Wayne Norrie, chief executive, Greenwood Academies Trust

The rebel CEO with a community cause

‘We don't make kids chant ‘The Greenwood Way’ or any of that bloody cobblers’

Wayne Norrie is a MAT chief determined to always put children’s needs first, even if that means clashing with others …

Wayne Norrie says he’s not accountable to the Department for Education or Ofsted.

The chief executive of Greenwood Academies Trust (GAT) says he’s only accountable to the parents and children of his 37 schools, serving the most deprived communities in the East Midlands.

Norrie comes across as a proud maverick. He says he isn’t often invited to sit on sector forums or groups, jokingly deriding himself as a “poor relation” to some CEOs who “appear to have the ear of the DfE” and “take on new schools” like “collecting football stickers”.

He says his leadership ethos – which involves giving his heads some autonomy to shape their school culture, without having to follow standardised curriculums – has led to a false perception that GAT is a “free-for-all”.

But he doesn’t “want heads of school or teachers who can deliver scripts… We don’t make kids stand behind chairs at 9am and chant ‘The Greenwood Way’ or any of that bloody cobblers.”

Shortly after Norrie took over at GAT in 2016, a damning Ofsted MAT review labelled the trust, in his view, the “worst in the country”.

“This is a large, underperforming trust that has let down pupils over a number of years and across a number of schools,” the report’s first finding declared.

The trust’s own data showed its schools had a ‘significantly below-average’ combined progress eight score of -0.6.

But now, Norrie says it’s -0.1 percent, the national average. Meanwhile, the proportion of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools has risen from 57 to 84 per cent (though some of these judgments have yet to be published).

Norrie puts it down to knowing “what makes kids tick” in the areas where the trust works.

Born in Bulwell, in Nottingham – where GAT now has three schools – he says he was “was born to be in GAT”.

The former mining town has fallen on hard times, like others where the trust is based.

Wayne Norrie with children at Inglewood Primary School in Skegness

Skegness memories

We meet for fish and chips in Skegness, where GAT has seven schools and is the town’s biggest employer after Butlins.

Norrie has “a soft spot” for the community. He gestures to the campsite where he enjoyed family holidays as a kid, frowns at the pub where you can buy drugs and recollects “traffic jams of madge-mobiles” (mobility scooters) on the seafront in summer.

“This town was like utopia. Now, it’s a really run-down place that’s in desperate need of investment.”

We visit Ingoldmells Academy, near to Skegness’s sprawling caravan parks.

Because so many parents rely on seasonal work, some of its pupils live in caravans nine months a year and bed and breakfasts the other three (as caravan parks are not open year-round).

School staff pick them up from their accommodation themselves in those three months. “Otherwise they might not come back,” Norrie adds.

Norrie’s own mum was a pit wagers’ clerk. His dad and grandad were both miners, who they never spoke to each other again after the latter chose not to strike.

After the pits closed, their world “crumbled around them”.

“I know what it’s like to wake up and see your own breath, and for your mum to start buying tinned food in September, so you could have a half-decent Christmas”.

He “slipped through the net” and left primary school without being able to read or write. But he casts no blame on his parents – or those of GAT’s kids facing similar challenges.

“Parents do the best job they know how.”

Wayne Norrie at the chip shop

Second chance at school

At 14, Norrie was caught joyriding by a copper, who drank in the same miner’s welfare club as his dad. He took Norrie home, but such was his dad’s fury that Norrie “wished he’d put me in a cell”.

When he failed all his GCSEs, his dad had a “stroke of genius” by getting him a gruelling job as a hod carrier, carrying bricks up and down scaffolding.

“It knocked all the cockiness out of me. I begged him to send me back to school.”

He retook his exams, and while doing community volunteering at Bulwell’s Rufford Junior School, “caught the teaching bug”.

Despite failing GCSE maths three times, he now runs a trust with a £150 million budget. It’s behind his belief that you can run an academy trust without having taught.

“You need to surround yourself by people who have, whom you trust”.

After teacher training in Scarborough, he taught at primaries in former mining communities.

In 2004, Norrie was made head of Rufford Junior School, where he’d had his first taste of teaching, on his home turf of the Bulwell estate.

Known locally as “Rough Hard”, it was in special measures and had been through seven heads in two years.

On his first day, Norrie had to have a difficult conversation with the father of a boy caught throwing bricks off the school roof.

Although he dealt with it diplomatically, a false rumour spread that he’d “grabbed and pulled” the dad out of the pub where he’d been drinking. The tale conveniently gave Norrie a tough reputation with local families.

He expected to stay for six weeks, but remained for three years.

