Trusts have an ethical duty to shape inclusive local systems

In the face of so many challenges, academy trusts must embrace collaboration over competition to deliver for communities

In the face of so many challenges, academy trusts must embrace collaboration over competition to deliver for communities

3 May 2024, 5:00

Taking part in the National Institute of Teaching’s new MAT CEOs immersion programme this week, I was reminded of the importance of collaboration in driving improvement for our schools and communities. Sadly, that spirit of collaboration is not yet embedded across our system, though the ingredients are all there in the trust quality descriptors to set us on that path.

We face unprecedented challenges, among them the long tail of Covid, recruitment and SEND crises and the financial implications of reductions in student numbers.

It’s clear to me we can’t wait for government to fix these things. As our sector matures, we need to keep defining systems leadership and organisational strength and resilience in a way that enables us to solve them ourselves.

A quick scan of academy trust websites shows that, though we may use different words and diverse means of achieving it, we all have a broadly similar vison for education. Collectively, we should use that common purpose as a platform to solve the challenges we face.

I was recently told the story of two MATs – one large and national, the other small and local – taking on two neighbouring schools in the same catchment area. Both schools were struggling, serving communities with high levels of disadvantage and SEND.

The large national MAT had HR teams, lawyers, education directors, polished presentations and videos for parents. The local MAT had a CEO and a person from HR. In other words, the large MAT had all of the power, not least because of higher reserves and the ability to pay more staff.

As a result, teachers and leaders left the smaller MAT and parents chose the large MAT’s school. The school in the small MAT rapidly found itself under capacity and taking on a disproportionate level of disadvantaged children, managed moves and children with SEND to balance its books.

For all the greatness of the large MAT, it came at the cost of the local education system.

We must resist the temptation to retreat inwards

Repeated nationally, the consequences are clearly not an equitable education system. We must ensure that collaboration, justice and fairness are at the centre of our decision making. Things are tough, but we must resist the temptation to retreat inwards and implement isolationist policies. Ultimately, this risks long-term damage not only to communities but to our own organisations.

We need to prioritise the development of the local education system and communities beyond the success of our trusts. We need to share the failure of any school in the system and work collaboratively to support one another.

At Oasis, our mission is to deliver exceptional education at the heart of the community. Our vision is not for a large national MAT, but for inclusive and holistic education to be a key lever in ensuring everyone thrives. I believe we will achieve this by ensuring that the decisions we make are first and foremost right for the communities we serve.  

Recruitment is a great example of where an ethical systems leadership approach is needed. There is not a conversation in school which doesn’t lead back to the issue of people. Working alone, the temptation is for bigger MATs to offer pay and incentives that smaller MATs and local authority schools can’t compete with – making other peoples’ situation worse in pursuit of improving our own.

While we have to be realistic and competitive, we need to act together as an education system and in a way which does not knowingly damage others.

The National Institute of Teaching shows what is possible when ‘competitors’ come together for the greater good, with the next generation of teachers and leaders being trained and supported by the sector and for the sector.

As I start off in the role of CEO at Oasis, I am committed to encouraging a spirit of local collaboration between MATs, the DfE and local authorities so that we all see our communities as our collective responsibilities.

That is what the trust quality descriptors explicitly encourage us to do, and rightly so. Because it is how we will create the education system we want, and our communities need.

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