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The role of academy trust CEO: Improvement and organisational performance

Article Three: Improvement and organisational performance 

The role of academy trust CEO remains a very new one, and trust boards and leaders across the system are still finding their feet. The transition from executive headship essentially means that the lead professional must now make the leap to corporate leader, and it can sometimes be a bumpy ride!

At Forum Education we work with academy trust CEOs nationwide through our four regional CEO networks, and our consultancy and coaching work; supporting them to grow and develop in their roles. In this series, we identify five key responsibilities that all academy trust CEOs should be delivering against, including:

Delivering upon the vision and leading strategy

People and Culture

Improvement and organisational performance

Organisational sustainability and compliance

Building key external and internal relationships


We have seen a number of superb leaders of school to school improvement struggle in the role of CEO


There are currently two kinds of MAT CEO, those who believe they themselves should be leading and delivering improvement and those who think they are responsible for enabling it. In trusts that are growing beyond two or three schools and with every intention to work at an even greater scale, it is those CEOs who are focused on ‘enabling improvement’ that are best placed to succeed.

Many (not all) academy trust CEOs struggle to see why they should let go of the day to day leadership of improvement. Isn’t their longstanding success in this area the reason why they were appointed as CEO? Well, yes and no. We have seen a number of high capable leaders of school to school improvement struggle in the role of CEO because they have either underestimated the sheer personal capacity that being actively involved in improvement across multiple schools requires, or they have focused too much on the improvement aspect of the job and neglected the other parts. As I said in article one, the transition from lead professional to corporate leader is a bumpy one!

Does this mean that the CEO should disengage from improvement? Absolutely not. The effective CEO is entirely responsible for creating the priorities and the conditions for improvement. This is the improvement strategy; once they’ve shaped it, they should be ready to provide the necessary support and challenge to ensure it becomes a reality and continues to work effectively right across the trust.

An effective CEO of an academy trust will be looking carefully and continuously at how improvement is brought about at scale.

An effective CEO of an academy trust will be looking carefully and continuously at how improvement is brought about at scale. Forum Education has developed a framework called the seven pillars of improvement which provides CEOs with some principles to draw upon on here: 7 Pillars of Improvement at Scale; 1 – 4

First of all, the CEO must ensure that the improvement priorities further the trust board’s vision and strategy. The most inspirational CEOs know that basing improvement on the government’s accountability agenda alone is neither going to enthuse or inspire an organisation and its people to excel. They will, of course, look to embed these top/down measures within the improvement model, but they look beyond them and focus on other indicators and outputs – not least improving the wellbeing of pupils and staff, the environment of their schools, the quality of the resources and opportunities children have access to, academic outcomes across the board, the organisation’s success as an employer of choice, the quality of the relationships schools and the trust has with key stakeholders, and the sustainability of schools both financially and operationally. In doing this they already begin to shape an improvement culture by relating improvement to  people’s motivations – in the case of most MATs: enriching and improving children and young people’s lives. It is worth noting that what a CEO believes should be measured often speaks volumes about their leadership, values and their openness to wider forms of accountability than simply ‘the government’!

Once the priorities are set (and they may change depending on the context), the effective CEO ensures that the organisation is building the capacity to deliver improvement at scale. They know that  the leadership of improvement is not the same as the delivery of improvement, so they work hard to create capacity in both areas. For the CEO, it is crucial they have ‘improvement leadership’ capacity on their senior teams, yet there are still very few people in the system for CEOs to draw upon who have genuine experience of leading school improvement across multiple sites (as opposed to delivering school to school support). Effective CEOs are very careful in taking their time to recruit people with the right skills to lead improvement. It’s crucial at this juncture for the CEO to be very clear on the difference between what we describe as a ‘leader of school improvement’ and a ‘deliverer’ of it. How do the two roles differ?:

