Many schools will be thinking about joining a trust or federation. This is probably a sensible response to rising costs, falling budgets, diminishing services and ever-more demanding accountability. But groups of schools come in all shapes and sizes. We have to look behind the label and discover what is really going on. These sorts of decisions are hard to undo and success is often governed by intangible factors such as values and culture – there will be groups in which you will thrive and achieve more than you thought possible alone; and there will be groups that suck the joy out of leadership. How do you tell the difference?
Here are some questions you can ask yourself. Or, even better, ask them.
What truly gets them out of bed in the morning?
This is tricky. The aim is to discover their real values but, if you ask them outright, you’ll get the usual motherhood and apple pie about “making a difference”. The best way to discover underlying values is to let them speak at length and make a count of what is and isn’t mentioned. Is it all about finance or growth and little about children? Another good route is to find out about the chief executive’s own education experience. Their views on this often reveal a great deal about their motivation.
Find out about the CEO’s own education experience
How do they handle conflict?
The early days of a trust are full of shared aspirations and consensus. But you will disagree at some point. If there is disagreement about direction, how is this handled?
Explore what will happen if a school within the trust is under-performing – how will this be tackled and what sanctions lie at the end? Be as wary of groups with weak accountability and no conflict resolution as you would be of those with punitive accountability.
What value does the group bring to the individual schools?
This is the obvious one: why would your school be better off inside the group rather than going it alone. What could you do with them that you can’t do now? Don’t get hung up on the management fee – a more important question is what you get for the money. A management fee that is too small will imply a group that can add little value to what you do already.
Who will they not work with and why?
A great trust has a tight vision and a clear idea about how it can help. It finds a niche where its values, skills and procedures work best. One of the best ways to unearth this is to explore their limits – what wouldn’t they do? Who do they say no to, and why? A group that has never turned down a school or project may be a group with a dangerously unfocused sense of its strengths.
How big do they plan to get?
You want to be part of a group that manages its growth carefully and sustainably – excessive or poorly planned growth is a major cause of problems for groups of schools. Look not only for overall size but geographical spread, balance of strong and weak performance, clear specialisation and flexible structures. On the last point, at what stage will the existing governance stop working and the group need to invent new layers?
What happens when the leader leaves?
Many groups of schools are driven by the energy and vision of their founder. Is this the case in the trust you are considering? If so, how long will he or she be around and how much capacity has he or she built around them? Would it all fall apart in their absence?
What is shared and what is delegated?
How much freedom will you as a leader really have, and how much do you actually want? Total freedom suggests that the group is just symbolic, but presumably you didn’t go into the job to be demoted into middle management, either. This is also a question that it is hard to get honest answers to. Clear answers should help you determine whether the group is sustainable and constructive and, more importantly, whether the culture of the group matches your own values.