How can MATs develop a high-performance culture?
Many multi-academy trusts are now well established since the introduction of the academy system in 2000 and seeking to develop and sustain a culture of high-performance across their schools.
By shifting their thinking and looking towards the long term, they can initiate significant change and secure greater impact that lasts.
A focus on ‘why’
Creating a high-performance culture in a MAT requires leaders to be able to affect large scale organisational change. ‘Great’ looks like lots of different things.
The key thing that underpins this is a clear and compelling vision that is shaped, owned and driven by the whole organisation.
Change has to be authentic and underpinned by belief and strong values. It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters why you do it.
As MATs mature, the vision for the trust and ‘why’ provide a clear sense of purpose and direction for the long term so that improvement is sustainable.
From good to great
When a MAT is first established, creating a sense of trust in its broadest terms can be challenging for leaders. Getting different schools and different leaders on the same page can be incredibly difficult.
Often for new MATs, the focus for leaders is on setting out expectations and securing compliance and consistency within and across schools.
Compliance and consistency are necessary, and they can certainly get you to good, but they will rarely get you to great.
To get to great, leaders need to secure the commitment and effort of key stakeholders. That shift from compliance to commitment for more mature trusts is critical in terms of securing high performance culture.
Members of the trust need to feel a sense of identity, pride and belonging, acting as one workforce. This requires more than a name change or change of uniform and branding, it is about bringing people together to create connections and build understanding.
Good examples of this are where MATs invest in shared professional development or where they celebrate successes collectively.
It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters why you do it
People and process
Being united is important in securing a high-performance culture and as MATs grow and develop, they understand the importance of bringing together processes and people.
In large organisations, implementing effective and efficient processes, systems and infrastructures is critical if the organisation is to run smoothly on a day-to-day basis.
In a culture where staff wellbeing is a high priority and the focus is on teaching and learning, it is important that processes and systems work for the people who are using them.
They need to be developed to ensure that communication is effective and that there is a genuine dialogue about continuous improvement.
Where the systems are perceived as ‘another job’ and are underpinned by a process driven mentality, the result is often disaffection and frustration.
To achieve a high-performance culture, systems and processes enable leaders and teachers to focus on learning and improvement. They are:
In their paper, What makes great teaching? Robert Coe et al are clear that ‘Great teaching is defined as that which leads to improved student progress.’
It is often mature trusts who have taken this on, recognising that investing significantly in teacher effectiveness is the most effective way to improve the quality of learning and progress.
They increasingly use research to inform, deepen and develop teacher’s subject knowledge and their pedagogical content knowledge.
Promoting professional learning is an integral part of this where teachers are provided with rich informal and formal opportunities to develop and engage in further improving their practice.
In his book, Leadership of Teacher Learning, Dylan Wiliam amplifies this stating that ‘the main job of school leaders is to improve the work performance of those they lead.’
He says the starting point for this must be to improve the effectiveness of the current or existing workforce. To ensure improved student progress, a trust-wide approach to improving teacher effectiveness is the key to unlocking student achievement.
Monitoring, evaulation and development
Monitoring is often used as a tool to check that things are being done, with copious amounts of data and information collected.
Key stakeholders are sometimes not involved in it; it is done to them. However, the data and information collected is redundant if leaders and teachers do nothing with it.
A key shift for MATs as they evolve is to ensure that monitoring leads to honest, careful, critical, balanced and shared evaluation. That processes are not simply being followed for process sake.
This will help leaders and teachers to evaluate whether the impact of initiatives and interventions is positive, negative or neutral.
Evaluation should then inform how they respond to the findings and identify next steps or opportunities for development.
Finding time for evaluation in a school and a trust can be challenging. The challenge for leaders is to move from busyness to effectiveness, and to recognise that rapid improvement is often achieved by slowing things down.
Longer term gains are secured through long term strategic planning so that improvement is measured over the longer term. This often leads to a far less reactive approach.
The importance of governance is pivotal in terms of strategic direction, holding leaders to account and financial oversight.
A key feature of more mature MATs are clear distinctions in terms of the roles and responsibilities of members, trustees and local board members. Although it could be argued that this is critical for all trusts, it is often identified as an area for development in emergent trusts.
This sits alongside a clear scheme of delegation so that all layers of leadership understand their responsibilities and accountabilities. In larger trusts, this is critical in terms of avoiding duplication of work and ensuring that lines of accountability are not blurred.
Undertaking skills audits can help to achieve this. Skills audits will ensure that trustees, members and local board members have the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding to carry out their roles effectively.
As MATs grow, the importance of looking beyond themselves is critical. In education, we focus heavily on independence, yet interdependence is essential if trusts are to be dynamic and prepare learners for the increasingly complex world in which we live.
My international experience would suggest that in the UK, a stronger focus on developing the whole child, nurturing both the hard and soft skills that they need would be beneficial.
We need to foster an understanding of learning and high performance that values, yet goes beyond, qualifications.