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In the first of a series of articles, ‘In Conversation’, with academy trust CEOs, Michael Pain (Founder of Forum Strategy and author of Being The CEO) speaks with Wayne Norrie, CEO of Greenwood Academies Trust, about how the trust has confronted its failures, created the conditions for sustainable improvement, and is now opening up a world of opportunity for its pupils and staff through broader partnerships.
In December 2016, Ofsted published its ‘batched inspection’ report on Greenwood Dale Academies Trust. The inspectorate was damningly unrestrained in its criticism. The report, which followed the inspection of six of its 31 schools within a matter of days, stated that the trust had “let down pupils over a number of years”. Half of those schools inspected required special measures. Greenwood Dale – a trust that emerged from a model that had worked so well in one individual school – had failed to translate that success as an academy trust. A familiar story.
The trust was one of a number that was a victim of both poor national policy around sustainable trust growth and a lack of an evidence base around the characteristics of successful multi-academy trusts. Having expanded rapidly in the period up to December 2016, there had been little attempt to take a logical approach to Greenwood Dale’s relentless growth. Despite being born out of the outstanding and highly successful Greenwood Dale Academy in Nottingham, schools were being taken on as far and wide as Peterborough, Northampton and Skegness – often with great encouragement from ‘the powers that be’. The strain upon the model was bound to show; school improvement leaders were travelling hundreds of miles, and some headteachers felt remote and unsupported in their roles. There was insufficient school improvement leadership at a local or regional level. According to Ofsted, trust leaders did not have a sufficient grasp of the key issues and trends across the trust, nor was the accountability or support in place to ensure the trust’s vision for improvement was being delivered. The trust had, to be frank, bitten off more than it could chew.
Wayne Norrie was the man identified to turn things around. A former headteacher and Senior HMI with Ofsted, Wayne’s remit was initially that of an ‘internal consultant’, employed to review the trust as it steadily came to understand the plight it was in. Soon after, after having had the ‘luxury’ of six months getting to know the trust (something that many CEOs would love to do!) Wayne was appointed as Chief Executive in January 2016. He immediately set about on a period of restructure and change, something that Ofsted were quick to acknowledge in their report.
“We needed to connect our schools and build local capacity in a way that had yet to be achieved. Schools were used to central people dropping in, but that approach was at the heart of our failures.”
“My immediate priority was to set about a creating a regional structure” says Wayne, “one whereby sustainable collaboration for school improvement – across key areas such as learning and pedagogy, curriculum, and standards – could be achieved. We needed to connect our schools and build local capacity in a way that had yet to be achieved. Schools were used to central people ‘dropping in’ in a sort of transactional way, but that approach was at the heart of our failures. We had to work from the bottom upwards – from the children we served and the classrooms and corridors of our schools.”
A key part of that move was moving away from the executive head model (those people who were often parachuted in from afar) to identifying local talent and creating key cross-school roles. These roles included new cross-school roles of Directors of Learning, Directors of Standards and Directors for Quality Assurance for secondaries, and Senior Education Advisers for primaries. “This had to be sustainable – school improvement depends on sustained relationships”, says Wayne, “but a big part of this was also recognising that we couldn’t have a ‘done to’ model that transferred an approach from one side of the country to the other; we had to spot the strengths in our schools and promote people who had the expertise and leadership talent to generate regional school improvement. Many of our new trust leaders are locally based and co-ordinating and facilitating improvement on a day to day basis.”
View Forum Strategy’s 7 pillars of improvement at scale: 7 Pillars of Improvement at Scale
The trust set about creating a regional plan for each locality – based on the specific challenges facing schools and generating the capacity both locally and regionally to respond to them. It has focused on generating capacity at a local level – identifying and recruiting dozens of Specialist Leaders of Education from within its schools. The trust has also seen an influx of new principals – with one role attracting nine high quality applicants. Interestingly, Wayne tells me that he has made only a few changes to the central team, a group of professionals who he describes as “good people with lots of talent, who are simply working in a different way.”
“We aren’t prescribing a particular model centrally anymore, there’s no ‘school in a box’. Centrally there’s school improvement expertise, there are resources, and there’s research and development, which we expect will inform practice – but we’re not looking for a defined approach to running a school or school improvement.”
Wayne describes the change of philosophy at Greenwood Academies Trust as a shift from a culture of high accountability and little autonomy for schools, to one where accountability is coupled with empowerment and responsibility. “We aren’t prescribing a particular model centrally anymore, there’s no ‘school in a box’. Centrally there’s school improvement expertise, there are resources, and there’s research and development, which we expect will inform practice – but we’re not looking for a defined approach to running a school or school improvement. What we are saying is that if our Principals do want to change things, innovate or take a certain approach, they can – but they are responsible for it and they are also responsible for sharing and disseminating their impactful practice across the trust! We will give them the best advice and support, but we will also expect that children and young people get a high-quality education and outcomes. This is a shift to autonomy, a culture of development, and empowerment – but with all of that comes responsibility.”
That balance of autonomy and responsibility is set by the trust, but it has also become engrained into the culture. “The collaboration that takes place at a local level – between leaders, teachers and support staff – is focused. Staff are focused on the regional priorities, understanding the trends and challenges, and generous in identifying and sharing what works. Imposing a culture of restless improvement from afar is impossible. People need and deserve a sense of ownership. What we’ve done is create the conditions for that and staff have seized it, because our staff are all fundamentally determined to create a legacy for the children and young people they serve, the children and young people who live alongside them in their communities. We can’t impose that, we can only enable what is already there and provide the support and accountability that is necessary.”
