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4. Evolution and revolution: inflexion points in the growth of school groups

Part 4 of CJK Associates Autumn 2022 blog series #schooltrustcentralservices

In the ‘Greiner Growth Model’[1], Professor Greiner observed that in fast growing organisations, the management practices that were ideal in one phase of growth may eventually bring on a crisis as the organisation outgrows them. The revolution caused by this crisis creates a new model of management. This model (with some suitable adaptation to fit the context of schools) is quite good at describing the journeys of fast-growing school groups.

Phase 1: Creativity

A small and young organisation feeds off its creativity. In a small school group this might comprise an Executive Headteacher coaching, supporting and intervening if needed, alongside one or two other schools. There’s limited consolidation.

As the group increases to 5 or more schools, the creativity which powered growth leads to a crisis. A lack of shared systems limits information; it’s hard to know what the risks are and whether they are being managed; poor financial or education performance is difficult to correct. This is turning into a ‘crisis of leadership’. The role of the centre must undergo revolution if the group is to succeed.

Phase 2: Direction

Structures are put in place, with central professional leads for finance, HR, estates and technology, as well as more structure around school improvement.

As the trust reaches 10-15 schools, new problems emerge. The central teams are working alongside the original school-based teams, so the overall model is getting expensive. There’s lots of directions about compliance, but too few people to deliver it. Students are not studying same curriculum in the same term, so although there’s lots of data, and plenty of ‘collaboration’ meetings, these are not always useful and can become a bolt-on to individual and school-based activity. This is turning into a full-blown crisis of efficiency.

Phase 3: Coordination

The trust puts in place full shared services for its operations, centralising activities that don’t need to be local, providing remote support where possible, and on-site teams where appropriate. This has removed costly duplication and speeded up decision making. Education is co-ordinated in clusters of schools, within common trust-wide systems, standards, and schemes of work.

However, as the trust grows to 20-25 schools its newly-formed shared services start to feel remote and unresponsive compared to the previous on-site teams. In addition, regional clusters grow and start to create another layer of rule setting. Trusts may hear headteachers complain that “central educational advice keeps turning into another ‘must do’ in our cluster”. A crisis of effectiveness has arrived.

Phase 4: Collaboration

The trust recognises that “you can’t mandate greatness”. The emphasis now is on building systems, processes and policies to support purposeful collaboration. This supports the growth of teams which are focused on improvement allowing experiments to be tried out collaboration to grow. Management must support individuals and teams to be highly aligned to the vision and then encourage groups which will self-identify and form to tackle a problem. The shared services mature, becoming more responsive, school-focused, and highly accountable for their support to schools, whilst also ensuring central requirements for compliance are met.

A final barrier emerges when the trust reaches a maximum size based on individual schools joining, a crisis of growth.

Phase 4: Trust mergers

There is plenty of advice on the sorts of legal, premises and educational due diligence two trusts should go through when considering a merger. However, in my experience a significant challenge here is actually a crisis of identity. The trusts may be at very different stages of maturity. Time is needed to create shared values behaviours and to adapt to new expectations. A review of the current service arrangements in both trusts, and a fresh design of the future ones, may be needed.

We have seen that in each of these phases of growth, the trust needs to revisit its previous decisions about its operating model, starting with self-review, the topic the next article, ‘To see ourselves as others see us’.

[1] First published by Larry E Greiner, Professor Emeritus of Management and Organization at the University of Southern California (United States) in 1972.

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