Meet the boss of one of the most diverse MATs

Dan Thomas, chief executive, TLP

We've got to have stronger arguments of why we MATs exist

Dan Thomas, now chief executive of The Learning Partnership trust, was once prompted by a fortune cookie to ‘take the opportunity when it comes’. He has, and provided opportunities to thousands of youngsters ever since.

When Dan Thomas, chief executive of the newly formed The Learning Partnership (TLP) trust, suggested posing for our photoshoot next to the grand Bentley car parked outside his office, his deputy chief executive’s “face dropped”.

While he was joking about the picture (he drives a Skoda), it does touch on a bigger concern: what Thomas sees as a “lack of public understanding” that academy trusts “are there for the kids”. 

Some parents have told him they “don’t want our child going to a school that’s part of a trust… We’ve got to have stronger arguments of why we MATs exist, and to demonstrate the impact that we can have on our communities.”

TLP is a diverse trust. It has 15 schools ranging from those in the most deprived to most affluent communities in Cheshire East, and also include two specialist 14 to 19 university technical colleges. (The Bentley, along with an ice cream van, is on display outside one of them – Crewe Engineering & Design University Technical College – where the vehicles’ manufacturers are its industry partners).

Dan Thomas

Curriculum crafting

It seems a natural fit for Thomas, who has worked in a diversity of roles including in both primaries and secondaries, a city technology college, a federation, a faith school and an education membership network.

His motto has always been “why go for an easy life when you can go somewhere and make a difference?” It’s why he chose to follow in the footsteps of his mum and become a teacher.

After training as a maths teacher in Bristol, Thomas worked in challenging primaries as part of the New Labour government’s ‘Education Action Zone’ initiative in 2002.

The scheme encouraged the involvement of private sector investment to help support school turnarounds.

He then joined John Cabot City Technology College where he was mentored by its then principal, ex-national schools’ commissioner Sir David Carter.

His focus was on the skills children needed to access key stage two and three curriculums. He ran a ‘competency-based curriculum’, based on skills such as teamwork and resilience rather than subject knowledge. Although the method is now considered “old fashioned”, he learned much from it about how building resilience helps pupils learn better.

After a stint as assistant head across a federation of maintained high schools back in Cheshire, he joined a two-week government-funded global leadership exchange trip.

It involved visiting schools in India, and meeting charity school children rescued from slavery. The experience gave him a “really strong sense of the importance of education as a way out of poverty”.

The project was run by SSAT (the Schools, Students and Teachers Network) which then employed Thomas as a regional manager to “mine and share best practice” in the sector.

It was here he learned the value of working as a “system” rather than “a series of islands”. This is now the “biggest challenge” he faces within a trust of TLP’s size.

“It’s about making sure that everyone isn’t just fighting their own corner, that we’re collectively responsible.”

Dan Thomas

First headship

Buoyed by a fortune cookie telling him to “take the opportunity when it comes”, Thomas took up an interim head role at Saint Mary’s catholic primary school, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, in 2012.

Intending to work there for three months, he “loved it” and stayed for a year. “The power of the community around the school was absolutely brilliant”.

Getting the community behind an Englishman who had “turned up out of the blue” was a “massive learning curve” (he learned “very limited” Welsh to speak in assemblies).

He wasn’t a practicing Catholic so was unable to stay on permanently. Instead, Thomas applied to lead the then ‘outstanding’ Shavington primary school in Crewe. But by the time he started in 2013, the school’s rating had dropped to ‘requires improvement’.

There was also a “massive budget deficit” which Thomas overcame by making 11 redundancies at the single-form entry school in his first term. It was “challenging”, but after “lots of structural and curriculum changes” – the school was rated ‘good’ within 12 months.

Dan Thomas

MAT launch

A year later, Thomas was asked by Cheshire East Council to support another local primary, Wheelock, after it found itself headless and the Learning for Life Partnership trust Life Partnership trust was founded.

