Luke Sparkes

Chief executive, Dixons Academies Trust

'Making sure our children leave with a door-opening set of results is the best thing we can do'

Luke Sparkes, the new chief executive of Dixons Academies Trust, talks John Dickens through expansion plans, why university-for-all is the right ambition and how the school funding squeeze threatens innovation …

“I am absolutely a proud northerner,” says Luke Sparkes, who stepped up to become chief executive of Dixons Academies Trust in September. 

Dixons runs 16 schools in some of the most deprived urban areas – all in the north. New schools in Manchester and Liverpool have added to the more established hubs in Bradford and Leeds. 

Its track record is nothing short of phenomenal. Dixons was ranked second in the last MAT league tables in 2019, with pupils making “way above average” progress. All its sponsored academies that have been inspected have jumped at least two Ofsted grades. The schools it set up from scratch are ‘outstanding’.

Dixons’ mission to “challenge education and social disadvantage in the north” also applies to pupils outside its classrooms: the trust is known for sharing a lot of what it does for free.

‘We have a moral imperative to grow’

Sparkes is now tasked with seeing through the trust’s expansion: it is nearly halfway through a five-year strategy to educate at least 20,000 pupils. It currently has 14,000 and Sparkes believes that growing by two schools a year will see the ambition fulfilled.

Regarded as one of the sector’s most dynamic leaders, Sparkes is a disruptor who innovates by looking outside the sector, values that are part of the Dixons DNA. 

The regions where the trust runs schools also hold a personal connection. Sparkes was born in Merseyside where his parents still live, attended university in Manchester, did teacher training and now lives in Leeds and made his name during five years leading Dixons Trinity Academy, a free school in Bradford. 

Apart from a couple of short breaks, he has worked at the trust since 2006 – joining as a head of geography and most recently spending a year as deputy CEO to Sir Nick Weller.

Sparkes describes the trust’s founder as a visionary who “set a path that it’s my privilege to follow”.

But he admits that while Dixons has been “very successful, we haven’t grown that quickly. We do feel like now we have a moral imperative to grow”.

Sparkes with his predecessor Sir Nick Weller

Part of the delay was down to making sure they had the right level of autonomy across their schools before taking more in.

Sparkes says he understands why other trusts have been seduced by “the quick benefits of standardisation and efficiency”. But he adds: “We became convinced, looking at more mature sectors, that even though that can feel quite efficient and bring good outcomes, in the longer term you’ll drive your best people out, you will stifle innovation, you’ll stagnate.”

The “aligned autonomy” approach – developed from a slide produced by the streaming giant Netflix – aims to strike a balance between “having consistency, but also having self-determination”.

The trust’s “backbone” for each area (missions and values, teaching, finances, etc) make clear what is “aligned” and, therefore, schools must follow. Schools have “complete autonomy” over everything else. 

While things like finance are highly aligned, Sparkes says the teaching section is “quite bare”. 

‘I want us to be the employer of choice’

Making Dixons the “employer of choice for our sector” is one of his big aims. That includes freeing staff from bureaucracy, giving them the best training and ensuring they have “work-life harmony”.

He says “putting people first” must be a core focus for the new generation of academy trust chief executives, of which he is one. “They’ve got to drive that talent agenda.”

A relaunch of Dixons’ approach to professional growth has seen coaching rolled out to all staff. Ideally, everybody has a coaching session every one or two weeks, essentially “ongoing, open dialogue and continuous feedback across our organisation”.

“We want it to be developmental … but actually just having a conversation – ‘How are you doing?’, ‘How are things at home?’ – that will lift performance.”

Traditional performance management, which often “looks backwards” and is “time consuming”, has also been jettisoned. Pay progression is automatic. Sparkes hopes the changes will “fuel performance in the future, rather than recording things about the past”.

‘We won’t be able to afford our longer days’

But the trust’s ability to innovate is under threat. A longer day is one of its “distinctive features”.

The average school day in England is six and a half hours. But at Dixons City Academy in Bradford, for example, the day runs from 8.15am to 3.40 pm, or nearly 7.5 hours, on Monday to Wednesday. 

“We’re not going to be able to afford it, essentially, unless something changes,” says Sparkes. “That is a concern for us. We’ve always been committed to that.”

