Setting the Pace for Change within the Education Arena
21st Mar 2014
Setting the Pace for Change within the Education Arena
The rate of change within the education sector is unprecedented.? A major contributor is the number of schools that are converting to academies.
Northern Education Trust is a multi-academy charitable trust, based near Newcastle upon Tyne.? It officially launched in September 2012 with four schools.? Now, some 18 months later, Northern Education Trust sponsors 15 academies with a few more in the pipeline.
As with any new business, our first day of operations began with a blank sheet of paper, but to climb to a turnover of some ?65 million within this incredibly short space of time, has necessitated a rapid learning curve and a very clear sense of purpose.?
Even so, we operate with an unusually small core team of six salaried and five commissioned staff, given our growth trajectory and the number of people depending on us.?
The journey is proving exciting, sometimes frustrating, but always rewarding and I would like to take this opportunity to share it with you.
Northern Education, a leading consultancy dedicated to supporting improvements in education services to children and young people, established a strategic partnership with Bolton Council in 2008, becoming responsible for the provision and management of the School Improvement Partner teams in all of Bolton?s secondary schools.
When they began improving at a faster rate than national averages, Bolton Council invited Northern Education to sponsor a local comprehensive in Kearsley, which had a history of underperformance, to become an academy.
When, in 2009, Bolton suggested that Northern Education might sponsor a second academy, this time a failing primary school, it was clear a multi-academy trust would have to be formed.
As a highly experienced education consultancy and founder of the Trust, Northern Education already had more than a decade of experience of transforming schools under its belt when it became a sponsor ? and this continues to be of immense value.
It means that when we need to project manage an academy conversion or a key school improvement project, we can call upon extensive capacity and wide ranging skills through a commissioning approach.? This model allows us to minimise our day-to-day operating costs because we can commission individual expertise to meet specific project needs rather than employing full time staff.?
We also undertake due diligence in this way before any academy conversion project is undertaken to assess the risk involved and establish performance indicators.
And reflecting on the first time we were ?invited? to sponsor an academy, this is the way we continue to operate. ?We will not directly approach any school that is experiencing difficulties.? Instead, we wait to be approached either directly by the school, the local authority, or Department for Education. ??
We favour a cluster approach where possible, which may include a mix of schools where ideally, the primary schools act as feeder schools for the secondary.? We also aim to make a significant difference to the social and economic well-being of the wider communities we serve.
In Stockton on Tees, this model is working particularly well, where we sponsor North Shore Academy and Grangefield Academy (both secondary schools) together with three primaries located close by.
The benefits of this approach include the sharing of best practice and the provision of peer-to-peer professional support among teaching staff.? For children, it means that they can make a number of familiarisation visits to take a look at their future school and meet teaching staff prior to making the transition to secondary level.
We also have five associate schools, which provide additional resource and expertise and whose teaching staff often work alongside our own teachers when schools have had a history of underperformance, to enable higher standards of teaching to be attained.
When it comes to the spoken and written word, we have developed a communications matrix, which sets out what we stand for.? Our strap line is that ?we are passionate about making a difference for children? and our values are:
The welfare of others is the first concern of all ?
The education of every child is of equal value
These two principles govern all decision making, whilst investment in the development, welfare and care of our staff, lie at the heart of our employment policies.
The quality of governance we provide in all our academies and deliver through our board of trustees is a defining feature of our operational model.
Rapid But Controlled Growth
Because we are passionate about making a difference for children, we cannot continue to provide the quality and range of educational opportunity they deserve if we are too focused on growth.
Whilst there is a huge demand for our involvement, we are somewhat self-limiting when it comes to taking on new academies.? By the end of our first year of operations, we had already increased our academy sponsorship from four to eight schools.? By the end of our second year we are on target to grow the number again to 18 in total.?
We are therefore very mindful of the need to balance requests for our involvement with new academies with responsibility for maintaining high standards. ?This has to shape all strategic decisions.? Our reputation is paramount.
Where schools are situated in close proximity however, and we can benefit from sharing resources, leadership, best practice and peer-to-peer mentoring, this makes the decision easier.
As a result of a very intense first year, we were delighted to receive endorsement for our hard work from the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, in September 2013, who said ?the work that sponsors, like you, do is vitally important in driving up standards for all pupils and I thank you for it.?
The Trust?s approach to system leadership really sets us apart.? This is where our academies take the lead in school improvement, helped by our achievement partners, the central team and our associate schools, ?so that teachers and leaders work alongside other teachers and leaders within the Trust to enable good people to be outstanding and weaker colleagues to be good.
As a multi-academy chain, Northern Education Trust has the capacity to provide this system leadership across its schools with a commonly held set of goals and aspirations.? Varying geographical locations means that a higher degree of external challenge is possible in the peer-to-peer discussions.? This is a much more powerful model, we believe, than a stand-alone academy, particularly in the primary sector.
Academies within the Trust are part of the support structure and the relationships we enjoy with associate schools and academies serve to provide more capacity.
In addition, our achievement partners not only monitor the performance of academies and challenge and support leadership they will also identify good and outstanding practice across the whole range of school activities.
Succession planning and the provision of personal development opportunities are vitally important in a fast-paced environment.
We are fundamentally committed to good governance and have an absolute belief that the impact an outstanding governing body can make on the performance of an organisation should never be underestimated.
The growing autonomy of individual trusts and academies means that clear, effective and strong governance is essential.? This is because with increasing autonomy, comes increasing accountability.
This changing climate and context requires a new breed of governors who can create and deliver a constancy of purpose towards continual improvement, lead effectively, drive out fear of failure, remove barriers to learning and make everyone feel that they are part of the whole school development and transformation.
Our governors benefit from specialist training to enable them to be effective at a local level in supporting and challenging leaders and holding them to account.
An effective governor is clear about his or her responsibilities and will fully understand the big picture.? Truly effective governance is an integral part of the success of Northern Education Trust academies.
The first two years of our life have been extremely hectic with the amount of ?up front? work that is required before any academy conversion.? And once the conversion takes place, our activity levels do not cease with so many other administrative, legal, financial and of course, educational outcomes to achieve.
Our focus is always on improving the life chances for children and in this regard, we have made a swift start. Dyke House Sports & Technology College in Hartlepool for example, is the most improved state secondary school in the country. At North Shore Academy in Stockton, pupils achieved a 31 per cent improvement in their GCSE A*-C grades last year.
At Ryecroft Primary Academy in Bradford, there was an increase of 48 percentage points in the number of pupils achieving the expected level in the three Rs. And at Kearsley Academy in Bolton, our first academy school, pupils achieved a 17 per cent year on year improvement in their results. These are just a few examples of the kind transformations we are achieving.
What Have We Learned So Far?
It is certainly not an easy task to become a successful multi-academy trust, but here are six pointers worth considering:
- The strength and vision of the core leadership team are your key attributes?
- Attract and retain the best people for the job - the calibre of your team is paramount
- Devise robust systems for setting challenging targets and for monitoring student progress - be realistic in? your forecasts
- Be ready to use a wide variety of intervention activities to meet individual needs
- Place a strong focus on improving the classroom experience and the quality of teaching and learning
- Be prepared for set-backs and disappointments, in spite of your commitment
Roger Alston OBE, Chief Executive of Northern Education Trust