Forging firm foundations for your leadership

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:

Forging a firm leadership foundation is a key job for the head of any multi-academy trust if they want their schools to thrive in the long term. Primary executive head and MAT CEO Michaela Lewis talks to Liam Donnison about her approach

Michaela Lewis is executive headteacher and chief executive of the Viking Academies Trust, formed in 2015 and made up of Upton Juniors in Broadstairs, Chilton Primary in Ramsgate and a new school – Ramsgate Arts Primary.

The creation of a multi-academy trust (MAT) presents a major challenge for leaders, especially in times of limited funding.

Mission statements and vision are one thing, but a trust also needs a firm leadership foundation so that precious resources such as funding, staffing and learning resources are used as efficiently and effectively as possible. So, how does Ms Lewis and her team tackle this area?

Create clear leadership and accountability structures

Viking decided on a central executive team consisting of Ms Lewis with a strategic leadership overview, a CFO in charge of budget and COO in charge of HR, facilities and health and safety.

Each primary had a head of school focused on teaching and learning and building and maintaining relationships with parents and their communities.

“We decided that they should be centred on pupil outcomes,” Ms Lewis explained. “They don’t worry about buildings maintenance or ticking boxes for the Department for Education.”

Ms Lewis is updated on teaching and learning progress through fortnightly communications meetings with the heads of school in which key areas of school life are RAG (red, amber, green) rated so areas of improvement can be quickly identified and action plans developed.

There are also finance officers in each school accountable to the CFO. A full time SENCO on the leadership scale completes the central team and leads wellbeing teams made up of support staff in each school. SENCO assistant roles will soon be introduced as well. Ms Lewis visited a range of other MATs to get advice on leadership structures – something she recommends to everyone.

Find the right people

Strong, expert leadership is vital to ensuring that resources are effective and sustainable over the long term. This can be a challenge in a local authority area like the Isle of Thanet, says Ms Lewis.

“You need to be sure that you have a very strong person leading the finance team,” she said. “That has been tough. Our budget pot is not as high as the private sector and we needed to find someone with skills to able to run projects and be responsible but live within remits of education.”

It has been a similar challenge with assembling a trust board with the right level of expertise: “In big cities like London there is a large professional workforce to tap into, but it is harder here to get professional people to take on these positions,” Ms Lewis admits. “We’ve been lucky in some ways, but it has also been down to networking through local business organisations and parent links to get these people to come on board and give up their time willingly.”

Spread the leadership risk

Having a financial leadership function in each school reduces the risks to the trust if the CFO decided to leave: “There is a succession planning consideration here – people can move across schools or into that central role,” Ms Lewis continued.

The same principle applies to the leadership of teaching and learning. All staff contracts are with Viking MAT so that although teachers and leaders have a base school they can be moved between schools according to needs. This is a useful way of managing the staffing resource for each school, but it also provides the MAT with a way of creating development pathways so that talented and ambitious staff are more likely to stay within the trust.

Make pupil outcomes your key accountability measure

Pupil outcomes and staff retention are the two key ways of measuring the benefits, risks and costs of resources at Viking MAT.
“Everything that we do as an analysis is on teaching and learning outcomes, either through statutory tests, parental feedback, making sure that we are very clear on staff needs and looking at how we audit and get feedback from staff,” Ms Lewis said.

“If what we are delivering is good or better and we have stable staffing that means that we have those stars aligned. We do that through that continuous auditing and assessing and being proactive in the short and longer term. All aspects – the level of teaching, money and monthly budget monitoring, pupil intake in future – are looked at through this auditing and assessing so that we can see where those risks lie.”

Create an effective scrutiny function

The trust board’s role in scrutinising the efficient and effective deployment of resources has been strengthened. “This year we’ve introduced a new sub-committee of the trust board that acts as an additional check to our regular budgeting meetings,” Ms Lewis explained.

The monthly FAR committee (finance, audit and risks) includes trust and school governors, the CFO, Ms Lewis and heads of school. The sub-committee keeps a close eye on month-to-month changes: “With changes in teacher pay happening thick and fast, it helps us to ensure that we are not being hit by surprises and that we are balancing resources in a way that don’t hinder teaching and learning performance and that we are accessing additional funding when we can.”

High needs funding for SEND children is an example of this, says Ms Lewis: “This funding used to be plentiful, but it is now increasingly difficult to get hold of so part of the committee’s role is to scrutinise our future pupil intake to identify any children that mean we can apply for that money. Every penny counts.”

  • Liam Donnison is director of Best Practice Network. Ms Lewis’s leadership insights are part of the new National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership (NPQEL), part of the new suite of National Professional Qualifications developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership in partnership with Best Practice Network. Visit www.outstandingleaders.org/qualifications


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