CEO In Conversation – Claire Cuthbert, The Evolve Trust

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On the second occasion that Claire-Marie Cuthbert made the journey down from her native North East to Mansfield, she had a pretty clear appreciation of the enormous task she was taking on. The interview process – a few weeks earlier – had revealed all. It was the summer of 2016 and The Evolve Trust was at a low ebb. The trust was heading towards some major financial challenges. With only three academies to its name – a secondary, a primary and a special school – the central team salary bill had, Claire tells me, ballooned to over £800k. The top slice, meanwhile, amounted to less than half of that figure and there was no educational expertise within the central team. Even more concerningly, two of the trust’s schools were in special measures, whilst The Brunts School – once Mansfield’s flagship secondary – was considered to be ‘coasting’. The trustees were determined to find someone with the energy, values and credibility to turn Evolve around. Claire, they believed, was that person.


The trustees were determined to find someone with the energy, values and credibility to turn Evolve around. Claire, they believed, was that person.

“The trust was rudderless” says Claire, “the situation was critical, and there was no time to lose. However, I saw beyond the scale of task at hand. I was struck by something else. Mansfield reminded me of my community at home in the North East. It’s an ex-mining town, a place where third generation unemployment is epidemic, and with an economy that continues to experience rapid transition. Levels of life expectancy and health and wellbeing are amongst some of the lowest in the UK. But the main thing I noticed is that the children were also the same – they were just wonderful, bright, dynamic young people who, given the right start, could live enriching and fulfilling lives. Mansfield was a long way from home, but it could very well have been next door. I came away determined to make things so much better – but I knew it would not be easy.”

Claire-Marie was, at that time, the youngest female CEO in the country. Yet, she came to Mansfield with a strong -track record having led schools and federation-wide school improvement in the North East. She knew that this challenge was on a whole new level. “I was appointed before the summer break and then spent the next six weeks listening, learning, pouring over data, organgrams and job descriptions. I was on a steep learning curve, but I also knew I had to hit the ground running and be the change that the organisation and its children and staff needed.” Add to that, Claire, like many CEOs found herself relocating – driving back up the A1 to see her family at weekends. It was a big commitment on many levels.

What happened in the term ahead is testament to Claire’s resolve, resilience and determination not to waste a minute in making a difference. It also demonstrated the value of her insatiable appetite for reading about leadership, teaching and organisational development, something, as we will see, she has ingrained into the culture of Evolve. “I knew things had to change fast. The driving factor was the pupils and we had to make sure that this was a sustainable trust that had the financial and organisational platform to improve things. So, I announced a restructure, promoting school improvement leadership to the centre where it should be, but also reducing the central administration from six roles to two. As a small trust we needed and now had a CEO (with an education background), an HR director, a finance director, and some additional trust-wide school improvement expertise. That was it – the rest was just too much for such a small organisation that needed focus. Strong educational, people and financial leadership was what mattered most; the rest of the talent we needed was just waiting in our schools ready to be unleashed.”


The driving factor was the pupils and we had to make sure that this was a sustainable trust that had the financial and organisational platform to improve things.


However, such an announcement was bound to throw the organisation into turmoil, yet change was needed and the pain was inevitable. At the same time, due diligence was conducted across all three of the trust’s schools. “The heads, to their absolute credit, were really open to this. For at least a year, if not longer, they hadn’t benefited from any form of advice, mentoring or extensive support. Local governing bodies were questioning what they were getting from the trust too, not least given how much resource there was. The heads were – like me, I guess – a relatively young team, but all very passionate about bringing about the change our children deserved. We quickly developed a really supportive culture, but also one where we were honest and self-challenging about what needed to be done. We were and are a small trust, and the educational improvement depended on each one of us in the team committing to relationships underpinned by that.”

So, alongside the restructure, Claire, with her Chair, undertook to establish a vision and set of values for the trust. This exercise wasn’t easy – some people had committed to leaving the organisation; others were still getting to grips with what the change meant for them. “There was no vision, no clear set of values, and no five year strategic plan” says Claire, “that’s a challenging place for any CEO to begin to plan ahead, so, naturally, we began with vision and values.”

The vision established was one that the team considered to be paramount for all pupils – particularly those who were growing up in challenging circumstances. “Education has to be their ‘golden ticket’. It focused entirely on that – opening pupils minds to the opportunities that are out there, making sure they believe in themselves, and ensuring that they are prepared to seize the opportunities that will allow them to succeed. From that moment everything became focused on that; and a new energy came about. From a values perspective, integrity mattered a lot to me – doing everything in service to children. We also identified ambition, endeavour, resilience and inclusivity. We were all going to need to be resilient to seek the improvements we needed, but we would do so in a way that was ambitious for all the children.”