School improvement leadership

–Experience of delivering whole-scale school improvement successfully

–Analytical skills

–Project management skills

–Brokerage skills

–Influencing & lateral thinking skills

–Quality assurance / ability to hold others to account

–Coaching / mentoring skills

–Stakeholder management skills


School improvement delivery

  – Specific professional expertise

  – Coaching / mentoring skills

  – Relationship building skills

  – Research skills

The effective CEO will ensure that leaders in these respective roles have the skills and experience, and, where they are lacking, that they are receiving the necessary experience, training and support. It is so important that their school improvement leaders can make the step up – and this is often a chicken or egg situation as so many are still very new to the role. In particular, the effective CEO will fully depend on their improvement leaders  to design and deliver robust project management processes which embed goal setting, project planning, the brokerage of school improvement delivery and ongoing quality assurance across the organisation. This is essential for a school improvement model that operates at scale, but really strong project management skills are not easy to come by even amongst some of our most experienced school leaders.

The effective CEO will also ensure that the intelligence and data that the improvement model generates is to a large degree standardised across schools (to enable benchmarking / comparison), reflective of the organisation’s improvement priorities, and sufficiently triangulated so that can ensure that the organisation is improving as expected. On the final point, too many CEOs quickly become reliant on one source of intelligence – their school improvement leads, when in fact they should be able to access intelligence and data from a range of sources to quality assure their school improvement leaders’ impact and to independently identify clear trends and concerns. The CEO may be hands off in terms of the operational  leadership of improvement, but they absolutely must be hands on and have confidence in the data they need to perform that role. An improvement model should support the CEO in this task, generating a range of intelligence including regular staff and pupil surveys, local governing body risk registers, staff and pupil attendance data, staff turnover and exit interviews, routine external and peer reviews, and more. This is also why it is so important that the CEO works with the board to ensure that the scheme of delegation does not create substantial overlap between school improvement leaders and the local governing boards of schools. The CEO must be able to refer to governing boards for insight and challenge, without sensing conflict.

The Global Innovation 1000 report shows that the top organisations in the world are investing more and more in research and development activity (upwards of 5% of overall revenue)

The CEO will also ensure that sufficient resource is invested in research and development activity, including ongoing staff training. Again, this should be aligned with the improvement priorities set out by the CEO as part of the improvement strategy. The Global Innovation 1000 shows that the top organisations in the world are investing more and more in research and development activity (upwards of 5% of overall revenue), reflecting the importance of knowledge and evidence in driving innovation and improvement. I believe that we will increasingly see a gulf between those MATs who are investing significantly in developing their improvement activity based on evidence and those who aren’t. An effective MAT CEO should be brave enough to pursue this investment despite the challenging financial climate – not least by working with other MATs with similar improvement needs and priorities. These organisations will be also able to respond far quicker and far more efficiently to the changing contexts they face.

Finally, ultimately, it is the trust board who must hold the improvement model to account against the vision and their definition of success. It is therefore important that the accountable CEO is themselves constantly involved in learning about improvement and models of improvement, refining their strategy and approach in response to challenges and failures. The CEO must model a commitment to learning and must be the first to acknowledge failure and – just as importantly – the need to learn from it. The trust board should expect this and, throughout growth of the MAT, should expect the model to evolve further as the executive team test the model and prepare it for even greater scale.

MAT CEOs must get out there to see how other trusts are doing improvement, and how other sectors do it too. Our recent MAT Leaders networks have involved input from NHS Improvement whose CEO, Jim Mackey, spoke about the importance of improvement that is based on both ‘mission and method’. For MAT CEOs, bridging the two and ensuring they are achieved in harmony is their key school improvement responsibility. They are not the first to face this task, and should be looking to other MATs and organisations beyond the sector for inspiration and insight.


Michael Pain is founder and CEO of Forum Education, a leading consultancy supporting the successful development of academy trusts and their leaders: www.forumeducation.org

Other related articles include:

7 Pillars of Improvement at Scale

Five key development areas for MAT sector in 2017/18