Running ‘trust diaganostics’ has revealed the common challenges all MATs face in unlocking improvement in the coming months, writes David Carter

When I first stepped into the trust CEO role ten years ago, I was set the challenge leading school improvement across three very different schools. Despite being one of the most vibrant, multicultural cities in Europe, Bristol’s education system was struggling, and too many schools had failed generations of families.

As a trust leader in this context, I could look across the city at my three schools and identify the things that were working well, and the areas where each school was struggling. I could spot great talent in my team, and deploy them to support their colleagues in another school. I could create a vision for success for all of my schools, and use this to drive forward an improvement strategy which, slowly but surely, raised the standard of education for thousands of children.

It can be done, as many of my colleagues across the system have shown. But now, multi-school improvement has an added level of challenge: reckoning with the known and unknown impacts of Covid-19.

We need to support school trusts to come back stronger in order to help give the children, families and communities they serve new hope for the future.

I don’t believe that a blueprint is viable or desirable

Since the pandemic hit, I’ve been listening closely to the concerns that are keeping CEOs awake at night. From these conversations, and the many hundreds of others I’ve had with trust leaders over the years, I can see five core themes emerging.

I believe every trust should look to these strategic priorities as they mark out their plans for the coming months and years, to unlock sustainable school improvement.

Risk and resilience. Trusts need to build resilience into their processes and systems and develop a healthy risk appetite to allow them to innovate and keep getting better.

Workforce development. Trusts need strategies to nurture and develop their teams so that they stay in their schools – and the profession – for the long haul, including moving between schools within the same trust.

Communications. Trusts need to improve relations with stakeholders from pupils, to parents, to staff, to fulfil their potential for school and system improvement.

Financial planning and sustainability. Trusts need to think harder than ever about how they are spending every pound to help all children, but particularly those who are disadvantaged, to catch up.

Data collection and analysis for school improvement. Trusts need to get better at impact assessment, and to empower their teams to capture the most relevant data to inform the school improvement strategy for each school in the trust.

I’ve explored these important strategic areas time and time again with trust leaders and their teams as part of the first year of the Trust Diagnostic, which I lead at Ambition Institute.

I see the Trust Diagnostic as tool to build expertise, foster collaboration and enable peer review in the trust system – all of which I believe to be crucial for MATs to fulfil the potential as school improvers.

I don’t believe that a blueprint for multi-school improvement is viable or desirable. Our school system is so diverse that a one-size-fits-all instruction manual would never do the job.

But we can still collectively learn from what is working, and build up trust leaders’ expertise so they can adapt and deploy good practice in their own unique settings.

Every trust will seek to address different challenges and make the most of different opportunities, because every school has its own set of quirks, innovations and issues. That is the joy of being a leader in our education system.

But if I have learnt anything over many years of working with schools and trusts across the country, it is that there are common, persistent problems that every leader needs to know how to tackle. By spotting the challenges that we all share; making connections where organisations can support one another; and building up leaders’ expertise, we can forge a better education for our pupils.

This is what will drive long-term school improvement that benefits generations of children, and helps to rebuild confidence for communities that have felt the heavy impact of Covid-19.