3. Let’s not agree to disagree: alignment about the role of the group

Part 3 of CJK Associates Autumn 2022 blog series #schooltrustcentralservices

In 2017, Ambition commissioned LKMCo (now CfEY) to research study multi academy trust vision, mission, strategy, and operating models.[1] As a partner in this research, working alongside Katy Theobald, Loic Menzies and an impressive team, I had a rare opportunity to rove England talking to trust leaders about their school groups’ journeys, successes and ‘if onlys’.

What emerged was an understanding of the range of school trust views about the role of the group, and how this linked to strategic intent[2]. We found the following:

The green dots are the average response and the lines show the interquartile ranges. So, it seems that collaborative standardisation – the centre’s role in facilitating alignment on best practice via collaboration between practitioners - was a popular choice for most group groups. Whereas a group focus on enrichment whilst leaving core academic work to individual schools elicited a wide range of response, from ‘exactly like us’ to ‘not at all’.

The research did not place any value judgement on whether academic focus, or a broader set of goals, was right, and nor did it seek to say if any of the particular roles of the group shown above are better than others. It was, however, confirmation of the old adage, ‘what gets measured gets done’. Groups with a strong and specific goal relating to academic improvement did indeed show some correlation with improved results; those with more general statements did not.

Since then, my company CJK Associates has used the same research tool to support school groups to develop a strategy. We ask the CEO and their senior executive team, trustees/ governors and headteachers to complete the survey. The striking finding is that the variation in views about the role of the group varies as much within many school groups as it does between them. This is usually because detailed discussions about the role of the group have resulted in fudge and ambiguity, allowing different stakeholders to hold different views. The risk is that this wins the battle of achieving harmony from a strategy day, but loses the war on achieving overall ambitions for students.

To declare my hand here, I am a fan of groups which aim for tight relationships between the centre and the schools, through collaborative standardisation and through seeking to centralise services where that is in the interests of better educational outcomes.

But above that, I am a fan of leaders being honest about the role of the group, and ensuring that strategic goals are realistically set based on that agreement. Let’s not agree to disagree.

Unfortunately this difficult but essential discussion about the role of the centre in a group of schools is not a one-off event. It needs to be revisited as the school group grows and matures through a series of evolutions and revolutions, the topic of the next article.

[1] https://www.ambition.org.uk/research-and-insight/building-trusts/ [2] See Blog 2 for definitions of the terms used here

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