

The government’s academisation push lost momentum after the abandoned plans in 2016 to force all schools to convert. But that push is set to be revived in the upcoming white paper, and converting religious schools is a key target of government.

Many dioceses are now choosing to convert their schools en-masse, sensing the policy shift. Converting the circa 4,000 Christian faith schools will mean around two-thirds of schools would be academies.

Year 4 pupils at St Philip’s CoE primary academy, which joined the trust in 2014, with teacher Bethanie Lawton-Sergeant

So what do Mason and Dewhurst remember from their front seat at the policy decisions a decade ago?

Mason was a consultant for the DfE based in Sheffield from 2012, advising schools on academisation as one of about 100 advisors across the country.

“As a head I’d become fascinated by the idea of outreach,” she says, pointing out it had been tried through Tony Blair’s ‘Education Action Zones’ from 1998. “But what was new about the academisation programme was sponsorship. This wasn’t about temporary partnerships, these were big commitments and long-term relationships.

“It was a very exciting time in a way, but it was also a bit of a knife edge, because it was potentially disruptive to what was a very, very well-established system of strong local authorities,” Mason continues frankly. “But I could see, once the 2010 Academies Act came in, that every single direction was taking us down this road.”

Year 9 pupils at Bradford Forster academy, a CoE secondary school founded in 2015

Meanwhile Dewhurst, who joined the academies programme as a civil servant in 2011, was highly enthused by it all. She also had a secondment with then-academies minister Lord Nash.

“The pace and pressure of decision-making astounded me,” she says. “Lord Nash worked incredibly hard and expected civil servants to work really hard… I do think every school should be actively considering joining an academy trust, unless they have a good reason not to.”

Academisation was potentially disruptive to a very, very well-established system

Dewhurst explains her thinking. “I think schools supporting schools as part of a family, by sharing practice on how to improve, is where academies really make a difference. It’s a formalisation of that system. If you’re a good school, you have a lot to bring to an academy trust.”

Of course, the CEO-chair relationship was a key ingredient for successful trusts that both Mason and Dewhurst witnessed during their DfE work. The Wakefield City Academies Trust collapse of 2017, in which a CEO overruled a weak board, happened just nearby.

“We wanted to take the best of what we were seeing and construct a really positive CEO-chair relationship,” says Mason. Dewhurst adds: “I might come at it more from a commercial value, and Tessa will come at it from ‘how does that fit with our values?’”

Dewhurst and Mason at Immanuel College, the trust’s second secondary school to join, in 2016

One of the big challenges for the pair was changing the perception of the trust as just for struggling schools. Now ten schools are good, one is outstanding, three require improvement and three haven’t been inspected yet (about half the schools were less than ‘good’ on joining). “That took a long time, to be honest, to make people realise,” says Dewhurst. The turning point was when the first ‘good’ graded secondary school joined the trust, to help set up another secondary, she says.

But there were other challenges. Three years ago Schools Week reported that BDAT was shaking up teachers’ pay and conditions, which unions said would allow the trust to dismiss staff at more points throughout the year, potentially leaving some unpaid during summer.

“I think that was a misunderstanding with the unions. We had staff on contracts dating back to the last century, and we wanted to make sure we had fair and equal contracts, with the same rights as our new starters,” says Dewhurst.

The trust was also criticised by unions when it notified staff of a restructuring consultation at one of its schools during the first week of coronavirus school shutdowns, at a time when many trusts had suspended redundancies. Dewhurst says the consultation was agreed by the board “before the first lockdown”, and when lockdown was announced, some staff voluntarily engaged while the wider consultation was cancelled.

Now the pair have launched ‘BDAT People’, a new initiative to show “how much we value our staff”, says Dewhurst.

A new website compiles the staff development offer, and the trust has also worked on strengthening its initial teacher training offer by no longer using lots of different ITT providers and doing more training in-house. There has also been a diversity and inclusion recruitment drive, and support staff recently got a pay award, adds Dewhurst.

It’s a reminder that it’s a tough business, running academy trusts. CEOs and chairs are responsible for thousands of staff, huge budgets, and often deal with close scrutiny. It makes that CEO-chair relationship all the more important.

Perhaps a female trait is we look out for each other

“I do think perhaps a female trait is we look out for each other,” notes Mason. Dewhurst adds she is keen to share lessons with other trust leaders about asking themselves “what battles they want to pick” and what has worked well.

Does it matter that Dewhurst wasn’t a teacher before becoming a trust CEO? “No. The way BDAT works is we operate as a strong leadership team. I’ve got great educationalists on my team, and collectively we’ve got the skills we need.”

In many ways, the Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust is perhaps exactly what policymakers hope to see more of. It aims to bring failing and good faith schools together, and is run by experienced leaders behind the DfE’s vision. Throw in the need for more female academy leaders, and Dewhurst and Mason look like models for the next decade.

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  1. Orchid

    ‘BDAT was shaking up teachers’ pay and conditions, which unions said would allow the trust to dismiss staff at more points throughout the year, potentially leaving some unpaid during summer.’
    ‘The trust was also criticised by unions when it notified staff of a restructuring consultation at one of its schools during the first week of coronavirus school shutdowns, at a time when many trusts had suspended redundancies.’

    But Mason and Dewhirst insist that females look out for each other… and that BDAT have Christian values. I see neither to be true looking at the quotations above.