Palladian Academy Trust originally formed as a response to a local authority directive for its maintained schools to join trusts. Upon joining as CEO, my first observation was that (unlike my previous trust, which was spread over 100 miles) Palladian was not culturally close. For all their geographical closeness, there were a number of invisible walls – between the schools themselves, and between the trust and its schools’ communities. And yet, geographical closeness brings distinct advantages.
Collective efficacy from the top
Much of the trust’s fragmentation seemed to hinge on a misunderstanding about the function of MATs. The situation was framed as ‘us and them’, neglecting both the value and commitment that come from being part of one. My first goal was to encourage everyone to see themselves as members of a family of schools.
To make progress we had to demonstrate this as a trust leadership team first. So, we built the team’s capacity, honing their individual specialisms and drawing on their experience and regional knowledge. Together, we developed our inclusive vision: to provide excellent and equitable opportunities so everyone can flourish.
For us, creating a successful trust culture has meant openly sharing our data, development plans and audit outcomes with our whole extended leadership team (ELT). Doing so exposes our wider vulnerabilities, but it also ensures we can offer the appropriate level of support or intervention where it is needed most.
None of this was easy or natural to the trust at first, but it was critical to creating a sense that every school’s problem is for the whole family to solve.
This is reinforced by running six ELT network sessions per year which focus on development of trust culture, leadership culture and the shared voice of leaders in shaping strategic direction. Affording opportunity for visible governance, trustees are invited to join these sessions for shared evaluation of the trust development plan and to hear first-hand from school leaders.
And it is further reinforced by our high quality ‘all through, all role’ CPD offer, led by experts within the trust or facilitated externally if required. We have invested in coaching development and moved away from a ‘performance management’ to a ‘personal development’ approach with personalised success criteria and a shared single objective ‘to flourish in my role’ for every colleague. In addition, ELT members have a ‘broader impact’ success criterion to evaluate their contribution to the trust or the sector more widely – from trust-wide residentials to leading and delivering NPQs to cohorts beyond the trust.
Considered centralisation has fast-tracked our collective causes. Our central team of experts support our directors with a ‘partner layer’ of teaching and learning, HR and finance. They work directly in schools and help us to know our school teams better so we can utilise strengths and expertise across the trust.
We’ve centralised IT services and invested in key specialist roles including leads on SEND, safeguarding, church schools and CPD. But centralisation should support, not replace local knowledge and expertise. To that end, our local governor committees have direct access to a governance lead and each school has a governance professional to provide advice and clerking.
We have advantages over geographically challenged trusts. We are using those advantages to establish ourselves as community hubs with a commitment to all pupils, staff, families and communities and focusing on common challenges like attendance, SEND and mental health.
That work goes beyond our own schools. We assist local schools who are not in our trust, for example by providing headteacher capacity to an ‘inadequate’ maintained school, working alongside maintained schools in the Wiltshire cluster, and opening our leadership and CPD offers to these schools at no cost.
Beyond collective efficacy
With localism and community at the heart of our offer, we provide so much more than mere collective efficacy. There is, across the system, a collective effervescence in trusts like ours. In the national effort to define what a strong trust is or might be, we should not reduce our criteria in a way that excludes many thriving or indeed flourishing ones.