Three common strategic challenges every trustee should know about
Drawing on Challenge Partners' recent MAT Peer Review, Dr. Kate Chhatwal, CEO of Challenge Partners and trustee of two MATs, highlights the three common strategic challenges every trustee should know about.
With many MATs still in their infancy and the oldest barely into their teens, there is very little evidence about what makes for an effective and sustainable trust. Into this evidential void, Challenge Partners launched a MAT Peer Review in autumn 2018 to find out what works best in particular circumstances, and act as a catalyst for the development of individual trusts and leaders.
Reviews conducted so far have identified three common strategic challenges which Academy Ambassadors and other trustees may face in their own trusts.
One simple question
Before outlining these challenges, it is helpful to understand how the MAT Peer Review works. Each review has sought to answer the question which should be at the heart of every MAT - that is, what is the MAT doing to ensure the children it serves achieve better than they might otherwise and is it working? (Because if it isn’t, what’s the point?)
Reviewers are expected to approach the review with an open mind, with time invested upfront to understand the MAT on its own terms: where has it come from, what does it stand for, what is its approach to school improvement, and what challenges does it face? The review then looks for evidence – across all levels of the trust, from Board to classroom – of how well-understood and implemented the school improvement model is and whether it is having the desired impact.
There is no checklist, no belief that we already know the answers, but a lot of very probing, open questions.
Three common strategic challenges
The key strategic challenges uncovered through Challenge Partners MAT Peer Reviews are three-fold.
First is the challenge many trusts face in articulating their school improvement model.
Often this has evolved over time as the MAT has grown, but without the approach being explicitly described. This can lead to misunderstandings about how school improvement works and who is accountable for what. There may be a lack of clarity about where support and challenge come from for struggling schools or what is expected of higher-performing schools with the capacity to support others. This matters because it can mean schools aren’t able to improve as well as they might, with pupils losing out as a result. It also matters to trusts looking to grow, as Regional Schools Commissioners are increasingly expecting trusts to articulate their school improvement model before they will approve plans to take on more schools.
The second - and related - challenge is building the systems and processes to underpin effective school improvement and ensure it is systemically embedded.
This typically includes consistent assessment and data capture, financial reporting, and communication flows. These systems are vital ingredients in effective operation across the trust and can be crucial in ensuring trustees get the robust information they need to monitor progress against key performance indicators.
Building and embedding these systems can also help mitigate the third challenge, succession.
Most of the reviews we have conducted so far have been of relatively young MATs, with half grown from a successful school whose one-time headteacher now finds themselves the ‘accidental CEO’. These incredible leaders have been the driving force behind the development of the trust. They have often defined and embody the trust’s vision, values and approach to school improvement, which may be held in their head and their heart, more than in any formal systems or documentation. This makes both systematisation and succession planning key in sustaining success beyond the lifespan of the current leadership.
The trustees' role in addressing these common challenges
The Challenge Partners MAT Peer Review doesn’t look in depth at governance or finance but does consider the extent to which these support the MAT’s approach to school improvement and better outcomes for children. Interviews with trustees and local governors are therefore an essential part of the Peer Review process. After the review, trustees have an even more crucial task in considering its findings and working with leaders to build on the strengths and address the challenges identified.
The good news from the Peer Reviews conducted so far is that we interviewed many skilled and committed trustees and local governors who understand their MATs well, and are providing both challenge and support in pursuit of better outcomes. The sustainable success of their trusts depends on them asking the questions and seeking the assurance that the approach to school improvement is clearly articulated, well understood, properly embedded in trust-wide systems, and implemented to good effect across the trust.
On the question of succession, they must take the lead in ensuring plans are in place to ensure continuity in leadership roles, especially that of CEO.
A final challenge - for the sector
The final challenge we have identified is for the sector as a whole, and that is how to ensure strong practice and expertise is not locked up in individual MATs. Our MAT Peer Reviews aim to tackle this risk by identifying and sharing the strengths of the MATs we review, as well as the common challenges they face. Academy Ambassadors can play a role too by ensuring what works in their trusts is shared widely across their trustee network. School improvement is not a zero-sum game, and all our children and communities stand to benefit when our collective wisdom is shared.
Dr. Kate Chhatwal is CEO of Challenge Partners and trustee of two MATs. You can find out more about the Challenge Partners MAT Peer Review here.