When it’s done right, centralisation is collaboration

Steve Brownlow explores one of the key tensions at the heart of school trusts and how to balance agency with efficiency

Steve Brownlow explores one of the key tensions at the heart of school trusts and how to balance agency with efficiency

1 Oct 2023, 5:00

A core tension for trusts is to maintain balance between the needs of individual school contexts and the streamlining of processes across the organisation (thereby reducing unnecessary duplication). Successfully executed centralisation provides clear benefits for schools, but it is essential to approach this tension strategically.

The mental load being placed on principals is immense. Indeed, a third of heads are actively looking to leave the sector, with the majority citing unmanageable workloads. To stop the brain drain, we must find ways to alleviate the burden.

Centralising operations within our trust has allowed us to give valuable time back to our principals, cutting out activities which had previously been blocking them from what drew them into the sector in the first instance – teaching and learning.

In this regard, centralisation of shared services can be the ultimate tool to deliver freedom and agency. However, like any change-management process, it can stall if open lines of communication are not maintained. School leaders and teachers should never be caught by surprise by the time final changes are announced.

To that end, in our efforts to centralise processes, we first undertook a prolonged period of initial research before deciding on a path and making changes. Pivotally, we gained the perspective of principals and other senior leaders in our schools to ensure we could address their core concerns, challenges and inefficiency pinch-points.

Based on the priorities our leaders voiced to us, we chose to start by centralising IT budgets, estates and governance rather than transforming everything all at once. Even this was an onerous task, and taught us the importance of a more interspersed approach.

Our approach has been guided throughout by a cyclical format of consultation, implementation, review and evaluation. This has allowed us as trust leaders to maintain a flexible attitude; there are no right or wrong answers in the journey to centralisation in this regard. Anticipating that there will be feedback, setbacks and road blocks is critical; adapting your approach in response to these is how to plan for success.

Trusts cannot simply walk in and take responsibilities away

Gathering feedback and ensuring your schools’ voices are heard is a continuous process. It should not be relegated to a job ticked off the to-do list at the outset, never to be revisited. In addition to regularly scheduled check-in meetings, we also issued questionnaires at several points and in different formats –take-home and in-person during trust-wide meetings. Our aim was to give people as many chances as possible to get involved with review and evaluation processes, ensuring we remained aware of potential hiccups and could steer further changes in the right direction.

While principals are adaptable and capable individuals, support to learn about the wider responsibilities of headship can often be thin on the ground as leaders climb the ranks. Much of the administrative work that preoccupies them and their teams can be redirected through centralisation. A particularly salient example is hiring practices: filling vacancies is a challenge in the current climate, but pooling applicants trust-wide can be an excellent way of developing a talent pipeline. Carrying out hiring processes at trust level is fruitful in ensuring great candidates are sourced and shared across the network.

Likewise, we cannot reasonably expect our principals to be experts in IT infrastructure, the intricacies of estates management, procurement, accounting and HR legalities while also being excellent teachers and leaders. One of the primary benefits of being part of a trust is being able to draw support from dedicated experts, giving leaders more freedom and agency to focus energy on supporting staff and shaping the learning experience of students.

Although it’s unsustainable for school leaders to assume all the responsibilities laid on them, trusts cannot simply walk in and take them away – which is why genuine consultation is so important. Communities function at their best when everyone is supported in their role to use their expertise and capabilities to their fullest. That includes deciding what to help them with, how and at what pace.

In this way, centralisation does not rob leaders of agency. Instead, it is a collaboration that means they are supported with the growing list of challenges they face.

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