He says opening a trust back then (in 2015) was “significantly easier” as all you needed was “the right people to make sure the back end legal stuff went through”. Nowadays “the role of regional directors means there’s higher accountability around decision making, and more scrutiny on the rationale”.

While most MATs grow by “looking for similar schools”, Thomas’s strategy was different. He wanted schools “with challenges” where “we could make a difference”.

That included three formerly single-trust primary schools who had been rated ‘requires improvement’, one of which was Daven school – the most deprived primary in Cheshire East.

Ideally, Thomas “would have wanted more capacity” within his trust to improve these schools, saying it’s “key to admit” that “we didn’t have the level of resource” needed to “really service that school as it deserved”.

Mike Cladingbowl in 2015

In September last year, Learning for Life Partnership and its five primaries merged with The Learning Alliance, made up of four secondaries, two 14-19 provisions and three primaries, to create TLP.

It was a good match. TLA was motivated by “succession planning” for the retirement of its chief executive Mike Cladingbowl, while Thomas needed “more capacity to impact on the communities we serve”.

But just three weeks later, Daven got a second RI judgment and “the scrutiny of a coasting letter”.

Thomas says the “significant pressures around the accountability system” are the toughest aspect of his job.

While “there are no excuses” for the inspection’s findings, he says “timing is everything”. Daven is now a “really good case study” as to why he believes bigger can mean better for trusts, because of the additional support the trust has been able to provide.

Specialist schools

The merger means Thomas now also leads two specialist 14 to 19 provisions – Crewe UTC, and Cheshire Studio School.

Crewe UTC has fewer than half of its original 800-pupil capacity, yet Thomas claims the numbers are “about right”. The £11 million building is “too small” to accommodate more, due the space needed for technical equipment.

Thomas admits that the non-standard entry intake has proven “highly problematic,” and is something “UTCs nationally have an issue with”.

The colleges were intended for age 14 upwards, many now accept pupils from year 7 (like a traditional secondary school). Meanwhile, TCP’s Cheshire Studio School shares a site with its Knutsford Academy, enabling the two schools to share English and Maths teachers.

Studio schools were opened between 2011 and 2017 as deliberately small schools specialising in vocational pathways. Like UTCs, they have also had their struggles and only 20 remain with much larger cohorts.

But Thomas advocates the model as “a really good way of engaging children for whom the traditional key stage four pathway doesn’t suit”.

Wellbeing worries

Elsewhere, pupil wellbeing is a big priority for Thomas, particularly in light of Brianna Ghey’s murder last year in nearby Warrington. He believes running a bigger trust enables him to better deploy “full scale safeguarding reviews” and provide more “relational and behaviour support”.

But the “coping mechanisms” that traditionally existed for managing high needs pupils within primaries are “now starting to be overwhelmed”.

Thomas is opening a social, emotional, or mental health (SEMH) unit at one primary, and “thinking about the potential for [SEMH] alternative provision at secondary”.

But he worries that “adaptations” such as providing more support and modifying curriculums for primary children could make their transition to secondary even harder.

“The reality is, there will never be enough specialist provision. It’s no good just having an [SEMH] unit unless you’re really thinking about the outcomes and destinations for those pupils.”

Nursery children

Eyeing growth

TLP is already the biggest in Cheshire, but Thomas coyly admits that he’s keen to grow it further. 

As well as more schools, he also wants to lower the age threshold of some primaries to two-years-old so he can offer nursery provision. The trust is taking over a previously privately-run nursery, too.

The timing is apt given the government’s funded-childcare push. But Thomas is also incentivised by his conviction that “the longer we have children for, the bigger the impact we can make”.

He says the trust’s “direction of travel” is to work “outside our boundary” to help other local schools, for example by providing training to their staff, and extending reading projects to feeder primaries.

“Then we have a better chance of raising standards across the schools. It’s not about land grabbing. Let’s work together to get things as good as they can be.”

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