“Education has to be their ‘golden ticket’


On the back of this Claire did what we encourage all CEOs to do – to set out a five year plan, providing clarity, a sense of direction and priority, and – of course – a statement that brings about accountability. “We had to show that we meant business. The vision and values were the platform, but as a new CEO I had to set out my stall quickly. My plan had four headings, improve provision – our schools had to be better; develop staff – because sustainable improvement is built on a culture of learning and developing and holding onto talented people; financial viability and organisational sustainability; and partnerships and community. We reinforced this with a ‘central offer’, setting out for our schools exactly how the top slices would contribute to each one of these goals.”

Claire and her team quickly put flesh on the bone of their plans. The commitment to school improvement involved an intense team effort. “I am a CEO, but I am CEO of a small trust, so I need to be actively involved in leading school improvement. When, one day, we have five or six schools, that will change, and we are actively developing school improvement leaders, with our heads stepping up as part of this team effort. However, as things stood, myself, Michael Lucas, our school improvement director at the time (now headteacher at Beech), and all of our heads set about identifying the challenges and quickly mobilising resource and investing in CPD across the organisation. We brought educational leadership, with a collective commitment to improvement across schools through challenge and support – to the front and centre of the trust’s work. It sounds simple, but that was a step change.”


I am CEO of a small trust, so I need to be actively involved in leading school improvement.


The impact speaks for itself. The Beech Academy, in special measures until 2017, is now one of highest performing special schools in the country. Their Progress 8 score outperforms some mainstream secondary schools despite all children having significant additional needs and 60% in receipt of Pupil Premium.  Ofsted has rated it as good with outstanding features. Meanwhile, The Bramble Academy (a primary school), in special measures when it joined the Trust was judged as ‘requires improvement’ in December 2017 for the first time in a decade. Despite pupils generally entering the school from a poor starting point, progress scores remain strong and are now in line with the national average for reading, writing and maths; with pupil progress greatly improving over recent years. In addition, its early years foundation stage (EYFS) was judged ‘good’ by Ofsted in December 2017. Brunts, meanwhile, is the highest attaining, significantly oversubscribed local secondary academy in the town and the only academy in Nottinghamshire to have achieved 100% pass rate at A-Level.  70% of students in the 6th form progress to university and 20% of those are in receipt of Pupil Premium. This is well above the national average.

The emphasis on school improvement was reinforced by Claire’s people strategy, which involved the establishment of the Headship Institute – allowing the trust’s heads and central educationalists to come together to read core texts, to reflect on the implications for the trust, and to gain the wisdom of leading international thinkers such as Andy Buck, Mary Myatt, and Dr Ben Laker. “We started at the top and invested in our educational leaders from beginning” says Claire, “developing a deep understanding of what effective leadership is and how our leadership impacts upon and influences every facet of the organisation. This was an important investment. It gave an important message to all staff in the organisation – we are all learners, and we are all going to be self-challenging. That translated into our collective efforts to improve the schools. Challenging about the data and the issues, but working together to seek the solutions.”


“we are all learners, and we are all going to be self-challenging.”


In turn, the trust has then developed its professional learning pathways for staff across the organisation – engaging everyone from central team members to support staff. The trust has gone on to receive a CPLD kitemark for the quality of its professional development provision, and has become a local lead for the Chartered College of Teaching. Research is an area that Claire and Michael Lucas (and now Carl Aitken – the current School Improvement Director) have focused on. “The EEF toolkit has underpinned a number of our strategies – including around pupil premium and behaviour, and we’re currently engaged in their FLASH project around marking and we’ve established our Fellowship Programme in partnership with NTU (Masters) – where a number of our leaders and teachers have completed an evidence-based action research project, undertaking an assessed analysis of a particular project on their professional learning and practice.”

In terms of financial viability and organisational sustainability, Claire did not lose her focus on balancing budgets and ensuring they were sustainable for the long term. “I wanted a highly qualified person” says Claire, “and we interviewed over ten different people from chartered accountants to financial directors of corporations. However, I wanted someone with the passion and our values because the new central team had to live and breath them. I wanted heads and staff to know we were on their side, that we could relate to them, and that everyone on our central team was giving their all to the educational mission. The person we appointed Barbara Sims, was exactly that person.” Having reduced the size of the central team to a much more sustainable position; and having reduced expenditure as a result, the trust has been able to invest in key areas such as professional development, research activity, and building the trust’s capacity and systems in areas such as data management. “We didn’t have the ability to understand our strengths and weaknesses as a trust, or the ability to do anything about it through CPD and research, so recalibrating how the trusts spend money has become important. The crucial thing is that responsibility for many of these core aspects of CPD and school improvement has been devolved to our expert leaders – lead practitioners on the ground. We’re simply providing the time, co-ordination and investment they need.” The changes to governance, meanwhile, have recently been documented by the NGA, culminating in the trust recently winning an award.


