What were the main things that struck you during your time as National Schools Commissioner that you hadn’t previously appreciated?
When I took on the job and became based at the DfE in London, rather the South West, I wanted it to be a genuine school improvement role. I was going to be employed as a civil servant, advising ministers and supporting conversations about policy – but would I be able to look myself in the mirror and know that the role was all about helping schools get better? Absolutely.
The Civil Service states that they try to recruit the ‘brightest and the best’, and I saw that all the time. There were a number of people there who’d come out of teaching to join the team, and the quality of the people I worked with, who enabled me to do the job the way I wanted to do it, was really good.
Finally, looking back at the start of that time, I’d never had the opportunity to work with ministers before. I ultimately worked for three Secretaries of State – Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening and Damian Hinds – but also alongside Lord Nash and Lord Agnew, who held the academies brief. That was really exciting, and quite challenging at times, but I was able to build relationships. My advice would be sought; it didn’t feel tokenistic, but genuinely a case of ‘Tell us what you think about this particular issue.’
Was there anything you saw MATs doing in terms of tackling the teacher recruitment issue during your time as NSC that struck you as especially innovative or different?
I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ way for a MAT to manage its recruitment needs – or indeed any single model or blueprint for what a MAT should be. My concern would be that you end up with an approach that prompts people to think, ‘Oh, so that’s how you do it.’ The different contexts, phases and starting points MATs operate within are all hugely important.
That said, there are several things that the MATs I have most faith in consistently do. One is seeing their workforce as a unified entity, and using that to inform decisions on how their most effective practitioners can be deployed for greatest impact. Another thing good MATs do is utilise what can be described as ‘the MAT dividend’; If you’re a MAT of 10 schools, there will be some things which, given sufficient time, funding and capacity, you can do more quickly than any one school can by itself.
The third thing is how they engage with Good and Outstanding maintained schools that are reticent about joining trusts. If those schools have great results and great outcomes, why should they join? One reason is the staffing capacity that the school will bring to the trust, but there can also be an opportunity for the school to pioneer innovative practice and inform the curriculum. Effective trusts will make that clear when asking such schools to join them.
Is there a risk of a zero sum game occurring, where some MATs will be reluctant to part with talented leaders who can potentially boost outcomes elsewhere? Can educational talent and expertise to be distributed more equitably?
There can be a chance that some governors, particularly those who have been with a school for some time prior to it joining a trust, will say ‘You’re not having our teachers.’ Their mindset will still be focused more on the school and pupils they know best, rather than all the kids in the trust. There’s some challenge around that, but I think it’s ultimately for the governance to agree on how its workforce should be deployed.
The second issue is more complicated. Consider some of the high level expertise in the SEN sphere around child psychology or speech and language therapy – with many specialists no longer employed by LAs, some, though not all, will be moving into MATs. What worries me about that is if there’s an area where one individual has been the go-to for speech and language, and they now work for a trust. Will all schools outside the trust no longer have access to that person’s expertise?
One of the challenges to be met here is that a MAT employing a workforce possessing great expertise can contribute to being a system leader. The MAT can be the route through which other schools – which may well never join the trust, for whatever reason – can access the support they need.
There has been some criticism of MATs in terms of the interests represented at their operating level and how they can be held to account, especially by parents. Is the MAT accountability system something that could be tightened up?
Yes. I believe there’s still a sense of confusion amongst many parental bodies about what a MAT is and how it functions. I acknowledge that can be a challenge, but it’s one that the MAT concerned has to solve. One thing I’ve seen some trusts do is produce an annual MAT board report for parents outlining what the MAT does and how it’s money is used, backed up by open meetings. It’s an approach that can be really useful in helping people understand what’s a complex model.
I think there’s a wider issue concerning transparency. One of the problems we have with the system is that people reach their own conclusions about things that may or may not be true. There aren’t hundreds of trusts behaving badly; it’s a very small percentage, but because some aspects of the MAT decision-making process isn’t as clear as people would like it to be, those people will decide for themselves as to whether there’s something going on or not.
That small percentage can still generate a lot of noise. Did you find that tough to manage as an NSC?
It’s true that when things go wrong, as in some recent high profile cases, it can be pretty catastrophic for the schools, communities and children involved. The role I had was one of finding such schools new sponsors, and I see the DfE’s response to the Wakefield City Academies Trust issue as one of its success stories. We managed to find new sponsors for those schools and move them in very quickly, so that by the start of the following academic year, all 21 schools had a new sponsor in place.
The relationship between regional schools commissioners and the ESFA is now much closer and better than it used to be. During the time I worked there, both were working together very effectively on looking into such cases and identifying trusts we should be worried about before things went wrong. I’m not involved any more, but I’ve no doubt that work continues to move at pace.
Graduates from Royal Holloway College in an honours degree in music; proceeds to train as a PE and music teacher
Assumes first headship at Circencester Deer Park School in Gloucestershire
Appointed principal of John Cabot City Technology College
Becomes CEO of the Cabot Learning Federation multi-academy trust
Appointed Regional Schools Commissioner for South-West England; becomes NSC later that year
Joins Ambition School Leadership and the Institute for Teaching