‘Are you having a Christmas fair?’
The flurry of responses to this message on our headteacher’ WhatsApp group was immediate. Soon, we all had access to thoughts, ideas and advice on how to safely allow this much-loved festive event to go ahead safely.
Communication, support and sharing of best practice has been crucial throughout the pandemic. During lockdowns, it gave our headteachers the confidence to make some of the most difficult decisions of their careers, and this collaboration has continued since.
WhatsApp is just one example. We’ve also created an online space to share resources and innovative ideas. We developed a series of bite-sized masterclasses. We had weekly Google Meets.
So although we have never seen so little of each other in person than over the past 20 months, in fact we have never felt more like a family. And our story is not unique. A report by Ofsted found that MATs have played an invaluable role in supporting and enabling school leaders during the pandemic – in their own schools and beyond.
Covid has shown us how effectively we can connect remotely, and the experience has the potential to break down geographical barriers for good. Like families separated by distance, we have found ways to support each other and to be together even when we are apart. We have learned that we do not need to be on each other’s doorstep to feel like we belong.
And that could have profound implications for the educational landscape. Until now, we have felt compelled to be local and accountable to broadly geographically-defined communities, but this increased interconnectivity could open the door for more widely spread organisations.
When we formed the Ivy Learning Trust, our growth plan was limited to schools in the London borough of Enfield. We stipulated that they should be within half an hour’s drive of each other. We believed this local knowledge and accountability was crucial to our success.
But our principles do and should transcend geography. So when, only a year later, we had the opportunity, expertise and resources to take on a school in difficulty in Hertfordshire, we reasoned that doing so was the only way to be true to our core belief that good education is a birthright.
Since then, four more schools in Hertfordshire have joined us. And while our original concern was not to dilute our organisational culture, the reality is that it has only been strengthened.
If a trust model is working well, there is no reason why it can’t be replicated in other areas. And why not? Many multinational companies operate effectively with teams all over the world. They still have a strong corporate culture, and we should consider the mechanisms they use to do this successfully.
Of course, local knowledge and support are still crucial, so that schools do not feel geographically disconnected (from their support networks or, indeed, from their communities). Meeting people face to face is fundamental to that, and I’m sure I speak for all of Ivy’s school leaders in saying it was a joy when our heads meetings recommenced.
Successful MAT growth doesn’t – and can’t – run counter to that. With their development of hub models, some of the larger trusts have already demonstrated that a balance can be found between forming geographically disparate support networks and ensuring innovations are sympathetic to local considerations.
If the pandemic has taught us anything as a sector, it is surely that no school is an island. We may have had to close our gates to most pupils for long stretches, but we have also opened them to new ways of collaborating.
For those who were reached by that support, it has been vital. But too many schools continue to fight their battles alone. For the sake of their leaders, staff and pupils, we must keep this momentum going.
And that means accepting that geography is simply no longer the barrier we once thought it was.