When Phil Jones – the Chief Executive of Yorkshire-based Northern Powergrid, and Regional Chair of Yorkshire and Humber CBI – first engaged with Academy Ambassadors, he was seeking an opportunity to get more involved in the education landscape.
Within a short period of time, Phil’s constructive challenge, leadership and strategic vision had led him to the Chair role at Pontefract Academies Trust (PAT). He has introduced his business vision to the trust and is setting about raising standards across its eight schools, with a strong board made up of both educationalists and those, like him, from outside the sector. Having come into contact with Academy Ambassadors through his role as the CBI regional Chair, Phil wasted no time in seeking a position that would allow him to re-connect with governance and leadership of education in his local community as a trustee – or non-executive director – of the multi-academy trust that incorporates schools in the Pontefract area.
Helping to make a difference
With prior experience as a school governor on Local Governing Bodies (LGBs), Phil was drawn to Academy Ambassadors due to the opportunity to use his business acumen to make a genuine difference in outcomes for young people. ‘As a parent governor in a local authority school, it didn’t feel as though there was scope for someone like me to make a real difference to the fundamentals of the way the school ran - and ultimately the outcomes of the entire education of many children and young people,’ Phil explained, adding that he felt he had a lot to offer the running of a trust. ‘It wasn’t until relatively recently, when I engaged with Academy Ambassadors’ programme, that I found out there was a route for someone like me to use hard-edged business skills - honed in the boardroom – to help make a difference in an environment that has previously been considered a million miles away from the corporate world.’
‘It wasn’t until I engaged with Academy Ambassadors that I found out there was a route for someone like me to use business skills to help make a difference.’
With a governance review coinciding with the time of Phil’s arrival on the board, its results highlighted the need for a fresh approach and some restructuring to the existing trust board, as well as the Local Governing Bodies – smaller school governing groups acting as sub-committees of the board, responsible for matters at each of the trust’s academies. Employing approaches, best-practice and knowledge from his position at the helm of a large organisation, Phil was able to quickly roll his sleeves up and help define the direction, even before taking on the Chair position in April, 2017. ‘I soon realised how much more responsibility rested with the trust board. I also came to appreciate just how much benefit could be brought to trust boards by introducing skills, knowledge and practices that, often, we take for granted in the business world. I began to appreciate even more the simple things that could improve efficiency in everyday working, right through to the routines that help to support making bigger, larger-scale decisions that have far-reaching effects on the whole trust.’
Vertical cross section
One of Phil’s key drivers in change is the concept of drawing on a ‘vertical cross section’ from a business to support a multi-academy trust. It starts with someone senior from the business taking up a role on the board, who can then draw skills from within the business to support the trust, guiding the deployment to wherever those skills are most useful at a given point in time.
‘It is about tapping into the potential that exists throughout a company, to add tailored support in the areas that make most sense for that particular situation at that particular time,’ Phil explains. ‘I think having someone senior involved at board level provides a business leader with a great vantage point over the opportunities that exist to target the effort.’
‘My work with the CBI has given me the opportunity to get a much clearer sense of just how directly educational outcomes impact on the competitiveness of our economy and the prosperity of our region’ Phil said, adding that CBI research clearly demonstrates the impact of education on the economy: ‘The evidence shows that number one driver that best correlates with economic growth in regional economies is secondary school outcomes.’
Aligning objectives, sharing knowledge
The Pontefract Academies Trust board was further strengthened in 2017 with the appointment of Andy Clarke – Risk Director at Lloyds Banking Group and another trustee who arrived via Academy Ambassadors’ trustee recruitment process. While admitting that his personal emergence into the education sector was initially daunting – ‘a seemingly impenetrable world of jargon and deep-rooted knowledge’ - Andy said he soon realised the benefit his professional role could, and would, have on Pontefract Academies Trust, both in terms of the trust board’s strategy and the outcomes for the children:
‘I realised that we are talking about different subjects, but our objectives as a trust align and match to what we are trying to achieve at Lloyds Banking Group, in the business world. I started to appreciate and see exactly how I could help make changes.’
With the benefit of over twenty years’ professional experience in the banking sector, Andy recognised how his ‘everyday’ areas of expertise were directly applicable in some key instances:
‘Something that has caused great anxiety at Pontefract Academies Trust is preparing for the new regulations around data privacy. Some individuals at the trust have done a great job in attempting to navigate this very complex area, but I was able to utilise knowledge and expertise from my day job and that helped to quickly and effectively land it safely. Being able to use the knowledge from the kind of work we do daily in the banking sector helped us get very quickly to a point where we successfully delivered a project, in a far shorter time than the trust could have managed without that input.’
Similarly, Andy’s vision and experience in distilling and simplifying extensive bodies of data was able to rapidly improve the management of a lot of the information being handled by the trust. When I joined the trust board, I found I was presented with hundreds of pages of data but there was no storyline or consolidation of the overall view. Taking a step back, I couldn’t answer the key questions we needed to focus on.
‘Introducing ‘systems thinking’ – a method applied in my day to day role to understand all of the factors that contribute to the end goal - gives us an opportunity to see how the information we receive at the board meeting aligns against our core purpose to improve the educational performance for pupils within the trust. In turn, this allows us to start considering what it is we are ultimately asking the teachers to do and whether all actions actually lead to our intended outcome.'
‘This directly linked to the meeting of their performance measures and required us to map out what the core objectives are that we trying to achieve, looking through and sifting the relevant information to ask “what can we manage through lower level committees and what should be passed through to governance boards and trustees?”. That piece of work is ongoing and I am confident will be a real success for the trust.’
Meeting the northern challenge
As the education element of the government’s Social Mobility Action Plan focuses one of its core elements on raising standards for every pupil, with the Northern Powerhouse Strategy continuing to target a reduction in the north-south divide, Andy Clarke concludes that strong leadership from the Chair, allied to a culture of ‘everyone on board’ and key short term objectives will add up to longer term raising of standards – at Pontefract Academies Trust, and others like it:
‘Undertaking the trustee role has been incredibly rewarding and I think Phil has developed a brilliant culture around the trust board. It has been rewarding and challenging but we have so much more to do.’
And having already moved rapidly to the Chair role, Phil concludes that the process of recruiting to trust boards can be a fluid one, with changes in make-up of a board meaning the ongoing enrolment of new trustees is vital to a trust’s success. He believes the business world will continue to supply high-calibre individuals capable of improving standards of governance:
‘Often, gaps occur in trust boards, where people have left and not been replaced, or a requirement emerges for a particular set of skills as a result of growth - skills that were perhaps never previously needed, or deemed appropriate by the trust board.'
‘In my time as Chair at Pontefract Academies Trust, it’s already obvious that there are opportunities for business professionals to add value in support of a board’s activities – maybe on an Academy Governance Committee, or in a specialist area of support activity like HR or IT.’
Looking to the future, Andy Clarke believes that the marginal gains and fundamental improvements the trust board has been able to effect will add up to longer-term prosperity:
‘My objective is to improve standards and educational attainment in the schools in the trust. We have a long way to go, but in the short term, the goal is around making immediate steps forward: we have to improve those schools who are not currently meeting standards. It might take a little while longer to see the benefit of the changes we are making, in terms of an overall uptick in educational attainment, but all objectives have to be set around the short-term goal of establishing the trust and strength of schools within. We believe we will see that translated through to all of the schools of Pontefract Academies Trust consistently over-achieving, and that translating to increased educational attainment.’