The academy sector is evolving, but it takes time to lead and build an entire system, writes Tiffany Beck.

MATs are for wiping your feet on, chief executive officers (CEOs) are evil, and trustees are their cronies. My worry is that these may too often be the impressions that some people are left with due to a slew of negative stories about our sector.

These impressions are likely part of the reason behind the announcement last week that the DfE will consult on plans to bring the transparency of local authorities on par with academies, in order to bring to light bad practice across the board so it can be evenly tackled. But until that happens, the negativity is deleterious to trust leaders and damaging to the truly innovative work going; trust leaders need to speak up.

Trust leaders need to speak up

Schools are incredibly complex places, with many variables involved; as Dylan William, University College London, Emeritus Professor,  says, the problems teachers need to solve are much harder and more complicated than other sectors. When you scale up those issues from classroom to school to trust level, you have to be a little bit mad to take all of the collective pressures upon your shoulders, especially as CEO or chair of trustees.

I speak to trust leaders all over the country. The sector is evolving, with much learning going on and many interesting models being developed as we build and lead an entire system. We can’t snap fingers and make it all happen instantly or ignore frustrations felt at the length of time it often takes to implement new systems or practices, as with any kind of organisation. We need to be honest about just how hard it is, but also keep an eye on why we are doing the job in the first place.

At Maritime, we learned the ropes of this entirely different organisation, saw the possibilities, and started to scale and develop practice. Just this year, big pieces of work have been delivered on a number of fronts.

  1. Collaboration: Our education lead has built bespoke teams to conduct a series of reviews and tackle issues in each other’s schools. We know our schools better than ever and we’ve structured a new continuing professional development pathway programme. Next year is focused on embedding these new systems.
  2. Culture: We defined and built it from the ground up and created common language so that everyone knows what working at Maritime means as we work together to drive our vision. This is key both to sustainability and to retention and recruitment.
  3. Curriculum:  Our curriculum is central to our vision and focuses on children devising solutions to real-world problems. We have spent a year putting it to paper and are immensely proud of the nearly-finished result.
  4. Finance & HR: We have centralised our finance and HR to enable schools to focus on teaching and learning. Centralisation is essential for compliance, effectiveness, and efficiency.
  5. Governance: We’ve redesigned local governance and removed duplication between the executive and non-executive arms. Now we do something because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the way it’s always been done before. Our governors have clear roles and responsibilities and the direction and focus are explicitly laid out.

It’s tough by any measure, but I’m confident that the building blocks we’re toiling over and the learning we’re taking from challenges now will get us to where we want to be in the future.

Trust leaders need to take control of the narrative, as Leora Cruddas, CEO of the  Confederation of School Trusts says. We are leaders of charitable education trusts, empowered to do things differently in order to advance education for the public benefit. That’s why chief executives and volunteer trustees put in so much energy and time to overcome challenges, and subject themselves to what Stephen Tierney perfectly described as the “pernicious accountability system”.

To crib Ted Dintersmith’s words in What School Could Be, we’re doing things differently now because rather than doing the same things in a better way, we’re looking for opportunities to do better things for thousands of children. That means everything.