Academy trust central teams are one of the key ways of sustaining improvement.
Alongside supporting schools, it also creates capacity for leaders at school-level to focus ever more relentlessly on standards.
But giving labels to teams can be tricky. “Central team” does not really describe what work takes place.
Even within trusts there is sometimes a view that these are the mysterious people who sit at HQ throwing out more challenges than support.
In the worst examples, staff may not even be aware that this group of people are their colleagues.
But without them, pressure on school teams to do even more of the non-educational delivery would increase.
For me, there are three key benefits to creating a strong and high-performing central team.
1. Improve standards quicker
Raising educational standards as quickly as possible, and then sustaining them, should be at the heart of any trust investment.
A central team has a responsibility to ensure that the sum of the parts across their schools enables improvement to be quicker than if the team did not exist.
Many trusts have developed school improvement teams that spend part of their week supporting their colleagues and the remainder teaching their own classes in their “home” school.
This brings credibility to the support conversation, but also enables successful practice to be transmitted from one classroom to another in different schools. Large parts of staffing budgets are allocated to those in leadership positions.
This has been true for decades, but the challenge is often that such responsibility includes a whole catalogue of other things that gets shoved their way.
There’s another economy of scale less talked about: time
For example, an IT issue, cover and supply, HR, the quality of the classroom environment. A strategically focused trust with central capacity can take some of this away – allowing leaders to focus on their core responsibilities.
It means the classroom experience of their children is front and centre of leaders’ focus.
2. Professionalisation of services
School management changed in the 1990s, when schools could become grant maintained and took on many of roles previously fulfilled by councils: recruitment, CPD development, finances.
But the development of workforce competence to do these tasks didn’t always work. For example, managing school finances often fell to the senior deputy head looking for a new role ahead of retirement.
Academy trusts – answerable directly to Whitehall – cannot leave such important functions to chance.
That is why we have qualified accountants appointed in finance roles and qualified HR leaders who understand the risks and opportunities associated with employment law.
Growing the professionalism of teams who are responsible to their trustees for the management of such core functions is critical.
3. Time efficiency can solve workload woes
There’s lots of discussion about how trust economies of scale can save money. But there’s another economy of scale less talked about: time.
Workload continues to dominate the debate around retention. Trusts have a real opportunity to take a fresh look at this and make some serious inroads.
However, if trust schools merely replicate and duplicate many of the educational tasks they did as a standalone, then the opportunity will be missed.
But there is already lots of good practice. Trusts with an assessment calendar that focuses on all year 6 children across its schools taking the same test and during the same week avoid duplication of effort.
Trusts that have aligned their curriculum in key stage 3 modern foreign languages and have provided lesson-planning resources for teachers are saving hours in preparation time.
Trusts that advertise vacancies on behalf of their schools get to see straight away how many applicants there are.
This can be shared with other schools, who are anticipating the need to appoint.
Central teams as described above are worth their weight in gold.
But they must remember their very existence can create additional work if their approach is wrong.
Their role is to build capacity, raise standards and execute professional duties better than ever before. Get that right, and a sustainable model becomes a reality.