While later working as a school improvement advisor for the DfE, providing support programmes to ‘hard-to-shift’ schools (“a really horrible term”), he learnt any school can be turned around with “the right people”.

Teaching is “quite a simple concept. We’ve created this culture of metacognition and disciplinary knowledge, but we’re making it too complex.”

Wayne Norrie on Skegness beach

Off-sted

Norrie’s growing reputation for getting schools out of special measures caught the eye of Ofsted, which headhunted him to work as a senior HMI in 2013.

He says he took up the challenge after telling then-chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw there was “no consistency” in its inspections, which were “predicated on the inspector you get”.

Wilshaw asked him to “come help me change it”.

Norrie was one of three HMIs who found the first Muslim faith free school, Al-Madinah in Derby, in 2013, had not conducted CRB checks and lacked qualified teachers.

The flagship free school was later closed amid a “massive furore”.

Norrie made headlines himself after advising a primary headteacher during one inspection to focus on teaching his pupils to read, rather than rehearsing for the school nativity play in October.

He says that the head wrote to parents blaming Norrie for banning the play. A tabloid newspaper ran the story under the headline: “Xmas is Off-sted”.

After being hauled into Wilshaw’s office, Norrie feared the worst. But he says Wilshaw instead took him down the pub to celebrate.

But Norrie fell from favour and was moved on from Ofsted after a disagreement over ‘focused inspections’ into a number of schools in the same local authority area.

Wayne Norrie outside Inglewood Primary School

‘Soppy prats’

Soon after, Norrie joined Greenwood, which had opened in 2009. At the time of the Ofsted inspection, it was the country’s 11th biggest trust.

Norrie says it had “grown too quickly without any real foundations” and had become a “victim of its own success”.

He thought GAT’s “one-size-fits-all” model didn’t suit the diverse range of communities it serves. Instead, he enabled his schools to roll out curriculums “built out from the needs of their community. It takes much longer to do that, but we do it properly.”

He says inclusion is “at the heart” of GAT’s ethos. He points to one area where the trust runs schools, saying it has “too many MATs stirring the pot” and claiming some “won’t play ball around fair access”. It leaves “soppy prats like me” taking on a greater share of children with challenging needs.

To prevent off-rolling, Norrie believes schools should be made to “carry a proportion” of excluded pupils’ eventual grades.

Norrie says more than half of GAT’s pupils are on free school meals, which is a huge rise on the 34 per cent last year.

Wayne Norrie with children at Inglewood Primary School

Camping with kids

GAT has built its own secure campsite in the grounds of Mabelthorpe Primary in Skegness.

Complete with Portaloos, £15,000 of tents and a deal with the local chippie, it provides holidays for “kids who’ve never seen the sea”.

The trust also has a campsite near Sherwood Forest. He plans to open them up to parents at weekends and wants every new member of staff to “spend the night with the kids under canvas.”

To pay for the “nice” extras, GAT runs an IT company, Our Learning Cloud Limited, providing managed services to its own schools and those of other trusts. Any profits are divided among its principals.

Norrie also helps “struggling” MATs. He was parachuted in by the DfE as the interim chief executive of the four-school Evolve trust in 2022 after Ofsted found special needs pupils at its Harlow Academy, in Nottinghamshire, were “at imminent risk of harm”.

The “horrific” accounts of the abuse brought Norrie to tears. He invited the parents in so he could read them the ‘inadequate’ Ofsted report before it was published, but advised them “never to read it again”.

He had to pacify an angry father whose daughter had been left to “lie in soiled nappies all day”.

He commits to spending three days a week in GAT’s schools, arguing it is “very easy as a CEO to get detached from those children you serve”.

He’s proud of having gotten the Confederation of School Trusts’ chief executive Leora Cruddas “actually in the sand and water tray” on a recent school visit. “If you join the kids, you join the kids.”

Meanwhile, he tells his own heads his job is to “stand in front of you to protect you, stand beside you to support you and kick you up the backside when it ain’t good enough for our kids.”

The first part was put to the test last year after two children at Mabelthorpe primary in Skegness were killed in a car crash.

He “took all the flak from parents” for his decision not to allow flowers or teddy bears to be laid there. “We didn’t want the children having to walk past a shrine every day.”

He compares being a MAT chief to “changing a car engine while going at 90mph down the M1. We have to keep these schools running, but at the same time, things are so broken in so many communities.”

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One comment

  1. Retired HT

    I was a primary headteacher in a number of schools for 20 years. I would have hated working in a MAT.

    Wayne refers to the MAT schools heads as “his” and says that they’re allowed “SOME autonomy”. No thanks- if I’m the Head then I’m in charge – working with my colleagues.

    Why some successful heads actively seek to join MATs is beyond me.