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Lessons to learn from business and other sectors (1)

facing-window-sunlightSue-Williamson-finalSue Williamson, Chief Executive, SSAT, writes…

I realise that this is a difficult subject for many school leaders. Businesses are not seen as the right model for schools, and moves to adopt business practices can easily lead to concerns that schools will be run on a for-profit basis. I, for one, am totally opposed to schools being run for profit, but I do believe that we can take lessons from the business world and shape them for MATs and single institutions.

One of the big challenges in moving from a single institution to multiple institutions is the lack of daily involvement in the running of any one school. For years the best heads have taken great pride in knowing every young person in their school; they have enjoyed watching their progress and celebrating their successes. Headteachers are at the heart of the school community for parents, staff and students, and they know their school inside out.

This will not be the case in a MAT. You can take satisfaction from ensuring that greater numbers of young people benefit from a good education, but you will be at a distance. In this situation you need different tools to monitor progress, and this is where we can benefit from practice in ethical businesses.

I learnt this lesson from working with Professor David Hargreaves on personalising learning. This work is also a good example of the profession leading the agenda. Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, and David Miliband, minister of schools at SSAT’s National Conference in 2002, advocated personalisation. We were challenged to show what personalisation might mean in schools. We asked David Hargreaves to lead this work on our behalf.

Hargreaves engaged with 200 school leaders and together they designed the nine gateways to personalising learning. This work brought together theory and practice. After the initial workshops, SSAT with ASCL (SHA at the time) held a series of workshops to define what each of the gateways meant in practice. After each event, which examined two gateways, David wrote a pamphlet that was circulated to all schools.

David had kept the gateways to a manageable size, but the feedback from schools was that they needed to be compressed further and the four ‘deeps’ – learning, support, experience and leadership – emerged. Steve Baker and Stephen Tierney were closely involved in this work. There was no middle path with the deeps – schools either loved or hated them. Sir Michael Wilkins loved the deeps and the Outwood MAT still uses ‘the deeps’ as an organisational and school improvement tool.

Throughout the work on personalising learning, David Hargreaves explored lessons from the business world and illustrated how many businesses have:

  • focused more strongly on their core business
  • outsourced some activities
  • redefined relationships with customers
  • redefined the units into which they are divided internally
  • started to tap their staff’s knowledge more fully
  • increased horizontal relationships and reduced vertical ones
  • redesigned jobs and the nature of work
  • done all this in order to improve performance.


  1. How many of these have you done in your school/MAT? Why did you do so? What were the effects?
  2. How would your systems and structures change if setting up a MAT now?
  3. Who are the key players in your school, who must be engaged in establishing and developing the MAT?
  4. Where are the gaps in knowledge and skills and how might these be acquired?

While I have said that there has been too much focus on structure, a leader needs to get the structure right for a school and a multi-academy trust, particularly in a period of declining school budgets. SSAT and David Hargreaves’s work on system redesign led us to the work of John Roberts from the Business School at Stanford University. Roberts’ view is that “in very turbulent environments… the most that can be done from the top is the setting of broad strategic direction or intent. The design of the organisation then determines in large measure what decisions will get made.”

The concept of strategic intent, devised by Hamel and Prahalad, describes an ambitious and compelling dream. Strategic intent has three attributes:

  • A sense of direction: strategic intent provides clarity about ends, but is unspecific about means.
  • A sense of discovery: strategic intent offers staffs a new destination, as it constrains the ‘where’ but not the ‘how’, so creativity is unbridled.
  • A sense of destiny: strategic intent must stimulate the passionate belief that the staff can make a real difference. It represents an ambition that stretches beyond current resources and capabilities.

Hamel and Prahalad believe leaders should be architects, who must be able to dream of things not yet created and produce a blueprint of how to turn the dream into reality. Their version of making the impossible possible. In these early days of MATs, strategic intent is what trustees should expect from their chief executives. As MATs and the system become more embedded we can move towards strategic planning. In a school-led system, system leaders need to communicate their strategic intent for the system and not simply follow the diktats of politicians.

System leaders must communicate their strategic intent for the system, not simply follow politicians’ diktats.

