Whether we like it or not, it appears that more and more schools will become ‘married’ into a Multi Academy Trust in the years ahead; leaving behind their relative independence (and the varying quality of parenting provided by different Local Authorities) in order to enter into an often polygamous lifelong partnership with other schools. Like eternal bachelors, many are clinging on to their independence, hoping that it will ‘never happen to them’ but I think it’s inevitable that as time passes, the benefits of shacking up together (or perhaps more significantly, the risks of staying single) will become more substantial and tip more and more schools this way.
The Early Days…
I remember clearly the moment I first set eyes on NPAT in 2012, around the time that I was appointed Head at Simon de Senlis. I read the story of five schools in Northampton in the local press that had started working together to form a MAT as equal partners and was inspired by the ambition and drive of the partnership.
These were all great schools, led by the types of go-getter Heads that I aspired (and still aspire) to be. In those early days, the MAT scene was still relatively uncharted territory and NPAT was a really trailblazing partnership – built fundamentally on the simplicity of high quality teaching and leadership with a very child-centred ethos and a serious commitment to sport and the arts.
Before too long, we had entered into conversations about some partnership working and were quickly involved in various different school improvement projects together which resulted in some positive work in raising standards across the schools. This ‘friends with benefits’ stage made a real impact on all our schools, helping us at Simon de Senlis to move from the challenges of Requires Improvement through a good OFSTED inspection with the challenge of the MAT noted as part of the outstanding judgement for Leadership and Management. Of course the relationship between schools is not a friendship, it is a very committed approach around professional challenge and support.
I remember clearly the awkward conversation about ‘who asks who’ in these situations with two of the other Headteachers and Directors as it became inevitable that we should solidify the partnership by joining the trust. I also remember questioning with Governors and Directors whether we needed to ‘get married’ in order for us to work collaboratively, or whether we couldn’t just join the partnership outside of the MAT and carry on all the good stuff without legally becoming one. As time progressed though, it became clear that the legally binding bit was the right call, cementing the many commitments that we believed in such as our mantra, ‘My school is your school; your children are our children’, and the sense of shared ownership that we all felt for each other’s schools at times like inspection or on results day.
Of course, at this stage in any relationship, there comes the inevitable power struggle, only in this relationship it was more about positions on the board and whether we had to fall in line with particular curriculum approaches rather than creating joint bank accounts and whether or not it’s still ok to play football on a Sunday. There are many important questions that must be asked and answered before making that commitment and we learned a lot about being completely honest and candid with each other at this stage.
Tying the knot
In April 2015, we officially converted to become part of NPAT with a very unceremonious occasion as, somewhere in Whitehall, official paperwork was updated and filed whilst the 420 children in a Northampton suburb continued learning as normal. If I must continue the metaphor, it was very much the low key registry office with witnesses only and then back to work in the afternoon with no honeymoon as we simply couldn’t afford the time off work!
Then came the relief that all the decision making, consultation and paperwork that came from academisation alongside the everyday job of leading a school through a Requires Improvement cycle was finally over and we had a clear road ahead. Of course, this void was soon filled with the daily tsunami of different challenges that appear in schools every day.
Keeping the magic alive…
As Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is the beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success,” and this is now the challenge for schools in MATs as we all seek to keep our individuality and individual school ethos on one hand whilst finding common ground and adopting shared approaches where they make sense. The trust has now grown to become 8 schools including 3 Special Units with all schools rated either good or outstanding by OFSTED. We have always tried to keep an unwavering focus around teaching, learning and outcomes but with over 3,000 children and around 500 staff based across ten sites, it’s hard. As much as we wanted to avoid becoming tied up the issues that come with being a MAT such as red tape, policy development HR strategy plans and endless risk management, these are all important and necessary parts of running a decent size organisation.
An annual reminder of ‘why we did it’ is the MAT wide Shakespeare project which we’ve run in partnership with the Royal Shakepseare Company for the last 3 years. This year, over 3000 children from Reception to Year 6 have been engaged in developing speech, language and an appreciation of difficult texts through ‘Hamlet’ with some incredible outcomes. The trust’s motto is ‘Extraordinary Children; Extraordinary Things’ and I think it’s OK from time to time to appreciate the special things that take place every day across our schools.