“People need and deserve a sense of ownership. What we’ve done is create the conditions for that and staff have seized it, because our staff are all fundamentally determined to create a legacy for the children and young people they serve…”
That culture appears to be bearing fruit. In the past year the trust has had twenty one Ofsted inspections, with all but two resulting in good or outstanding judgements. Secondary, which has been a particular challenge for the trust, has seen significant improvements both in terms of Ofsted gradings and Progress 8 scores. The trust has recently been ranked as number one for primary schools in a new TES table, with 100% of its primary schools now judged as good or better. Of the eighteen primaries included in the tables, almost all of them were judged as inadequate when Wayne joined the trust. Yet, Wayne is reluctant to get carried away, simply saying things are “heading in the right direction”. You get the sense he’s far from done yet.
Indeed, behind all of this lies Wayne Norrie’s commitment to providing the very best learning experiences for children and young people. Not only is this a trust that is focused on better scores on the doors for pupils and schools alike, it is also looking outwards – to its communities – in order to support children to be ready to learn, and to prepare them for a complex and uncertain future. “We’ve changed how governance works, so – in terms of organisational governance – we’ve created a board of trustees who are experts in their fields, from finance to HR and all things corporate governance. We have strong committees who are focused on performance and on how our improvement model is bearing fruit. That’s allowed us to change the emphasis at a local level. We’ve removed local governing bodies, and we’ve piloting the creation of locality boards that cover a group of schools in an area and bring together educationalists, local community leaders, health and social care professionals, and others, to really ask the important questions – how well are we serving this generation of children and young people in this particular community and what can we do better? That is going to be very profound and very challenging – in the best possible way.”
“We can knock on doors and draw on the professional and social capital that is out there… It is amazing how doors do open when the need to prepare children and young people for the future is at the heart of your message.”
The trust has also used it scale to engage multi-national and regional businesses in its work – with employers such as Boots, the Co-Op Microsoft and Capital One all contributing in various ways to the trust’s work. Indeed, Wayne is passionate about drawing on corporate social responsibility. “We have experts from across industry working with and supporting members of our central team – that’s enormously inspiring and beneficial. We also have experts contributing to the curriculum and mentoring our children and young people. Our scale has clearly been a challenge for us up to now, but, now we have got the structures and the culture right, we can turn it into a big opportunity in many ways – we can knock on doors and draw on the professional and social capital that is out there to benefit our pupils and staff alike. It is amazing how doors do open when the need to prepare children and young people for the future is at the heart of your message.”
“You are not the superhead of a large school. You need to think differently, these are big organisations”
Wayne is a CEO who has modelled and continues to model the sense of collaboration, empowerment and responsibility that this trust is now built upon – recognising the role of CEO setting the temperature of the organisation. In Being The CEO I wrote extensively about the importance of former headteachers making a shift in ‘leadership mindset’ when becoming CEOs, moving away from being the driver of school improvement – the ‘superhead’ as it were – to instead becoming the enabler of improvement. Wayne is doing just this: “You are not the superhead of a large school. You need to think differently, these are big organisations and your job is to set the direction, keeping the ‘main thing the main thing’. As CEO you are conductor of the orchestra, it gets messy if you interfere!” The sense of responsibility is also clearly modelled in a number of ways. Wayne talks about ‘no one marking their own homework’ – himself included – and the importance of embracing challenge and listening to others. His pride in the level of expertise and challenge on his board demonstrates his commitment to that. As does the fact that in the last three years Wayne has refused to take a pay rise, despite his board recommending one. Wayne has also voluntarily committed to publishing his expenses online.
For Wayne, the focus remains on building capacity. He has certainly built confidence. This was a trust whose future was in serious doubt three years ago. In 2019, he has proved that believing in the potential of people and communities, providing them with the right conditions to improve from within, and respecting the diversity and differences that exist across regions, is enormously important to running a successful academy trust. Yet, at the heart of his message lies the notion of responsibility. Whether you are a teacher, headteacher, local stakeholder, central team member, of CEO, the big difference is that everyone at Greenwood Academies Trust is responsible together. One leaves with the strong impression that the progress of this trust is based on people power, and that’s usually unstoppable!
Michael Pain was speaking with Wayne Norrie in May 2019
Key Learning Points
- Sustainable improvement depends on a local plan, reinforced by local capacity building and ownership of improvement. People need to feel empowered, rather than ‘done to’ by a remote model from many miles away. It is important that that is balanced with a sense of responsibility and accountability.
- Academy trusts have an opportunity to use their scale to draw on social and professional capital from beyond the system. Whether it is engaging multi-national companies and experts in informing the curriculum (so that it better prepares pupils for a rapidly changing economy), or by working with businesses to provide cross-sector mentoring and CPD to staff, the opportunities are endless. (Read Forum’s Article on Building external relationships & generating social and professional capital)
- With strong central governance and committee structures, local governance has freedom to focus on how best schools can respond to the needs of their own pupils, drawing on a wide range of local stakeholders. Trusts can create cluster boards across a locality which can involve a wide range of partners including local health and social care bodies, major employers, community leaders and others. This has real potential for better informing and enhancing provision and support for pupils, ensuring local needs are identified and met. (See Forum’s Nine Characteristics of Effective Governance: The 9 characteristics of effective trust boards)
- The mindset a leader has for the headteacher role is very different to the one required for the CEO role. Trusts are much larger organisations, and it is impossible for one person to drive improvement and try to replicate ‘their’ model of success. Great CEOs recognise their role in ‘conducting the orchestra’, making the shift to becoming enabler of the organisational conditions that serve improvement at scale (See Forum Strategy’s 7 pillars of improvement at scale: 7 Pillars of Improvement at Scale )