MATs: Building positive relationships

Written by: Leora Cruddas | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a world of multi-academy trusts, there is a new onus on how federations and trusts must build positive relationships and collaboration within and across their schools. Leora Cruddas looks at approaches that are emerging

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) need to ensure all the schools in their group are engaged in a shared vision for the future and that means keeping everyone on board during times of change.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No-one is quite sure who first came up with this phrase – Aristotle perhaps, or another great thinker – but in my view it captures the concept of the MAT rather well.

By sharing skills, knowledge and experience, trusts can get schools working together to achieve the best outcomes for pupils – and that seems like a powerful philosophy to me.

But encouraging collaboration between schools, and introducing a more centralised approach to some of the back-office processes can involve a change in a school’s way of working.

Helping staff to understand these changes, and put their own weight behind them, is critical in engaging school level staff in a trust’s direction of travel. So what steps are trusts taking to engage with their schools?

Building an effective communications plan

Whatever the shape, size or structure of your trust, good communication needs to be at the very heart of the organisation. An informed communications strategy helps to send positive messages out to people across a trust.

Daniel Moore is finance director at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic MAT. In his experience, a multi-channel approach to trust-wide communication works best.

He explained: “We have learnt how to do this as we have grown. We now have fortnightly headteacher briefings, news bulletins and promote all our good news and success stories.”

His advice is straightforward: “Plan out where you want to be in the end – allow plenty of time and try not to rush it. The key thing is to get as many people on board as possible.”

For a MAT that is going through a period of change, communication takes on a whole new level of importance. Some staff members could be feeling apprehensive about the direction a trust is taking, and keeping them in the loop with developments can go a long way towards allaying their concerns.

According to Sarah Appleby, finance director of the River Learning Trust in Oxfordshire: “If there’s a benefit, there’s no reason why people won’t buy into it.

“You need to understand how the system currently works, what the benefit is of changing it and if there are any unintended consequences that might throw a spanner in the works.

“So we make sure we have talked to people and made sure they understand why we think the change would be beneficial.”
Showing people they are valued

People are a school’s – and a trust’s – most valuable resource. So it makes sense for a trust to demonstrate to staff that their talents, skills and hard work are recognised.

One of the major benefits of being part of a MAT is that some degree of trust-wide centralisation can free staff to focus on their core roles within a school rather than spending time on budgeting, procurement or administration. Having the support of a trust behind them can help to restore people’s work/life balance while enabling them to shine in the classroom.

Ms Appleby considers this approach to be fundamental to staff wellbeing: “Our staff work incredibly long hours and are so dedicated. If we can save them 10 minutes in the day – every day – by centralising a process so they no longer have to do it, that means they have got a slightly better work/life balance.

“If you times that 10 minutes over 20 schools, we are all then moving towards the same outcome,” she continued. “Whether it’s the school business manager’s wellbeing, or more money and time to spend on actually teaching children, it all leads to happier staff and happier pupils.”

Ultimately, most school staff want to do the job they trained for and to feel valued for doing it. As Mr Moore told me: “It’s about making their job easier – letting them focus on education and school standards – the important elements of their role rather than being bogged down by finance.”

Tapping into local expertise

While all the schools in a group work together to achieve the best outcomes for pupils, each is also a goldmine of knowledge and expertise. By accessing local intelligence, executive leaders engage school leaders and teachers in the future of the trust.

It is an approach that works well at the River Learning Trust: “We blend the local knowledge that the school has, which is invaluable, with the technical and accounting knowledge of the central school business partner,” Ms Appleby explained.

“Our structure has several school business partners spread across the trust who each work with six or seven schools so that they retain local knowledge.”

Naturally, each trust is different, and some have more centralised structures than others. But harnessing the power of school-level intelligence is an effective way to cement positive relationships across the trust.

Sharing the trust’s vision

With these strong relationships in place, it becomes easier to encourage schools to join forces to work towards one, overarching vision. But this can only be achieved by engaging schools with each step of the journey there.

For instance, to improve outcomes for pupils, it may be necessary to focus on specific subject areas, or find better ways to manage data.

Sharing objectives with schools right from the start is crucial because, as Ms Appleby said: “You can have the best idea in the world, or the best system, but if people haven’t bought into it – it will fail.”

For Mr Moore, the process of celebrating on-going achievements is an effective way to gain that buy-in. “It’s about winning hearts and minds, so whenever something works, like when we make a saving through pooling our purchasing might, we make sure everyone knows about it.

“These small wins allow trust members to see the advantages of being part of a bigger group on a daily and weekly basis, and this is how you start to get everyone on board.”

Conclusion

Each of these four steps are strengthening relationships between and among schools in a trust, thereby creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts and a powerful force with a shared common goal – better outcomes for children and young people. 

  • Leora Cruddas is CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts. The views in this article are explored in greater depth in the PS Financials paper, Checks and Balance, which can be downloaded from www.psfinancials.com/checksandbalance


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