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Are you a Shark or a Dolphin?

Are you a shark or a dolphin
by Sian Williams   @principalsian

Are you a female leader in England contemplating the Department of Education's white paper, where by 2030, 'remaining maintained schools would change status, to become academies'?

Are you leading a standalone school wondering whether a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) is really the way forward?

Do you have a sense that the sharks are circling?

As leader of an academy (King's Academy Ringmer), this is what I advise a stand alone school and governors to consider:

This past year has brought sharply into focus the real consideration of joining a MAT. The publication of the white paper and the realisation that we have a decision to make, to ensure that we do the very best for our school and community, leaves me thinking. We have a very secure vision for our school - we know the trajectory and our improvement plan is focused securely on improving outcomes and ensuring that our pupils have a holistic and joyous learning experience.

The culture at our school is one of excitement for learning, exploration and discovery - underpinned with those values of kindness and resilience, and supported by core skills of reading and numeracy.

Most importantly, we pride ourselves on an inclusive and nurturing community - we know everyone. 

We cannot let the shark infested waters of hungry MATs 'chew up' our culture and vision. 

So if we are to survive our voyage we have to find a MAT that 'aligns itself with our values'. (1)

Our focus is teaching and learning but we are finding it more difficult to spend our budget on what matters. Post- pandemic, staff and pupils' wellbeing has become a focus and I am investing in that, with little support from the local authority and parents seem to have quickly forgotten how amazing we were during lockdown, and have become the masters of the complaint, and the school buildings are tired and lacking. With the right MAT, we can save ourselves from financial problems by utilising centralised services and expertise - the stress of estate management, legal and HR battles will be lifted from me so that I can focus on being a visible, caring Head who quality assures teaching and learning and invests in quality CPD for our staff.

Don't get me wrong, we cannot be 'taken over'. I know that we have to ensure continuous improvement and we have to challenge ourselves to be aspirational, but by 2030 we need to be part of a supportive MAT, one that has an 'open and consultative structure'. (2)

I cannot work with other organisations unless there are 'high levels of trust and decisions made consensually as far as possible'. (3) I know that there are different styles of MAT partnerships out there. The sharks are circling - huge trusts where we are 'standardised and directed' but I have also met CEOs who promote alignment and autonomy. There is nothing wrong with robust accountability but I want to be able to make my own decisions about our school, as do our governing body.

I have been doing my homework by looking for Dolphins.

There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a mixture of hierarchy and networking in whichever MAT we eventually choose but I know that, as guardians of our school, we have to be sure that we make our decision for the right reasons.

For our families, we need to be able to have a curriculum which suits the needs of our pupils and enables them to thrive as adults in a rural community and also engages in global issues.

For our pupils, we want high quality teaching and learning, external agencies that we can afford, and inclusivity as standard in this diverse world.

For our staff, our small and perfectly formed team, we need excellent research-based CPD and opportunities to collaborate and share good practice, locally.

I am under no illusion that, unless there is a total political turnaround in the next five years, we as a school will become an academy.

As a headteacher I will make it my mission to find a MAT that offers support, collaboration and autonomy.

I am looking for a CEO who, when I ask what I should do, replies: 'It's your school - do what is best for the pupils'.

References 1,2,3 - Greany, T. (2018). Sustainable improvement in multi-school groups, UCL Institute of Education.

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Thursday, 08 June 2023

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