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BLOG: MATs cannot just be about ‘scores on the doors’

In the last of our series of blogs following last week’s national early headship conference, Michael Pain explores why MATs must ensure that their visions capture and respond to the distinct needs of this generation of children and young people. It’s the only way MATs will recruit and retain the most talented leaders and teachers to serve children.

Michael Pain – Forum Education

Last week, new and aspiring headteachers from across the country joined us for the third national early headship conference. They take up their roles at a time of significant change and upheaval in education, in society, and, indeed, in the lives of so many children and young people. What came through strongly at the conference is that we need this generation of leaders to think afresh about the true legacy they wish to shape for today’s children and young people.

For too long now the direction of our education system has largely been defined by the government’s accountability agenda. Success is predominately measured in Ofsted outcomes, league table positions, and the performance of children as young as six in tests. This is frustrating for those school leaders who also see the broader challenges and opportunities for today’s children.

This is frustrating for those school leaders who also see the broader challenges and opportunities for today’s children.

What gets measured tends to get done, and whilst our system has prioritised literacy and numeracy for many years, it has also – as a whole – lost sight of some equally important and fundamental aspects of children and young people’s learning and development. For those heads starting out in multi-academy trusts, they have a choice – join a trust looking to use its autonomy to shape a broader, bolder and relevant vision for children’s lives and futures; or join one that continues to largely define itself and its success by the same old ‘scores on the doors’.

Why does this matter? Well, it comes back to the ultimate purpose of schools and multi-academy trusts: serving today’s children and young people. I strongly believe that we are currently witnessing the erosion of childhood. Childhood is an innately valuable part of the human experience and our development, and an enriching childhood depends on a strong sense of safety and security.

Yet, children’s life satisfaction is declining. In the OECD’s ‘How’s Life’ survey, the UK featured in the bottom third of all countries for children’s self-rated life satisfaction. The Good Childhood report by the Children’s Society shows a similar decline, and both reports cite children’s experience of school as a key factor in their sense of low satisfaction. Children are all too often feeling the pressure of a ‘high stakes’ system, no doubt soaking up a culture of anxiety that pervades the teaching profession. This is challenging for school leaders to manage when so much accountability exists.

join a trust looking to use its autonomy to shape a broader, bolder and relevant vision for children’s lives and futures; or join one that continues to largely define itself and its success by the same old ‘scores on the doors’?

If that were not enough, this generation are faced with an unprecedented deluge of technology at a time when their brains are still going through a crucial phase of development. Children and young people are, hour by hour, the passive recipients of vast quantities of information. There are well founded concerns that children are ill-equipped to use technology and it is having a negative impact on their quality of sleep, their ability to use information discerningly, the quality of social interaction with other children and adults, and their sense of self-worth. At the same time, we are also seeing this generation of children spending less time outdoors – again, an essential ingredient of their healthy learning and development. A recent survey found that the majority of children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates and another, only last week, found that over one third do not do any extra-curricula activity.

It is also no surprise that we have a generation of children who are concerned about the future. The world is one of both opportunity and peril. Our children and young people can expect to walk into a society where high self-employment, spending restraint in public services, and the need to care for an ever growing elderly population are a reality. Literacy in areas such as global awareness, finance and entrepreneurialism, civic participation, and health and wellbeing will be at a premium. Of course, literacy and numeracy skills will be a cornerstone in ensuring children’s ability to thrive in their lives ahead, but in an increasingly competitive world – lacking some of the safeguards our immediate ancestors benefited from – these will not be enough on their own.

We also need this generation of leaders to be ‘futures-thinkers’

We desperately need this generation of leaders to equip children to navigate the pressures of their everyday lives (including school), to be masters rather than servants of technology, and to be confident in managing their own health and wellbeing. We also need this generation of leaders to be ‘futures-thinkers’ and to model and apply the same creativity and foresight in curriculum development that children and young people will need to acquire as essential traits for their future lives. Leading in a culture that is defined and overly dominated by ‘scores on the doors’ alone will not allow them the space or confidence to do this.

In terms of academy trusts, we need MATs that provide school leaders with the freedom and the autonomy to work together in a way that responds to some of these challenges as best they can. Our most forward thinking MATs and schools are clearly thinking hard about how to do this. They realise that they need to empower their headteachers to be creative, to innovate and collaborate with one another to find some of the solutions. They also know that by getting this right, they will, in time, secure a firm foundation for academic success. For those other MATs and schools remaining resolutely focused on ‘the scores of the doors’, recruitment and retention will remain a problem. Their heads and staff will desperately search for the deeper meaning and purpose that will enrich the lives of this generation of children and best prepare them for a very different future.

Forum Education’s National Early Headship Conference took place on 13th October 2017 in Nottingham. It is the third annual event of its kind.

Forum Education provides visioning and strategic development sessions for MATs. For more information on this, please see: Support, training and resources for multi-academy trusts

Read the full text of Michael Pain’s speech to the national early headship conference: Michael Pain’s speech to the national early headship conference 2017