Dan Morrow discovers a book with a unique perspective on the transformation of England’s education system over the past ten years

I must admit to awaiting this book, and the opportunity it represents to take a trip down Sir David’s memory lane, with utter relish. Instrumental in the initial phase of academisation, I was keen to discover the authentic story behind a career journey that in many ways epitomises the transformation of the English education system in the past decade. It did not disappoint.

Part CEO handbook, part system reflection and review, part memoir and part call to arms, the narrative is robust and compelling. Underpinned with case studies, models and analysis, Leading Academy Trusts offers a coherent journey through Carter’s career and the maturation of the multi academy trust model.

The book is steeped in learning and skillfully avoids the clichés of the memoir style by being candid about the tougher, more challenging times. Carter’s honesty about his own fallibility – as a head and as National Schools Commissioner – allows a freer and more critical approach to some aspects of the current MAT landscape, good and bad, that Carter was involved in developing. The distance offered by an approach which is as scholarly as it is personal means readers can engage with the arguments without feeling that it is overly proselytising.

Carter attempts to rise above the political narratives to posit academy leadership as civic leadership

In fact, despite the title this book is mainly about failure. But the framing of Carter’s own leadership maturity running in parallel with a system scrambling to catch up puts the onus on responsibility and growth rather than blame. This highly personal account of growth becomes somehow talismanic of a system still struggling to truly understand itself. One of its strongest conclusions about why some trusts fail is that they don’t accept that failure itself is part of excellence.

As a reflection on the past 20 years of the English educational system, Chapter 1 offers an unrivalled account of why multi-academy trusts are in existence. It is followed by a highly useful ‘how to’ guide for emerging and current CEOs in which the author’s teacher persona really comes to the fore. The next three chapters strongly articulate the idea that effective and efficient education systems rely first and foremost on people as their essential ingredient.

Grounded in school improvement, Carter’s leadership ethics are based in talent management and the idea of the leader as Chief Information Officer, the locus of communication and thus coherence and clarity. The lionisation of ‘surgeon leaders’ of the early days of the MAT world is replaced here with a preference for ‘architectural leadership’ for sustained improvement and community transformation. In these chapters, Carter attempts to rise above the political narratives of the previous decade to posit academy leadership as civic leadership. Chapter 5, on governance, is as concerned with transcending credentialism as it is with reinforcing the values of charity directorship; the moral imperative, he argues, is an ‘and’, not an ‘or’ of sector leadership.

Overall the book charts a shift in thinking from a ‘fixed mindset’ conception of talent to a growth mindset of dynamic talent management, with an onus on creating environments for others to thrive. Carter’s account of his own journey from seeking perfection and eliminating mistakes to accepting failure as part of learning as his remit widened makes for a truly engaging ‘teachable moment’. As Carter asserts, a maturing system doesn’t mean problems won’t recur. Maturity isn’t typified by perfection but by the ability to reflect on learning from marginal successes and failures. In that sense, this is a very mature piece of writing indeed.

Carter has perhaps missed an opportunity here to confront policy failures from a system design point of view, and he doesn’t comment on prevailing orthodoxies within MAT structures to any depth. But this book is not about revealing a universal truth to success.

Instead, it is about habits, practical ones that are evident in routines and systems that become ‘the way of doing business around here’, but also habits of mind that become firm beliefs in our communities’ potential.

So while it is imperfect, from a talent management perspective it is certainly worth recognising that what is does, it does very well indeed.