Leading a primary multi-academy trust

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:

The role of executive headteacher is a relatively new one and as such we are still discovering the secrets to successful MAT leadership. Kevin Simpson tells Liam Donnison how he and his team forged a successful MAT

We’ve seen a huge expansion in the number of multi-academy trusts (MATs) in recent years, with a resulting leap in the numbers of MAT executive leaders.

These leaders are often heads and executive heads who become heads of highly complex organisations of schools, requiring a very different set of leadership skills.

As national schools commissioner Sir David Carter has said, on-going development of strong MAT leaders through high-quality training and support is vital if we are to develop and further define the executive leader role and the credentials needed to be successful in it.

To help these leaders in these pressurised and highly accountable roles the National Professional Qualification for Executive Leadership (NPQEL) has been launched. The first intake of MAT leaders are now taking part in the programme around the country, including one developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership.

Kevin Simpson is CEO of Aspire Educational Trust, a MAT formed in Macclesfield, Cheshire, in December 2013 which now consists of six primary schools. Mr Simpson has contributed his MAT leadership perspectives to the programme and he describes here his approach to leadership and how he and his colleagues built their MAT.

Root your vision in real values

“My core value has always been that all children, regardless of background, can achieve academic success,” Mr Simpson explained. “Part of the journey was to prove this belief to all stakeholders and to make sure they could buy into the core value. This was achieved by quickly establishing a single vision which was made a reality by senior leaders and staff working seamlessly together to ensure all children achieved at least age-related expectations.”

Make that vision a reality

“The vision was made real by holding six-weekly pupil progress meetings for all children. During these meetings, which consisted of myself as headteacher and the class teacher, decisions were made about where staff were going to be deployed to meet the needs of all children.

“We underpinned every decision with scrupulous attention to the wealth of robust research evidence and the use of effective, evidenced interventions to ensure the individual needs of the children were successfully addressed.

“We realised that it is important to look at the bigger picture; the view should always be on working from what the children can do rather than simply delivering a predetermined curriculum. Put simply, we worked hard to ensure we used the right intervention, for the right child, at the right time. All interventions were rigorously monitored and evaluated, meaning that, over time, we developed a comprehensive understanding of what works, for whom, when and under what conditions. In simple terms, we developed our own evidence-base.”

Replicate success across the trust

“Having established the core values in one school, the challenge was to replicate these values across a trust. My capacity was stretched at first as I was the headteacher of one school, in addition to the school improvement arm for the first two schools joining the MAT.

“I realised, at this stage, that I needed to develop a business strategy focusing on developing the professional capital of every member of staff. This would stabilise the trust, provide a basis for continual reflective growth and ensure succession planning at every level.

“I originally split the plan into eight sections, including standards and achievement, teaching and learning, leadership and management and growth and marketing. This allowed me to have a clear strategy to grow the trust as well as being able to oversee the core values across all the schools. The core focus on achievement for all ran through every strand and was upheld in all schools as they joined. This remains the most important aspect of all that we do.”

Have a clear growth strategy

“In terms of growth, our strategy has been to grow steadily and strongly with schools who uphold our core values and not to take on schools based on geography or convenience of existing partnerships. Our expertise lies in primary education and school improvement and so I feel strongly that ours should be a primary school-based trust so that we can add maximum value to all our children and schools.

“As teaching and learning is the priority for our school improvement philosophy, I wanted to ensure this side of the trust was developed first. I wanted specialist consultants on hand to support development of teaching and learning. As soon as it was financially viable to do so, I moved into the position of CEO and personally supported schools with a core offer which included attendance of a member of the trust senior leadership team at all pupil progress meetings and access to trust literacy and maths consultants throughout the year for monitoring, training and support to develop moderation and subject leaders internally.”

Research is important

“Careful, nuanced, reflective research lay at the heart of every decision I made when building the trust. Although my central principle that all children can achieve academically is in essence a straightforward belief, it presents a complex situational, emotional and practical challenge for all those who seek to implement it.

“I have recognised that this underpinning principle demands high levels of professional knowledge and the capacity to apply that knowledge in action. I believe that both teachers and leaders require theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning and knowledge of what it looks like in action. In addition, it demands they have the determination to make it happen.

“We all need to know what it looks like, sounds like and feels like when we get it right for the children we work with. As Professor John Hattie has written, it is only by understanding and knowing the impact we are having on the pupils that we can become more effective.”

Give everyone a part in the success story

“It is important to ensure that each individual feeds into the system without people relying on an obvious hierarchical structure; in short, everyone does what is needed to achieve the goal of success for every child. Some might argue that this is a waste of resources, but I have always found that this gives us an insight into the challenges faced by our staff at all levels.

“In addition, it gives confidence to teachers that everyone within the leadership team in the education side of the MAT are teachers, who can and will teach. Trust, choice and a supportive, mutually respectful collegiate environment are crucial to ensure outstanding outcomes for all.”

  • Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network. Mr Simpson Simpson’s insights forms part of the new NPQEL programme, developed and delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership in partnership with Best Practice Network. Visit www.outstandingleaders.org/qualifications/npqel


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