The trust overspends on teachers to do this, ensuring the most qualified are with the most vulnerable pupils. They have fewer support staff than others and are “not afraid” to teach in larger groups – including occasional year-group lessons – to free up teachers.

All of our tension now is how we can save money, rather than how we can educate children better

But the unfunded pay increase, communicated to schools after budgets had been set, has stretched resources.

The trust spends between £1 million and £1.5 million on energy. They were forecasting a seven-fold rise. Even with the energy guarantee, their spend will rise “three or four times”, with support beyond April still unknown.

 “There is a real worry across everyone in the sector that there’s just not enough money. We’re considered a well-run trust, we’ve got healthy reserves. But those reserves are going to be significantly impacted.”

Growth in trusts like Dixons will be fundamental to ministers’ ambitions for all schools to be in “strong” MATs by 2030. But Sparkes says his board are “understandably … quite concerned” about how they can afford to expand. 

“There seems to be this perception in the Treasury that there is enough money in the sector, but there really isn’t.

“All of our tension now is how we can save money, rather than how we can educate children better. Somehow they’ve got to put more money into the system.”

‘Door-opening results best thing for pupils’

The warning from one of its most successful trusts should be a wake-up call to the government. 

Its schools, as Sparkes puts it, ensure that youngsters from the poorest areas can “go and challenge the elite”. 

His commitment to that mission stems from his upbringing with parents who believed in the power of education, despite different experiences. 

Both from poor families, his dad earned a scholarship to a private school after a headteacher spotted his talent, while his mum failed her 11-plus and was let down by a system that did not recognise hers. 

Sparkes’s brother was the first of his family to go to university. He credits his parents and grandparents for “changing that cycle”.

Sparkes at Dixons Allerton Bradford

It has also instilled in him an “overwhelming sense of fairness” that pervades his educational values. It is why, while leading the pioneering Dixons Trinity, he was “unapologetic that our mission was all students will go to university or a real alternative, like high level apprenticeships, thrive at a top job and have a great life”.

He has short shrift for those who challenge the “university for all” ambition. “If we say, OK, 50 per cent of children should go to university – that’s fair, right? But why is it that 100 per cent of [those] in Eton and Harrow go, and then the state school in the inner-city part of Bradford, hardly anyone goes? That’s not fair.”

He said while Dixons cannot compete with more affluent schools in terms of facilities, it can on curriculum and “making sure our children leave with a door-opening set of results. When push comes to shove, that’s the best thing we can do for our students”.

‘Future Leaders for CEOs’

Sparkes is also thinking more about how Dixons can improve the sector. He sits on the government’s academy regulation review panel and says there’s “an important bit of work” to be done on “what makes a great trust”.

That’s one of the reasons behind Dixons OpenSource – an open platform to “codify” the Dixons culture. The “listenable bites” of video have been watched by tens of thousands of people and used in inset days and for coaching.

Sparkes says there’s a “void” in leadership development. An alumni of the Future Leaders programme (think Teach First, but for heads), he says a similar scheme for trust CEOs could be “really innovative [and] do something really disruptive and quite radical”.

But for it to work, programmes need to be “quite intensive, often quite small scale and expensive. That’s the challenge, but at certain times you need a bit of disruption like that”.

A lot of what we do is not revolutionary, but we do it with rigour and persistence

He cites trying to identify what organisations “in the talent world” talk about as the “critical two per cent … of people [who] often make 98 per cent of the impact in an organisation”.

While training programmes are now “quite good”, he thinks schools and trusts “don’t think hard enough about implementation. I think that’s where things often fall down”.

But the only way to improve implementation is “by standing next to somebody and holding their hand through the process of actually showing them”. 

While OpenSouce aims to provide a solution, he thinks a leadership programme that includes secondments and incubation – like Future Leaders, run by the Ambition Institute – could be game-changing.

“It’s not very intellectually sophisticated, it sounds a bit boring. But a lot of what we do at Dixons is pretty boring, it’s not that revolutionary … what people say is revolutionary is the way that we don’t do too many things, the way that what we do do, we integrate really well together, and we implement it with rigor, with persistence, with consistency and with humility.”

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