In September 2013, SSAT launched the redesigning schooling campaign and held workshops, produced pamphlets and linked academics and practitioners to encourage all stakeholders to redesign schooling to meet the needs of every young person. The last pamphlet in that original series (April 2015) was produced by SSAT’s Vision 2040, a group of nine school leaders, with the title Redesigning Schooling: A vision for education – beyond five-year policy cycles. I believe that pamphlet is a must read for all leaders and potential leaders. Their first recommendation was: “Develop a national conversation to determine the core principles that a future education system should be built on and that would govern future policy development and implementation.”

What is the core business of schools?

Unlike other sectors, we still do not have an agreed view of what is the core business of schools. We all agree that schools have responsibility to educate young people, but does this mean – getting outstanding examination results? Developing young people as learners? Personal empowerment? Preparing students for the world of work? Or, as professor Dylan Wiliam argues, a combination of all four?

To reach agreement on this, we have to engage in conversations with all stakeholders, including politicians and businesses. Schools are being required to deal with all the ills of society, presented in the form of initiatives that the success of the school will be judged on by Ofsted (eg British values). We need the national conversation advocated by Vision 2040 as a matter of urgency, so that all stakeholders can know the direction of travel.

As Dylan Wiliam writes: “The rather terrifying thing about being involved in education at the present time is that we are the first generation of educators who know we have no idea what we are doing.”

If we can get consensus on our core business – our final destination – then the system leaders can plan their journeys.

Most headteachers will feel confident in defining the core business and delivery in their school(s), but in financial management and outsourcing they are likely to feel less comfortable. Undoubtedly they need most of the knowledge and skills referenced by David Carter, but I believe that they do not have to be “highly competent financial managers”. They need financial understanding, but as MATs grow in size and become multi-million pound businesses, it is critical that they have a high quality finance director, who can also lead other operational areas, such as estate management and IT services.

The expertise of trustees can help make the right decisions on the organisation of financial strategy, back-office services, out-sourcing and appointment of key personnel. The system leader needs to have the capability to design a performance dashboard to monitor progress in these key areas; also the knowledge and skills to ask the right questions.

There are many examples of large-scale ethical businesses from which education can learn. Business people like James Dyson and Richard Branson are not afraid to fail, and they learn from their failures to become even more successful. The pressure on school leaders – senior and middle – not to fail is immense and understandable when it is the future of young people that we are responsible for.

However, taking on a school that has failed for a number of years or is coasting is not an easy job that can be turned round quickly, and I think the 30-month rule outlined in the White Paper is a positive step. Over the period of this current Parliament, the pressure is going to be on MATs to grow and MAT leaders are going to have to make some important decisions, as to which schools should join them.

Must the CEO be an educationalist?

A big question for MAT trustees is: should the CEO be a headteacher or senior educationalist? Clearly all MATs require a lead senior educationalist, who has a relentless focus on teaching and learning, but could/should the business side be operated by a non-educationalist, who understands the principles of the MAT and enables high quality education to be delivered across the MAT?

Headteachers need to ask themselves – do they really want to be a chief executive? Sir Alex Ferguson was manager of Manchester United from 1986-2013, but never held the title that, in the business world, applies to the most senior person in the organisation – chief executive. According to Michael Moritz, who co-authored Leading: “(Ferguson) was not confused about his position. He knew he was a hired hand… He has the sort of moral compass that is not found among leaders who award themselves a disproportionate share of the spoils; talk about themselves and their accomplishments in the third person; don’t have the humility and inner decency to recognise that they are standing on the shoulders of those who came before; or understand that they are merely custodians, charged with leaving the organisation in better condition than it was when they arrived.” (p360)

Could the education system adopt this model? There are already some large and successful MATs that have non-educationalists as chief executives (eg ARK). It may be very difficult for a headteacher who has been used to being the leader of the organisation to adapt to working to a chief executive, but it could free the headteacher to focus on teaching and learning. This requires an honest evaluation of the reasons for the success of the school.

Steve Baker is one school leader who has been influenced by business guru and author Jim Collins, particularly on his point of ‘getting the right people on the bus’. Undoubtedly this is key to the success of individual schools and MATs. I have also found Collins’ book How The Mighty Fall very useful. In it he describes the five stages of decline, and the first three stages are very relevant for the decision-making process that headteachers need to make as they consider their journey to system leaders…

leading-front-cover-250This 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 will be explored and developed at the SSAT National Conference 2016. Find out more here.

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