Trust CEO Richard Sheriff says that whatever educational structure you lead, as long as it strives to improve the lives of young people then it will always be a success. Here, he shares insights into how his trust works in partnership with all its schools, supporting one another.
Since becoming a multiacademy trust (MAT) CEO I’ve avoided answering the “What do you do for a living?” question for fear of being branded a megalomaniac or just being met with a look of confusion. Just what are MATs? There are now over 1,500 MATs, each with different values and ways of operating. I can only comment on the Red Kite Learning Trust. It’ll come as no surprise that as a former ASCL president I believe ethical leadership is a prerequisite for any organisation, whatever it is called. I’m certainly not a zealot for MATs or any other structure; I just hope that whatever the structure, it is rooted in appropriate values and a focus on improving the lives of young people.
The Red Kite Learning Trust is a partnership of 13 schools spanning Leeds and North Yorkshire, with over 8,000 children and 1,300 staff. We have no ambition to become huge; ‘not big but brilliant’ is our informal motto. One of our strengths is undoubtedly our diversity; we have schools serving some of the most socially disadvantaged parts of our region and in areas of comparative advantage. With nine primaries and four secondary schools, one of which is an all-through school, we cater for children from the ages of 2 to 19, and all are important to us. Our mission is simply “nurturing ambition, delivering excellence and enriching children’s lives” and our values are the foundation on which our trust is built.
As CEO, my role is to see that these values are lived out in our work together as a charitable trust. My duty is to support our headteachers and principals, to help them make their school successful for every child. I’ve always seen the trust as the bottom of an inverted pyramid, not the top. Supportive but not dominant.
Having a great headteacher or principal in every school is fundamental to our work. We’ve avoided a more centralised approach with ‘heads of school’ working for an executive leader. Rather, we are led by an executive group of key decision makers in our trust, made up of headteachers/ principals and a small ‘core team’, including myself, Director of Primary, CFO, Estates Director and HR Director. Our schools all have a local governing body with delegated powers, although we’re experimenting with some shared local governance where this is appropriate to the context. School leaders and governors in our trust are also trust leaders. They ensure each school is represented and consulted and contributes to our shared goals.
The reason is simple: we believe schools and their communities do better when they’re directed by people who really know the local context, are passionate about making a difference and have the freedom and authority to get on with the job. We harness the talent across our schools to ensure we can all help one another to continually improve. To develop these skills, we also reach beyond our trust, using the Teaching School Hub and Alliance to ensure we are all plugged into a wider network for support, challenge and ideas.
However, this does not mean that our school leaders have the freedom to fail. Appointing people with the right values and motivation to lead is the first step in making all our schools truly ‘outstanding’. Throughout their time with the Red Kite Learning Trust, we try our best to support our school leaders with everything from their own wellbeing and development to dealing with the trickiest of parental complaints and the scary crisis situations. Leading a school when you are completely autonomous can make leaders feel isolated and vulnerable. Our trust environment provides the guaranteed support, professional generosity and backup from peers and colleagues.
As one of the headteachers in our trust, Caroline Johnson, puts it, “I know everyone has challenges in their school but knowing I can reach out across our trust is wonderful – we can solve anything together.”
At the Red Kite, we don’t impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of curriculum; the education inspection framework (EIF) provides standards to which we work, but each school can take its own route to excellence. Of course, we do need to provide challenge and have an accurate view of what the ‘quality of education’ is like in each school, but we try to do this in a way that doesn’t create extra work or perverse incentives. We are currently working together on a school data dashboard that will automatically update with information drawn from our shared management information systems; technological innovation is one of our trust goals.
As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to appoint several ‘subject directors’ across the trust. Still based in the classroom, they have additional time allocated to co-ordinate collaborative work that will ensure every child has access to the ambitious, inclusive and broad curriculum that all our children deserve.
Centralising some basic systems allows our school leaders to focus on the quality of education while at the same time ensuring that trustees meet their statutory obligations, particularly in the case of financial oversight and staff care. After widespread consultations, we introduced shared finance, HR, compliance and IT systems. This enables us to communicate and collaborate easily, solve problems together, share capacity, ensure children and staff are kept safe and work to be the ‘employer of choice’. Together, we work hard to make the best use of the limited funding available to us. If one school is struggling financially, we stand shoulder to shoulder, using our combined reserves to give them time to recover.
We’re still learning, growing and developing. People across our trust, including young people, are bringing forward ideas on how we can do more and travel further together. One example is a commitment to become a ‘Net Zero’ organisation by 2030, a response to calls from colleagues and our young people to face up to the climate emergency. Pooling knowledge, experience and capacity over a wider group of schools within an ethical, collaborative and supportive framework is making a difference for children.
Our ‘school improvement strategy’ is simple: everything we do, whoever we are and whatever role we perform, must be about making schools and learning better for the children we serve. Together we are stronger.
CEO of the Red Kite Trust and former ASCL President