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Juniper Education BP 20210901

Why some Academy Trust leaders fail but most don’t

January 4, 2021, 11:13 GMT+1
Read in 7 minutes
  • Sir David Carter looks at why some Academy Trust leaders fail but most don’t
Why some Academy Trust leaders fail but most don’t

So, you want to be an academy trust leader?

For the past 13 years the academy sector and multi academy trusts in particular have been my professional world. I began my career as a music teacher in 1983 and then spent the next 37 years in the education sector before becoming one of the first Regional Schools Commissioners and then National Schools Commissioner. This journey is the one that inspired me to collaborate with Laura McInerney on the writing of the book Leading Academy Trusts – Why some fail but most don’t, published by John Catt Educational.

If I reflect on my own leadership journey from the point at which I became a headteacher in 1997, I would say that there are three features that the most effective leaders have in their personal portfolios that enable them to make a difference to the lives of the communities that they serve.

  • They understand how to turn the language of moral purpose into the actions that create more socially just communities.
  • They recognise that their core business is school improvement, but that improving the quality of teaching is the only intervention strategy that makes a lasting difference.
  • They value and thrive on the oxygen that meaningful collaboration presents to them, their teams and their schools.

It is these three features that underpin so many of my beliefs about leadership in the academy trust sector and I believe there are six critical factors that, from my experience, create the culture for improvement to be established and maintained.

1. Firstly, we need to understand what a multi-academy trust is and how as an educational charity the organisation operates. The occasional opaqueness in the system about this sometimes confuses parents and staff, and we need to be better at explaining how the structure works. The best starting point for this is that the identification and articulation of the values that underpin the leadership and governance of the trust is essential and if ignored, can create immense challenges around confidence and trust in the organisation and the people who run it.

2. Secondly, the role of the strategic leader, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), is a relatively new one in the system, yet it is the anchor around which the success of the trust revolves. I wanted to explore the difference between single and multiple school leadership and the routes that different leaders have taken to arrive in this role.

3. The third critical area I wanted to focus upon in some detail focuses on the need for trusts to build their school improvement strategies based upon the unique performance challenges of each of their schools. My view is that every school in the country requires improvement and the truth is just a matter of scale and challenge. Whether you are leading one of the most outstanding schools in the country or a school that has been placed in special measures, the need to plan the support and improvement that reflects the trajectory of each school is vitally important.

4. The fourth area that the book addresses flows from this last point and is related to the way that a trust identifies and develops the talent of its workforce. I called this chapter “Why should anyone work for you?” because I wanted to focus not only on the professional nurturing of individuals but also how as an employer, the trust takes care of its workforce and looks after their wellbeing. When such a large percentage of a trust’s budget is allocated to the workforce, why would any credible organisation not have a talent management strategy that helps every adult to be the best professional version of themselves that they can be?

5. Governance is one of the most important aspects of successful trust leadership. When I have seen trusts fail, it is usually down to a failure of governance and leadership. I turn my focus in this section of the book to these four areas:

  • How the trust board builds and develops its strategy
  • .
  • Building a successful board.
  • The scheme of delegation between the board of trustees and the local boards at the academies.
  • The questions that trustees and governors need to ask when focusing on the school improvement capacity of the trust.

6. The final critical area and the last chapter is built around two themes. Firstly, what are the risks that trusts need to focus upon and what might be the mitigations to resolve them?

Developing a healthy attitude towards risk that does not reject creativity and opportunism on the one hand or reduce every decision to a tick list risk register for approval on the other, is the nub of this debate. The second theme is both topical and current and addresses the challenges and priorities that the education sector needs to think hard about as we move towards a post-pandemic era. Schools that are members of strong trusts are, in my view, better prepared than stand-alone schools at building this resilience. Over the past six months some of the barriers between the academy and maintained sectors have been reduced with a different type of collaboration and support becoming evident across the sector.

So there it is! A leadership journey and one that I hope others will find helpful.


Five tips for leading a multi academy trust

1. Make sure that the trust has a clear set of values and behaviours that drives the culture and decision making processes across the organisation. Setting the tone for the most important behaviours between adults and adults and children helps to embed the practices that lead to sustainable improvement.

2. Build a school improvement strategy that takes as its starting point the exact stage on the improvement cycle that each school in the trust has reached. Make sure that the support from the trust is responsive to the needs of each individual school.

3. Reinforce the message that the trust is responsible for every child’s educational outcomes and safety and the development and progression of every adult employed. The trust is its schools and the schools are the reflection of the trust.

4. Governance should be open, transparent, challenging and supportive. Everyone engaged in governing across the trust needs to be clear about their role and the responsibilities delegated to them.

5. The trust has to be a focus for collaborative energy. The most effective staff should have the chance to have a positive impact on as many children as possible and the best ideas that work should be shared and embedded widely so that all children benefit from the best thinking and strategies available.


Sir David Carter, former National Schools Commissioner and author of Leading Academy Trusts - Why some fail but most don’t with Laura McInerney.