This is the second part of an excerpt from SSAT on Leading by Sue Williamson. Read part one.
Stages of decline: hubris
Collins’s stage 1 is hubris born of success. He argues that successful businesses can become insulated by success and that accumulated momentum can carry an enterprise forward even when leaders are making poor decisions. People become arrogant, seeing success as virtually an entitlement, and lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place. Collins writes: “Luck and chance play a role in many successful outcomes, and those who fail to acknowledge the role luck may have played in their success – and thereby overestimate their own merit and capabilities – have succumbed to hubris.”
Headteachers need to decide whether to support or take on other schools at the right time for their school. Also, answering the difficult questions – am I a leader who is good at turn- ing round failing schools, or one that is better in setting up a new school? Is success truly embedded and is the leadership capacity and quality good enough to ensure that the school remains outstanding? As a leader of a MAT, it is essential that the trust has a carefully thought-out growth strategy. Saying no can be difficult, but as we have seen, successful heads can soon be seen as unsuccessful and they lose all that has been created.
Susan Jowett describes George Spencer’s growth strategy: “It’s evolving as we respond to changes in demand, government policy and the sustainability of the trust. Originally the trust started in response to our feeder schools wanting to make a more formal arrangement with George Spencer School, cementing the good and innovative practice that was taking place in curriculum development and CPD. After the successful sponsorship of Wyndham Primary Academy, working closely with the newly appointed headteacher to take the school from serious weakness to outstanding, we were asked to support more schools in categories.
“Our strategy is to have a portfolio of local primary and secondary schools with a blend of Ofsted grades for sustained support. The growth strategy is based on the principles of the trust being large enough to maximise economies of scale; yet small enough to deliver an effective personalised service for each school, where we know the staff and students well and can respond quickly to their needs. We are rethinking the best delivery mechanisms to deliver those principles.”
The growth strategy is based on the trust being large enough for economies of scale; yet small enough for an effective personalised service.
Susan highlights one driver for taking on additional schools – the affordability of an infra-structure that supports member schools and saves on back-office costs.
Dave Baker says:
“I believe strongly that taking time to consolidate each stage of growth for a MAT is vital before looking to grow again. Our trust is built on strong relationships locally and has relied on schools approaching us about joining rather than vice versa. We have developed and articulated a growth strategy, which was a really useful process to go through with the board of directors, even though the actual growth strategy document was out of date within minutes of being published!”
In reality, MATs tend to respond to demand from schools and regional schools commissioners. Where there are keen joiners it is usually an easy decision to make about entry, but probably more difficult when it is a forced union. The chief executive and the trustees need to know the capabilities, capacity and strengths of the organisation to inform decision making. Also to balance the need for additional funding for infrastructure/central costs against the ability to deliver. For the headteacher and the executive headteacher the tough question is: am I the right person to lead the next stage of the journey?
Undisciplined pursuit of more
This leads nicely to Collins’s stage 2: undisciplined pursuit of more – more scale, more growth, more acclaim, more of what- ever those in power see as success. We saw in the early days of sponsored academies how the DfE encouraged sponsors to take on as many schools as possible. Schools in difficulties had ‘beauty parades’ of potential sponsors and often made the decision to go with a particular sponsor for the wrong reason (eg the sponsor who would interfere the least).
Some sponsors took on too many schools and then were named and shamed about performance and eventually had schools taken from them. Linked to any growth strategy has to be a development programme for staff, including leadership development and a proactive approach to recruiting the right people (“getting the right people on the bus”). Sponsors such as Outwood and Harris are particularly successful in building capacity.
Denial of risk and peril
Unless there is a realistic assessment of capacity and sufficient leadership capacity at all levels, a MAT can take on one school too many. Collins’s stage 3 gives one reason for this: denial of risk and peril; where organisations ignore the warning signs, or persuade themselves that the difficulties are temporary or cyclic. In Stage 3 leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. A corollary of this is that the leaders start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibilities. “The vigorous, fact-based dialogue that characterises high-performance teams dwindles or disappears altogether,” as Collins puts it.
As a chief executive in a MAT it is important to have systems that help early identification of areas that are struggling, so that supportive interventions can be made. It is equally important not to have too much data, which deflects from the root causes of difficulty.
In a MAT there is clearly a role for trustees to challenge the senior leadership team, but it does require high quality trustees, who know the right questions to ask and can see clearly the difference between relevant external factors and excuses. In our current system, we also have the regional schools commissioners, whose role is to challenge sponsors to perform better.
The critical skill for all involved is being able to identify the real reason for performance decline and to be confident that the right remedial measures are being put in place. It is at this point that a further review of the strengths and weaknesses of the MAT needs to take place.
The critical skill is being able to identify the real reason for performance decline and to be confident that the right remedial measures are being put in place
Another lesson to learn from the business world is around knowledge transfer. To have a world-class school system, we must get better at knowledge transfer:
“Knowledge transfer between schools is less common than between firms, (where keeping an eye on the competition is crucial to survival), so successful educational innovations spread more slowly. And perhaps most important of all, recent governments in England think they should decide which are the most important innovations – often under the mask of being ‘evidence-based’ – that schools are then mandated to implement.” System Redesign 1: The road to transformation in education (David H Hargreaves, September 2007).
The development of MATs, particularly those that cover ages 3-19, should help with knowledge transfer. A bigger challenge is knowledge transfer between MATs. On a recent visit to schools in Cornwall and Devon, I met a number of head- teachers who were regretting the demise of broad collaboration between schools. Salt and Hobby are clear: “A trust should not be an island in itself. Schools should participate in overlapping and inter-connected networks with other hubs, and with standalone schools.”
It is true that collaboration, particularly in areas with falling rolls, is difficult. The drive for schools to secure and maintain a reasonable size puts competition above collaboration. The system still has opportunities for collaboration, such as teaching school alliances, headteacher forums and teach meets. But the pressure of daily existence in schools and, now, tight budgets is leading to practitioners and school leaders becoming more reluctant to participate.
Networking beyond the school and MAT is critical if we are to develop a world-class system. We need to share what works, as they do in Silicon Valley. Such an approach brings success to the many rather than the few.
This content is taken from SSAT on Leading – the first of our SSAT on series of publications. Download an excerpt here.
SSAT members can download the full version here.
Many of the themes in the publication were explored and developed at the SSAT National Conference 2016. Find out more here.