Schools

‘No-ego’ trust group vows to speak for MATs who don’t feel heard

The Queen Street Group has doubled in size as it vows to champion diverse trust voices and help more women into top jobs

The Queen Street Group has doubled in size as it vows to champion diverse trust voices and help more women into top jobs

24 Nov 2022, 11:06

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A “no-ego” group for trusts has vowed to champion diverse school voices and help more women reach top jobs, as the previously low-profile network doubles its membership.

The Queen Street Group – which has evolved from an informal group of CEOs in 2015 to a formal network of 35 trusts, largely serving disadvantaged communities – launched its three-point agenda for the year ahead this week.

The group has pledged to find practical ways to tackle under-representation of women among trust chiefs, help growing trusts avoid older trusts’ mistakes, and make multi-academy trusts “leaders in their communities”.

‘Different voices are heard’

Steve Taylor, CEO of the Cabot Learning Federation and QSG chair, said the group first emerged as a place for leaders to provide mutual support and “swap ideas”.

It provided a space where they could be “authentic” and “candid about things we’re wrestling with, not just things we’re confident about”, speaking together under Chatham House rules.

He brushed off past characterisation of the group as “secret”, saying it initially did limited public work simply as it “wasn’t fully formed”.

Given the sector’s “tough accountability structure”, leaders can seek help when “outcomes dip and then it’s a ‘bad trust’ – we can say we’ve all experienced that”. The group’s new annual report stresses most of its schools are “good” or better sponsored academies, however.

Now the group is focused on developing specialist staff’s expertise, launching networks for them to collaborate in areas like estates, HR, finance, edtech and education.

While Taylor stresses QSG does not claim to speak for the sector, it has also sought to influence policymakers and regulators, meeting ministers, the opposition and other sector bodies.

QSG has lobbied ministers on issues including defining “strong” trusts, and provided them with case studies on schools’ experiences joining MATs.

The QSG also submitted proposals ahead of the white paper and Education and Skills Funding Agency review, including calls to scrap “cumbersome” regulations and efforts to find the “perfect” MAT size, and provide cash for building work and postgraduate teacher training.

They proposed extra funding too for trusts to take on financially vulnerable “stricken duck” schools, warning that otherwise only less experienced – rather than prudent – trusts will do so.

New-look board and wider membership

Multiple new board members joined late last year, including not just trust leaders but also Natalie Perera of the Education Policy Institute and Professor Becky Francis of the Education Endowment Foundation. The invitation-only group also expanded from 22 members to 35 this year.

Rowena Hackwood, CEO of the Astrea Academy Trust and QSG vice-chair, said: “We’ve had the opportunity to further diversify both in terms of people, and parts of the country represented.”

A key focus in its lobbying work is to ensure “difference voices are heard” and not “accidentally chat ourselves into one single view of the world”. It works hard to put policymakers directly in touch with varied trusts to provide examples, saying they often get “averaged out”.

“A primary trust in North Yorkshire’s going to have a different perspective from mixed large MATs in the south, or a faith MAT. If you take Covid, you hear things like ‘children only lost three months of learning and gained two months back’ – you end up with an average of an average that doesn’t represent lived experience.

“People can find it hard to know how to get their voices heard, and feel a long way from policy.”

Plans on growth, female leaders and communities

This year, the group will focus on three main areas. The first fits into the government’s aim to see all trusts have 10 schools or 7,500 pupils, and increased trust appetite to grow.

It will provide case studies and a network to share learning from older trusts on growth with smaller ones.

“It’s always tricky to tell the next generation ‘don’t do it or do it as I did’, but I fear some of the what happened in the past, things we didn’t anticipate when trusts were first growing, may now be repeated,” Hackwood said.

She added she is “passionate” about the second priority, developing female leadership, which Astrea is leading. “Something happens between senior leadership and the transition to chief executive – we see a big drop-off in numbers.”

She highlighted Zoom calls of large trust leaders where only around five of 30 or more faces were female, saying it stopped some women speaking.

QSG held a conference of 60 senior female leaders last month, with sessions on cultural change, allyship and psychological safety.

Senior leaders below CEO level said it was an “ego-free zone” that gave them confidence and role models, with un-typical access to other trusts’ female CEOs. It has sparked plans to launch a mentoring programme. Hackwood has called QSG itself a “no-ego safe space” for leaders.

A third priority this year is improving how MATs support local communities and agencies. “There’s been a slightly undernuanced perspective in the past – ‘I thought this was someone else’s job’ – that’s gone now. We can have a complimentary, collaborative approach,” said Taylor.

They have held meetings with fire, housing and police representatives, and best practice within trusts. Hearing about Reach Academy Feltham’s cradle-to-career approach “challenged me to think – how can I enhance potential career development of children of all ages”, said Hackwood.

“People are struggling. The sector’s seen huge takeup of foodbanks by our students, families and staff, which is horrific to think about. We’ve got to think bigger, more creatively, learn from others, stop being so inward-looking and stretch our minds a little bit.”

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