I’ve been asked often what drove me to become a CEO of a trust, and I’ve always found that whatever I say in response sounds trite. I didn’t set out to become a CEO; I set out to teach.
I always liked school. I certainly wasn’t a child that stood out, but I did okay. I loved sport and I loved competing. I was the first person in my family to experience further education, and it changed my life. My love of teaching – along with an extraordinary amount of luck being in the right place at the right time, with wonderful people having faith in me – helped me progress through a series of teaching and leadership roles, and to set up a teaching school.
At every stage, I’ve been determined to make a positive difference. That’s what drives me. Things can move very slowly in education, which has certainly frustrated me at times. As a CEO, alongside my amazing team at Transform, my role gives me the opportunity to ensure our schools are improving constantly, and our children, families and staff are benefitting as a result.
Early in my career, an experienced educator told me that children from disadvantaged communities are less likely to be accepted through each stage of selection post 18 – whether that be university or employment – not because of their examination results or their ability to study or do the job well, but because of little gaps in their knowledge such as what to wear, how to conduct themselves in conversation, how to be on time, how to make the most of every opportunity. This resonated with me. How can that be fair?
I’m not here to make children’s lives better, and I’m certainly not here to churn out satisfactory statistics. I don’t believe anyone has the right to impose their values on the rich and diverse communities that abound. I’ve witnessed the most troubled communities rooted in love and passion. My job is to harness that love and work with families so we can let children be children; adulthood and responsibility come very quickly. Children need to be happy and have self-belief first. Of course, it’s also my job to ensure our pupils reach national expectations, and they do, but that’s just the day job.
Transform children are streetwise, are fully integrated, and have an abundance of love and care for each other. I’m not labelling them or communities in terms of deficit modelling. I’m interested in identifying the gaps in their knowledge and life experience, and ensuring we do our best to fill them. Yes, I want our children to leave with good results, but I also want them to understand how to be the best versions of themselves and appreciate what it means to be a good community citizen.
At Transform we give every child equal opportunities and encouragement, so they truly believe they have the same chances in life as anyone. They all get real-life experiences: if our summer curriculum is about the seaside, we take them there. Many haven’t ever been prior to our school trip, so how can we expect them to write as passionately as those who have? Our children are encouraged to challenge themselves.
They’re given opportunities to participate in school-level debates and decision-making processes, and are encouraged to join the trust’s Children’s Parliament, where they discuss real community issues and become confident orators. They’re also given the opportunity to compete at school, trust, regional and national levels. They all have access to a full extracurricular calendar of activities.
This month, our Sneinton primary school was one of just five schools in the UK to be awarded World Class status – an accolade won by the children themselves due to their leadership skills. This success is celebrated across the trust and is already inspiring our next cohort of young leaders.
There’s no point putting sticking plasters on issues; we need to get to the root. Education must play its part. We have to change the narrative and take meaningful action at a trust and sector level. We have a culture of respect at Transform, and this enables us to have difficult conversations, which is essential in aligning our thoughts and behaviours, and pinpointing areas for improvement.
Path to improvement
The schools within our portfolio are on an improvement journey. Some joined us with ‘good’ Ofsteds, some in special measures. But across all there are shining examples of excellence, and I’m proud of the education we’re delivering. Some of the schools had been struggling with low aspiration and poor academic achievement – but these weren’t broken schools, they just needed support: leadership, or other resources.
The schools that have come to us as ‘good’ have equally benefitted with the extra resources we could share. Being part of a family has afforded them access to many examples of best practice, and they are already setting ‘outstanding’ as their goal – in every sense of the word.
As a trust, we’re always looking at ways to encourage accountability and support our schools in making accurate teacher assessment judgements. Our recent writing competition, initiated by rising stars of the trust Helen Fordham and Rachel Meli, both associate heads, was centred around the book Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth, written during lockdown by Oliver Jeffers, who wanted to “try and make sense of it all” for his newborn child.
We invited all 6,700 children to pen letters, inspired by his story, offering words of encouragement and support for an alien, ‘Tralis’, visiting planet earth. We received 6,700 entries! Using comparative judgement, we’ve been able to use this to assess and benchmark our schools’ and pupils’ writing progress while giving children the opportunity to share their reflections – not only across our schools, but with the author and, for our winners, the local press!
This is just one example highlighting the awareness, creativity and talent of our exceptional young people and the lengths our staff go to create rich learning opportunities. There’s still much to do, but we’re determined that our children go out into the world aspiring (and equipped) to reach their own desired level.
What you can do
These are just a few things I try to remember every day:
- Understand your ‘why’ and keep it at the forefront of your decision-making
- Communication is key – share your ‘why’ effectively and consistently
- Choose your team wisely – select and develop role models, inspirational leaders and supportive team players. Transform is people-focused; we recruit personalities and provide training and support to develop
- Accountability – everyone needs to sign up and be prepared to ask and answer tough questions
- Leadership must be developed and celebrated in the classroom, staff room and boardroom
- Identify the gaps in children’s learning and development, and fill them – they may not be academic
- Provide life experiences and a varied timetable of extracurricular activities
- Don’t use sticking plasters to solve a problem – get to the root and start from there
- No ceilings (and no excuses)
- Regardless of context or school improvement journey, everyone has something to offer/celebrate
- Believe it – don’t pay lip service
Rebecca Meredith is the CEO of Transform Trust, which has grown to 19 primary schools across Nottingham and Derby.