Our vision is for the future of our children; so that they can grow up to thrive socially and economically. That means working with others to make this a great town to live and work in.


The other key area in Claire’s plan was building relationships. “We had become an isolated trust. My whole mission is about improving the life chances of children and young people in Mansfield. That means working with other schools and trusts locally. It also means working strategically and with local businesses, the health and social care sector, politicians, and community organisations. Our vision is for the future of our children; so that they can grow up to thrive socially and economically. That means working with others to make this a great town to live and work in. But it’s taken time, in my first term I invited around 100 external stakeholders to come in for Christmas mince pies, but not a single person came. Three years on, thankfully, it’s a different story, but there’s a way to go!” Claire and her team began  – working with us at Forum Strategy – to develop the Evolve Alliance, an initiative that produced a shared and inclusive vision for improving outcomes for all pupils in the area and with an aim to work with other local schools on research, on case studying and sharing best practice across the locality, and engaging wider local stakeholders in the work of schools. The alliance’s first conference attracted people from across the country, and the Evolve Alliance journal case studies local schools (including those outside the trusts), local and regional leaders – from within and beyond education, and updates practitioners across the area on the latest research and best practice.” Communications like this have helped to build relationships. Structural change has also helped. Three trust has now recalibrated governance again so that rather than having LGBs, the three schools are overseen by five specialist scrutiny boards. One of these committees is focused on bringing together key stakeholders from across the town from areas such as health, business, community groups and elsewhere – helping to encourage greater engagement and alignment around Evolve’s vision for Mansfield’s young people.

For this CEO, the task has been enormous. There’s still, of course, much to do. Claire puts her resilience down to a number of things, her determination to make a difference being critical: “I felt like I was the trust’s last chance, and many of the children’s last chance” says Claire. She also puts it down to the power of ‘that first follower’. Dawn Pare, now Operations Director at the trust, was a temporary PA when Claire joined. With a background in Project management in large organisations, Dawn saw her contract at Evolve as a ‘stop gap’, but quickly bought into Claire’s sense of mission. “I’m here because of Claire. I was inspired by her and I was immediately sold on her message about how things could be better and how we had a mission to improve things for Mansfield’s children. I knew at that moment that I wouldn’t be leaving, I wanted to stick around from that point even if it meant working through some turbulent times to begin with.” And stick around she did. Dawn has worked alongside Claire as her Executive Assistant, supporting her, advising her, and encouraging her along the way. “When things were really tough, Dawn reminded me why we were here” said Claire “, and that the tough days were worth it. She protected my diary, she helped me build some key relationships, and her commitment sent an important message to her colleagues in the organisation – she encouraged people to support and believe in what we were doing. She’s been amazing and brings a great deal to the organisation. As CEOs, we can’t underestimate the importance of a really good Executive Assistant.”


“As CEOs, we can’t underestimate the importance of a really good Executive Assistant.”


So what does the future hold for Claire, her team and the Evolve Trust itself? “We are still absolutely focused on getting our three schools to where they need to be. We’ve achieved an enormous amount, and that’s built on our culture of collective commitment across our schools, being learners, directing significant investment towards the development of frontline staff, and, increasingly, innovation too. We want to develop a curriculum that truly prepares our pupils for a changing economic landscape, so that they are ready to seize the opportunities ahead, and to ensure our values become further engrained. We also want to further professionalise our school improvement model, so that it is informed by sophisticated data – data that captures more than simply what the ‘top, down’ accountability system expects of us – but also driven by us being an organisation that is full of experts – in every discipline. I can see many of those experts coming through our training programmes and research initiatives. And I want us to be locally relevant. I want Evolve to be at the centre of a drive to make this a great, aspirational town – because it’s full of children and young people with such potential. I truly believe being a trust gives us that opportunity to work with others, across the locality, to make this town a place that people aspire to live and work in. To bring about profound change in our communities and in our local services and economy. Our children deserve to live and grow up in a place of opportunity, and, by being an outward facing, local trust, we can play a big part in generating that.”

Michael Pain was speaking with Claire Cuthbert.

Michael’s book, Being The CEO, is published through John Catt Educational.