The school improvement journey

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:
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Peter Rubery took a leading role in supporting two struggling local schools to improve soon after he became the CEO of a new MAT. He shares his story with Liam Donnison

For Peter Rubery working with other local schools and helping them rapidly improve was a major motivation to establish the Fallibroome Trust, a multi-academy trust (MAT) in Macclesfield, Cheshire.

The establishment of the MAT in September 2014 coincided with Peter’s 21st year of headship: “The motivation for creating a MAT was driven by moral purpose and a degree of self-interest,” explained Peter, who was head of the lead school, Fallibroome Academy.

“We persuaded our governors that taking a lead role in the school-to-school support agenda was the best way of creating continuous improvement at Fallibroome. It was also the right thing to do for a system where local authorities had a much-diminished role.”

Requests from the Department for Education (DfE) to sponsor a struggling local primary and secondary soon followed. Both schools were in disadvantaged areas and had similar challenges: more than half the pupils in each school attracted Pupil Premium, outcomes were below floor standards and there were falling rolls, budget overspending and consecutive “requires improvement” Ofsted judgements.

Peter says he learned valuable leadership lessons from the support work: “The role of CEO is very different from headship or executive headship and it is not a given that success as a head will lead to success as a CEO,” he said.

“The hardest task is to relinquish operational control, particularly if you lead a successful school from which the trust evolves, as I did. You also have to remember that micro-management of multiple schools is usually a recipe for failure and ill-health. The task for me and other leaders is to build capacity in governance, leadership, business skills and teaching expertise in a variety of contexts. This can only be achieved by communicating a clear vision, underpinned by compelling values and delivered in a climate of trust.”

So what steps did Peter and his team take to support the two struggling schools?

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“The key to making good decisions was the due diligence process. The newly established trust board included former and some current governors who had a range of business and risk management experience. They expected reports that confronted the brutal facts and clarified the costs and benefits of taking responsibility for schools that had a legacy of underperformance and overspending.

“A new trust business team gathered this information and experienced senior and middle leaders scrutinised all the available data. They conducted interviews and observations and pulled no punches in exposing weaknesses and identifying strengths that could be shared. This was sensitive work and I had an oversight role, setting out a way of working that would meet our objectives of providing reliable data, as well as building the relationships we needed to ensure the improvement happened.”

Ask tough questions

“Quality of governance, quality of leadership and quality of teaching and learning are the three pillars of school performance, so it was unsurprising to find that both schools had deficits in these areas.
“It was important for us to ask difficult questions of both governing bodies, such as why they had allowed each school to overspend and underperform, and why school leaders had failed to acknowledge the factors contributing to declining outcomes and failed to take necessary remedial action.

“DfE intervention through the then newly established Regional Schools’ Commissioner, gave us the authority we needed to ask the necessary questions and take action. The maintenance of a spirit of collaboration between the trust, each governing body, the DfE and the Education Funding Agency became my key leadership challenge as CEO.”

Move quickly, move carefully

“Preparing the budget planning and restructure proposals were the next challenge. The presentation of a recovery plan to the EFA, with a secure calculation of the cost of deficit reduction and on-going pay protection was a complex but necessary exercise. Once approved it was the human scale of such a programme that tested management capability and required HR expertise in the trust team.

“We strengthened governance at the secondary school by the secondment of a trustee with business project management expertise and supported a change of leadership. The primary’s governing body was dissolved and an interim executive board (IEB) that included two trustees in leadership and support roles, was established. We stepped up training and coaching in teaching and learning strategies, delivered by staff from across the trust, and introduced an enhanced performance management process.

“Our aim was to build the leadership and management capacity of each school so they could take ownership of the agenda and effectively run themselves again. Timing was a key consideration here – how long should the board of directors allow for improvement before taking further action? The litmus test for us was children’s life chances that had already been affected by a legacy of poor provision and it wouldn’t be acceptable for another cohort to be disadvantaged, so we decided to set a 12-month timescale.”

Keep a close eye on the data

“Our business plan and strategic plan had three simple performance indicators: improved outcomes, increased pupil numbers, and budget stability. The tough decision was to decide between degrees of prescription and autonomy.

“The secondary was inspected 18 months after joining the trust and received a very strong ‘good’ judgement. Community confidence grew, and the year 7 in-take went up from 157 to 210. It was a similar story at the primary – with new leadership in place and a positive inspection report in early 2017 the roll doubled, and impressive key stage 2 outcomes placed it in the top five per cent of schools for progress in maths in the country.

“It is clear that both schools, working within the supportive environment of our trust, have become attractive places to work. The recruitment of high-quality professionals who want the challenge of working in disadvantaged communities and recognise the career opportunities presented by the trust, has been a hugely satisfying result. The trust’s reputation for generating school improvement through peer support and collaboration has also been enhanced. As a trust we’ve doubled in size since inception with four schools joining us and two more in the pipeline.”

  • Liam Donnison is director of Best Practice Network, a UK provider of professional development and support for education professionals. Peter Rubery’s insights form part of the new National Professional Qualifications for Executive Leadership – part of the suite of NPQs delivered by Outstanding Leaders Partnership in partnership with Best Practice Network. Visit www.outstandingleaders.org and www.bestpracticenet.co.uk


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