A key premise of successful multi-academy trusts is their ability to draw upon and mobilise the skills and talents of staff across their schools to achieve improvements in more schools and for more children. Indeed, sustainable and successful school improvement models depend not only on sufficient professional expertise and sound and scalable improvement processes, but also, crucially, on the capacity of a wide-range of professionals to provide coaching, mentoring, CPD, peer review, and – at times – substantive leadership or teaching support.
Yet, challenges and barriers to collective school improvement can easily present themselves. Achieving cultural commitment to whole-trust success, in a context where leaders are highly accountable for individual schools, can be challenging. Leaders are also – quite rightly – invested emotionally and professionally in ‘their schools’. Finding a balance, however, is key to the collective success of all schools and all children in academy trusts. Here, we look at how Focus Academy Trust (Focus-Trust) developed a cultural commitment to ‘collective efficacy’ across their trust and what they plan to do next.
“We began from a position of values” says Helen Rowland, CEO of (Focus-Trust). “Our values are Fair, Care, Share, Dare and have always underpinned our commitment: ‘Learning Together; Making a Difference’. That applies to our trust and to our fifteen academies. We’re in it for all children and we work together to make a difference for all our children. That’s the starting point.”
Indeed, the values were very much key to the successful early development of the trust, ensuring that its journey to a place where it had nine schools by the start of 2015 was based on collective commitment and making the best use of staff across schools. However, Helen was also conscious that when the trust expanded beyond nine schools it would be difficult to maintain the depth of relationships and proximity that had underpinned the trust’s journey to that point: “We knew from existing evidence that trusts moving to more than five or six schools really need to invest in reinforcing, and systemizing to a degree, the culture and the behaviours that generate school improvement at scale. We were very much drawn to the concept of ‘teacher collective efficacy’ based on John Hattie’s research and the evidential basis it provides for success for all pupils in individual schools. We saw through our work around ‘visible learning’ what a profound and important role collective efficacy has in individual schools – and there is a firm recognition now that all teachers and staff have an important role to play in (and accountability for) securing the best outcomes for children. We wanted to make that a reality at a trust level as we grew further. Just as schools can get even better through collective commitment to all pupils, so too do trusts through collective commitment to improving outcomes in all academies.”
“trusts moving to more than five or six schools really need to invest in reinforcing, and systemizing to a degree, the culture and the behaviours that generate school improvement at scale.”
The trust’s strategy was to begin with a trust-wide conversation with principals to revisit the importance of collective commitment to the school improvement model and the role that they needed to play in that. Helen was particularly keen to revisit the values and commitment– the onus on learning and making a difference together, and the importance of leaders in the trust seeing themselves – first and foremost – as contributors to trust-wide success rather than as a receiver of support or provision from the trust.
Indeed, the need for change was partly driven by what Helen describes as a culture of care and concern rather than shared responsibility and ownership. Heads and senior leaders cared about other schools in the trust and were encouraging of their colleagues’ progress, but there was – to a degree – a lack of positive action or sense of accountability for improvement in other schools. “We are only as strong as our weakest academy,” says Helen, “and it was important that we all accepted a sense of moral accountability and responsibility to each academy’s success. We didn’t want a centre-led model whereby principals and schools saw it as being a handful of people’s responsibility to improve our weakest academies – that absolutely isn’t the premise that sustainable and successful MATs are based on. Each time an academy joined our trust I wanted the school improvement to strengthen, and for leaders – in whatever circumstances they were in – to recognise their responsibility to contribute to the success of all academies and children and young people. It was about changing the language so that it was about ‘our academies’ rather than ‘my academy’ or ‘their academies’.”
It was about changing the language so that it was about ‘our academies’ rather than ‘my academy’ or ‘their academies’.”
The discussions led to greater sense of ownership amongst principals. “The philosophy has gradually changed,” says Helen. “We began to see leaders deepen their commitment and their enthusiasm for supporting other academies. Principals were more ready and willing to release their deputies and assistant heads for secondments in other schools – which is a big ask at times – because it was increasingly recognised as being part of our trust’s moral imperative.” Indeed, such generosity has played a crucial role in the recent improvement of a number of schools in challenging circumstances and has also seen senior and middle leaders develop their leadership skills. Principals are also using the secondment of their staff as an opportunity to promote high potential middle leaders for periods of time to gain experience and development.
However, Helen and her team have also been mindful that cultural commitment must be reinforced and supported by tangible strategies and processes. The trust – as part of its annual residential conference – encouraged all staff to develop pledges around how they will contribute to the wider success of the trust. These pledges are wide-ranging and dependent on the individual’s role and the level at which they operate, but only serve to reinforce the trust-wide commitment. The trust has also introduced a certificate scheme which recognizes individual schools for their contribution to trust-wide success. Examples include where a school has given up time or resource in support of another school’s improvement or where a school has made a significant contribution to trust-wide CPD. The Trust Board has also contributed to this shift in culture, establishing the role of Principal Advisory Representatives who provide the board with a ‘trust-wide’ academies perspective on school improvement issues. Trustees are now Advocates for each academy. Each Trustee visits and attends meetings in the academy and champions their successes/needs.
In addition, the trust has also established a range of professional networks for different roles, with the expectation that all schools attend to share best practice, to access learning from other academies, and to hear key trust-wide information, national updates and the latest research. In this vein, all year group teachers from Reception to Year 6 meet regularly to share practice in books, resources, planning striving and engage in moderation activity to improve the outcomes of all children across the trust.
