Departing DRET boss set to become new Astrea CEO

The departing chief executive of one of the country’s biggest academy chains is going back to her family roots to join the Astrea Academy Trust.

Rowena Hackwood, currently chief executive of the David Ross Education Trust, will join Astrea, which has 27 schools in South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, in the summer.

Read our profile with Libby Nicholas, CEO of Astrea academy trust

She will replace Astrea’s founding chief executive Libby Nicholas who stepped down in November.

Hackwood, who announced she was leaving DRET last year, said the trust takes her “right back to my family roots in South Yorkshire”.

“My mum actually attended one of Astrea’s primary schools, and my Granddad lived just a few doors down from one of the secondaries – so I have a deep-felt understanding of the communities that Astrea serves.”

Astrea has grown quickly since opening its first schools four years ago. The trust was forced to delay publishing its 2017-18 accounts after calling in forensic auditors when its expansion of struggling schools “raised question marks”.

However, a spokesperson for the trust said it is in a “strong position” and has reversed inherited debts of £5.2 million through “prudent financial management and robust curriculum-led financial planning”.

Earlier this year, Hackwood told staff at DRET they should treat “every penny” of funding as if it was their own and apply the same “discipline” to financial management as they do to improving educational performance.

DRET had asked its schools to consider using cover supervisors instead of supply teachers and “only boil as much water as you need in kettles” – as the trust attempted to tackle a £1 million deficit.

The former education director at outsourcing firm Capita has also been vocal about the benefits of academy trusts pooling their schools’ general annual grant funding, which she implemented at DRET to tackle seven-figure deficits.

Under GAG pooling, trusts take direct control of their schools’ funding before allocating their own budgets, as opposed to top-slicing funding for central operations from money allocated directly to individual schools.

Astrea currently does the latter, charging its schools a 6.5 per cent top-slice.

Professor Sam Twiselton, trustee chair of the CEO recruitment panel, said Hackwood brings “both local understanding and empathy together with strong sectoral experience and so is extremely well placed to take the helm as we move forward”.

The announcement comes as schools are closed to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Hackwood added the sector is facing “some of the most challenging times it has ever known. But it is at times like this when family bonds are at their most strong, and it will be no different with Astrea.”