Small but Strong

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Autumn Term 1 2022

Small multi-academy trusts (MATs) can collaborate effectively, share and apply good practice in agile fashion, and stay connected to their communities, says CEO and Executive Head Tracey Hemming. And it makes them strong.

In DfE terms, Middlesex Learning Partnership (MLP) is a small MAT, made up of 3,000 pupils spread across three academies. We are led by trustees and governors whose hearts are in the community. We’ve achieved well with two of our academies and are making considerable progress with the third. We have received highly complimentary letters from the Regional Schools Commissioner’s office following our health checks and have developed a reputation for high academic standards. 

Like, I suspect, many small trusts, we are looking at the DfE goal, set out in the schools white paper, of moving all schools into ‘strong academy trusts’ by 2030 (bit.ly/3uJKRIx) with some trepidation. Many of us have, under the radar, created what I would term ‘strong community trusts’; we responded brilliantly to difficult contexts over the last couple of years, emerging stronger and more united, if somewhat fatigued. 

What is the future for these committed MATs in the DfE’s vision? Growth? Merger or takeover? What is the definition of a ‘strong trust’? What are the metrics? What is being measured? 

Caring for our staff 
I believe that ours is a strong trust, even if it’s not currently where the DfE wants us to be by 2030. Our strength lies in the way we respond to our community and in our determination to do the right things for the right reasons. We put our energy into listening to and caring for our staff, being authentic, collaborating and keeping true to our mission to transform the lives of our young people through education. Those are my metrics. 

I have first-hand experience of trusts where systems and procedures override the kind of values we hold here, and we are determined to avoid this happening to us. At MLP, we keep collaboration valuable and authentic. We’ve agreed our own criteria for initiatives that are to be prioritised for inclusion in our plan for working together. The criteria are encapsulated in our guiding questions, such as:

  • Will this enable schools to achieve their goals while enabling the collective good?
  • Will this have a positive impact on staff and students?
  • Is this information essential to support and develop the academies and ensure compliance? 

Nothing is done merely for the sake of it. Based upon these guiding questions, I held a conference of all senior leaders and trustees and together we created the trust collaboration plan for 2021/22 (see diagram). As we approach the end of the academic year, we can clearly see substantial, practical improvements in the practice of the academies. 

Driven by hubs 
We are a small trust with limited resources, yet we have been able to achieve our goals and drive improvement very effectively. The key to success lies in the way our developments are driven by hubs, bringing together those who are best able to share their practice with those who are most affected and who, therefore, are most likely to commit to positive change. It means that leaders at all levels are exposed to the whole picture, broadening their outlook and encouraging them to look outward. And it raises the question of whether a larger trust – with another layer of trust executives – could deliver the same level of participation and development. 

Key examples of this collaboration are our knowledge exchange hubs, the findings of which led us to rewrite the Year 5/6/7 curriculum in line with our aim to create an all-through curriculum. Maths, in particular, has benefited from close, cross-phase practice sharing. Very productive relationships mean that connections are happening naturally rather than being directed. In my book, this is a sure sign that things are working collaboratively. 

Our leadership conferences are another area where success is strengthening leadership across the trust. We have focused on introducing Steve Radcliffe’s Leadership: Plain and Simple, using our learning from the FED (Future – Engage – Deliver) (bit.ly/3ID5ifY) model to create a common leadership language across the trust. These regular cross-trust meetings have also produced high-quality collaboration, as well as far stronger connections between senior and middle leaders. 

As a small trust, we can get together on our Inset days. All 350 staff recently participated in a FED session together, aimed at emphasising the benefits of looking after yourself and your colleagues by ‘being at your best’. 

Poetry slam 
Another of our objectives focuses on improvement of oracy, so often an issue in areas of deprivation. Teams in the three schools jointly came up with the idea of a poetry slam. Again, as a small trust, we were able to facilitate whole year groups coming together to hear the extraordinary standard of poetry produced by their Year 5, 6 and 7 peers. They had an experience they will not forget, and we have published a book of their excellent poetry. During our recent challenge partner quality assurance reviews, the poetry slam was mentioned enthusiastically in student voice meetings. As a follow-up, there is to be a short story competition in September using a similar format. 

These are some of the positives of a small, local and agile trust, though there are inevitably some disadvantages, too. Economies of scale would be greater with more schools and, as a small central team, we could each wear fewer hats if there were more of us. Similarly, our executive team of leaders would be enriched by new voices and ideas. 

Whatever the eventual definition of a ‘strong trust’, whether it be ten schools or 50, we’ll always believe that the right size is the right size to serve its community. We value what we do now; we think we are providing a very strong standard of education and would want schools who choose to join us to hold those values high. 

Tracey Hemming
CEO and Executive Head of Middlesex Learning Partnership.
@TraceyHemming1

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