MATs

Four barriers to scalable growth – and how to overcome them

Academy trust growth is back on the agenda, so here are some lessons from failures of the past as well as today’s best practice

Academy trust growth is back on the agenda, so here are some lessons from failures of the past as well as today’s best practice

29 May 2024, 5:00

Expansion of trusts happened rapidly in the early 2010s, and a lack of sophistication around building scalable, sustainable school improvement models led to some high-profile failures. Improvement at scale is the essence of trust leadership. Yet, at first, many struggled to realise it.

We’ve learnt a lot since, and the publication of the 7pillars of improvement at scale in 2019 felt like a turning point for conceptualising academy trusts’ role in generating scalable improvement cultures and systems.

Indeed, as expansion – either through growth or mergers – appears to be back on the agenda, Forum Strategy has launched a new hub, revisiting the seven pillars and with new resources.

So, what are some of those issues that boards, CEOs and executive leaders should keep an eye on as they consider scaling their improvement model further?

Numbers for numbers’ sake

If a trust leader or board is simply focused on ‘getting bigger’ for the sake of prestige or kudos, it’s unlikely to result in a sustainable model at scale.

Scalable improvement depends on a clear and collective sense of purpose, a laser-sharp focus on what ‘quality improvement’ means, and an appreciation of the model’s limitations. This ensures we enthuse and provide the confidence that brings people with us (improvement is hard work for all involved), and enables us to make realistic commitments.

Indeed, if we’re simply chasing numbers there is a huge risk of taking on schools that are not a best fit for our capacity or improvement know-how. The days of empire building should be long gone.

Diminishing collective commitment

A scalable improvement model depends on the will, support and discretionary effort of leaders and teachers across the group. The culture and relationships giving rise to a determination to see each other’s schools and pupils succeed, and to share practice and resources accordingly, are what ultimately fuels improvement at scale.

A new stage of growth can cement this, or it can stretch it thinly. Working over broader geographical areas can, for example, present a risk to this, as can rapid and/or sudden growth.

Achieving collective commitment therefore requires leadership from the CEO and executive team at every new stage of growth, not least through reinforcing a vision for all pupils’ and schools’ success, and ensuring mutually supportive relationships at all levels develop and thrive through professional networks.

A trust’s internal culture, its accountability systems and its sense of ‘success’ must be geared towards generating collective commitment.

Lack of (the right) capacity

A defining feature of school improvement at scale is that it requires leadership of the systems of improvement (improvement leadership), as well as the delivery of the practice of improvement (improvement delivery).

These are often conflated, when in fact they are two different disciplines, often requiring different skills, approaches, and experience.

Great CEOs recognise this and appoint accordingly. They identify those who can project manage, deploy resource, analyse impact and quality-assure improvement at scale (such as experienced NLEs). And they have sufficient expert practitioners who can coach other professionals, oversee the development and refinement of professional practice, and lead CPD, for example (such as SLEs and ASTs).

Scalable improvement models depend on both (and there will be some overlap) but conflating them or relying on the same few individuals to wear all hats can lead to models that are hard to manage or sustain as they scale.

Too inward looking

If a trust becomes too inward-looking, its expertise begins to wane. As Gates said, ‘success can be a lousy teacher’.

The best scalable improvement models ensure those leading improvement and those delivering it are continuously tuned into the very best thinking and cutting-edge practice across the system.

It also provides a pipeline of new ‘improvement talent’, not least by using data and insight to spot emerging pockets of excellent practice and innovation. Trusts nurture disciplined innovation through strategic partnerships and encouraging their experts to find the space to try new things based on evidence.

Tellingly, the model itself is exposed to constructive challenge, feedback and new ideas, not least as we have so often seen through trust leaders opening up their models to other CEOs via the Being The CEO programme.

In summary, the learning and refinement must never stop. Every improvement model must itself be a model in continuous improvement.

Applications are currently open for the Being The CEO programme (cohort 10) led by Michael Pain and Sir Steve Lancashire

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