Kathy Kirkham is the model of a no-fuss multi-academy trust leader. She’s open and direct, addressing each question thoughtfully and without hesitation.
A former comprehensive school student who grew up on a farm in Essex, she’s a chartered building surveyor by profession. This background – including experience with complex private finance initiative (PFI) projects – helped her in 2006 to secure a role with Partnerships for Schools (PfS).
PfS, the joint venture company set up in 2004 to deliver the UK’s Building Schools for the Future programme, was replaced in 2012 by new executive agency the Education Funding Agency (EFA). Kirkham became that agency’s head of free schools, university technical colleges (UTCs) and studio schools – her responsibilities included the delivery of the first two waves of free schools.
Now she is chief operating officer of Stockport-based Bright Tribe, which runs seven academies: three secondaries and four primaries. Its schools are scattered around the country: the secondaries in Essex, Suffolk and Cumbria, the primaries in Ipswich and Greater Manchester. The trust also has a wholly-owned subsidiary, Bright Tribe Education Services.
Good teachers make such a massive difference
Kirkham has been married to Peter since 2007. He is a civil engineer and a development director for a housing association. He doesn’t share her interest in horseriding – she’s had a horse since she was 14 – “but he really likes animals”.
Her love of animals, and her ability to work hard and focus on getting things done, began early. Her parents were tenant farmers near Great Dunmow. “I was an only child. I worked on the farm a lot.
“My mum and dad, Mary and Stan, had to work seven days a week. My childhood was interesting and absolutely fantastic, but it was very driven by the fact they were self-employed. They weren’t going to make any money unless they worked hard.”
She says that “fortunately” her parents got the opportunity to buy the farm after 40 years as tenants. “So I still live there. The guys who farm it for me are the sons of the neighbouring farmers who were really good friends of my mum and dad.”
Kirkham went to the Helena Romanes School, a “bog standard” secondary. “School was fine. I did enjoy it, but I also liked being outside on the farm. We had about 500 pigs, so they needed feeding and cleaning out every day. I did that after school, weekends and holidays. We had some arable land as well – about 100 acres. I worked on that driving tractors.”
Helena Romanes was a good school “in terms of being supportive . . . but you weren’t pushed to be academic or stretched. One of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing now is that I think it’s very unfair that the standard of school you end up going to – and therefore how it affects your future – depends on where you live”.
But she had “an amazing biology teacher”. “In the A-level class, 11 of 13 got an A. That taught me that if you work as hard as you possibly can you will generally do OK. I suppose what she (the teacher) also showed me is that if you have a really good teacher they make such a massive difference.”
She went to work on the farm at 18 for about eight months, then worked for an agrochemicals company in Essex while doing a part-time HND in biology.
She then saw an advert to train as a surveyor with the local council in Essex, so she did that for five years part-time while going out on site. She won the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ award for the highest marks achieved throughout the five years.
The council got funding for three leisure centres done through PFI, and she managed what was a “very, very complicated project. That was very good at getting me into a whole world of different stuff.”
She then joined Cambridgeshire County Council in the education department at a time when education and social care became integrated. That’s where, she says, she “really learned education”.
Her time at the council was followed by a spell as project director for PfS, responsible for central England, which included delivery of schools across a wide area including Luton, Suffolk, Norfolk, Birmingham and Walsall.
With the creation of the EFA in 2012, she was asked to deliver free schools, UTCs and studio schools “from a capital perspective”. “It was challenging and I had to create and develop the teams to do it. For the second wave, I really had to set up a framework of consultants because there were about 65 schools.” She is good at setting up teams – and not afraid to delegate.
Her work on UTCs meant she had a lot to do with Lord Baker, the force behind the vocational schools. From September 2012 she worked a day and a half each week for the Baker Dearing Trust “to try to help them manage the team of people they had helping UTCs get delivered”. She kept that role until last September.
In 2012 she met venture capitalist Mike Dwan, “the guy I work for now”. A multi-millionaire and managing partner of Equity Solutions, Dwan supports Bright Tribe and its “sister” multi-academy trust, Adventure Learning Academies Trust (ALAT), which runs five schools in Cornwall. It’s clear that the “DNA” of the two trusts is almost identical, however. Their two boards, although different legal entities, are made up almost entirely of the same people and organisations. Kirkham is on both boards.
The day after I talk to her, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote to education secretary Nicky Morgan about what he sees as a serious weaknesses at seven large MATs. Bright Tribe was not among them.
Sir Michael said it was particularly concerning that many of the academies in those trusts are failing their poorest children.
I ask Kirkham about the Ofsted report in December for Colchester Academy in Essex, which Bright Tribe took over last April. In July 2014, Ofsted rated the school inadequate. By last December it moved to requires improvement, while its latest report said many disadvantaged pupils still made much slower progress from their different starting points than other pupils.
Kirkham is adamant that “all our schools (across ALAT and Bright Tribe) are showing progress”. GCSE results for Colchester last year were “massively better than the year before”.
She adds: “We are very keen on personal pathways. It’s not all about academia. That’s why we like the UTC concept – so there are more technical pathways.” Dwan is chair of governors for Bolton UTC and the Greater Manchester Sustainable Engineering UTC “and Bright Tribe as a
trust has just started to work much more closely with them just to make sure they get the support they need”. She agrees with skills minister Nick Boles, who says UTCs are stronger as part of bigger organisations such as multi-academy trusts.
Yes, she says, there is a market (in education), “but it’s very important people work together. It’s not a dog eat dog world”. If there’s one person who’s skilled at putting together a team that delivers, it’s Kirkham.
IT’S A PERSONAL THING
Do you have any pets?
Two labradors, 11 alpacas and one horse
What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?
Lots of walking, discovering new areas and then relaxing by the sea
What’s your favourite meal?
I don’t have a favourite. I just love food and need feeding on a regular basis
You have a day off! How would you spend it?
With my husband in our garden
What’s your favourite building?
The Shard in London
– Great Dunmow infant and junior schools
– The Helena Romanes School, Great Dunmow
– NHND biology (part-time)
– Degree in building surveying (part-time)
– Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) building surveyor qualification. Won RICS chairman’s prize for top students
– MBA (part-time)
– Agrochemicals company, Essex
– Uttlesford District Council, Essex Building surveyor
– Cambridgeshire County Council Working for director of Children’s Services
– Partnership for Schools Project director responsible for Building Schools for the Future for central England
– Education Funding Agency Deputy director free schools, studio schools and UTCs responsible for capital delivery
– Bright Tribe and Adventure Learning Academies Trust Chief operating officer