“The ethos of peer review has done a great deal to create a strong sense of shared responsibility for improvement amongst our principals and staff,”
Central to the development of collective efficacy across Focus has been the fact that collaboration for shared improvement has been modeled by the heads and the trust itself. The trust has made the development of peer review between schools (in partnership with the Education Development Trust) a key priority in its efforts to create relationships between schools that are based on trust, honesty, mutual-respect and a commitment to collective improvement. Through peer review, triads of principals and Improvement Champions undertake reviews of one another’s schools, providing constructive feedback on practice and any follow-up support they can. “The ethos of peer review has done a great deal to create a strong sense of shared responsibility for improvement amongst our principals and staff” says Helen. “That is because we are all participants in a process that is focused on moving schools along – not judging them. When principals and Improvement Champions take part in the reviews of another school – which is focused on constructive and considerate feedback based on professional expertise – they genuinely want to bring something to the table and to help that other school to learn and take forward its areas for development.” In addition to the expectation that principals are involved in review, a recently new component of a Focus-Trust principal’s role is to provide coaching support to another colleague, and Heads of Academy are also providing coaching to deputies in other schools within the trust to support their leadership development. There has always been an expectation in the trust that all schools will share their data with others to inform improvement, identify areas in need of support, and encourage the sharing of practice between schools.
At a trust level, Focus is also modeling collective efficacy. Key members of the SLT and trust board have been involved in MAT to MAT peer review through Forum Education’s programme, supporting another medium-sized MAT to reflect on how it can develop an even stronger culture of collective efficacy amongst its headteachers and wider teams. The trust has also shared key staff with other local MATs when their schools have faced particular challenges, including one example where a Principal was seconded to another local trust for a couple of terms.
The trust is now determined to further embed the renewed sense of collective efficacy that has developed over the last two years. The trust held another conference earlier this month to bring principals together to consider trust-wide needs and priorities, and to reflect on how collective efficacy is taking hold and how it can be evidenced. “We have agreed – as a group of professionals that this is about ‘a shared commitment to working together on the things that matter to improve outcomes for all pupils’” says Helen. “The next step is how we all further work towards making that a reality.”
The next steps certainly seek to build in more accountability. Principals now feel ready and positive about committing personally to the notion of trust-wide accountability, and this will be embedded through the appraisal process which provides all principals with a trust-wide responsibility and a corresponding performance measure. These appraisal objectives have been carefully discussed with the principals based on trust priorities, what they can contribute and what is realistically achievable within the year ahead. Helen believes this is already having tangible impact in terms of school to school improvement.
There are also plans to ensure that a commitment to collective improvement and success is prioritised within the recruitment process and that all candidates are expected to demonstrate an understanding of and a commitment to the success of the wider-trust, reflective of the level and nature of their responsibilities. “I was really encouraged,’ says Helen, “by a recent recruitment round where the successful candidate spoke to a number of our Principals, learning about them and how they reflected the trust’s values. That person wanted to know that there was a strong sense of collective commitment and what collaboration looked like in practice. I think we should be expecting that same level of interest and commitment to other academies in our future appointments – especially to the most senior leadership roles.”
Finally, as with many other aspects of successful trust development, there is a dependency on geographical proximity either between all schools in the trust, or geographical hubs, to make this work. School improvement, and the role of staff at all levels in contributing to it, becomes more challenging the further afield schools are, and Helen and her team at Focus-Trust are determined to retain the geographical proximity between schools wherever possible and develop clusters where that may be a challenge.
Key learning points:
- It is important to establish and reinforce the commitment to collective efficacy through regular dialogue between leaders and staff generally. This conversation must be very much grounded in the values and vision of the trust;
- MAT leaders should communicate the evidential grounding for school to school improvement, including the development opportunities leaders can gain through supporting other schools and the opportunity to develop and retain high potential staff with ‘stretch opportunities’. The NLE model showed the ‘mutual improvement’ benefits of schools supporting other schools;
- Language is important. It is crucial that key trust documents, processes, meeting papers and agendas, and the dialogue in leadership meetings reflect the collective commitment to and ownership of all schools improvement. Senior leaders should carefully model the language of ‘collective efficacy’ – including the use of: ‘our schools’.
- Celebrate contributions to collective improvement and success, whether through case studies and articles, or through certificate schemes or at trust-wide events;
- Embed a sense of trust wide responsibility and accountability within principals’ job descriptions and appraisal documentation where possible;
- A culture of peer review between schools, with heads and SLT members at the centre, can help to embed a sense of shared responsibility for improvements in other schools. Is participation in school to school peer review part of your heads’ role?;
- Place an onus on commitment to trust-wide improvement and the success of other schools within the recruitment process for senior leadership positions;
- Remember that geographical proximity has an important bearing on people’s ability and willingness to contribute to the improvement of other schools.
- Trust-wide professional networks – with a focus on improvement and professional development are key to developing a sense of collective support and commitment to other schools. Ensure these are attended by all schools, all of the time.
Read our case study on how Flying High Trust developed the capacity, processes and quality assurance for school improvement at scale: MAT Development: the evolution of a MAT-wide school improvement model through growth
Read more about Forum Education’s support for multi-academy trusts, including leadership training, consultancy, and networking: Support, training and resources for multi-academy trusts