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Secrets of making the grade: the challenge for MATs

Turning around failing schools is no small undertaking, but it's an area where multi-academy trusts can excel, says Chris Brislen

Posted by Lucinda Reid | July 10, 2017 | Teaching

Changing the fortunes of the third worst performing primary school in the country isn’t a task many would put their hand up for. Yet this is exactly the task that has been achieved at St Nathaniel’s Academy under St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust’s wing.

The improvement between where the school came from to where it is now has been described as miraculous, but it won’t be a one-off.

In fact, in recent years, MATs such as ours working alongside talented headteachers have made a massive contribution to turning around many failing schools. With a commitment to providing the best possible education for all children, we are well-placed to continue doing so – and to do so rapidly.

Stable footing

One of the reasons for this is the stability a MAT can offer a failing school.  In some ways, we play a parental role, setting consistent boundaries and offering helping hands to support academies as they grow.

With MATs, the responsibility to deliver excellent results is very much in the spotlight. The senior leadership team must focus on ensuring that outstanding results are achievable for every child at every school. MATs offer an opportunity to work collaboratively to drive improvement while backed by a strong central crew. Having a core team behind academy principals allows them to take a step back from many administrative tasks. And by freeing up valuable leadership time, school improvement happens more quickly.

We can accelerate the process of transformation by selecting staff that have experience of turning around other schools. Our principal at St Nathaniel's Academy, for example, had two years’ experience in another special measures school before taking up his post within the trust.

High expectations

Becoming an academy is a catalyst for driving change. It provides an ideal opportunity for a fresh start so it’s essential that everyone is on board with new ways of working, additional ambitions and aspirational goals. 

For the teachers and parents of a school joining a MAT there are naturally quite high expectations. It’s therefore important to get all the ducks in a row, ensuring that the leadership, teaching staff and pupils are all on board to work together and feel a sense of empowerment regarding the changes being made. 

School culture is a key driver to making this happen. Before we even agree to an academy joining our family, the first thing we do is communicate and secure buy-in to our core values which are PEACE – Passion, Encouraging, Ambition, Commitment and Enjoyment. This forms the basis of everything we do and helps establish firm ground rules from the start.

Everyone is a leader

At our MAT, leadership is deemed a choice, not a position, so we consider that all our staff have the capacity to be leaders. This puts the responsibility of driving forward our academy improvement agenda squarely in the hands of every employee.

Providing professional development and promoting clear succession opportunities across the trust is a way of recruiting and retaining the best staff.  Our preferred recruitment approach is ‘grow our own’ so we employ staff at the beginning of their careers and invest in them so that they become high-calibre professionals.

We use our teaching school, BTSA, to deliver our core programmes, building on best practice and evidence based research. By ensuring that all staff have a clear career pathway, underpinned by high quality training and development, we are enabling a culture of high aspiration to filter down through every level of our organisation.

Road to improvement

A major area for our improvement programme is making better use of information at all levels.

It goes without saying that to deliver the best possible outcomes for pupils, academies need to perform well. One area which brings new insight into academy group working is measuring performance across the trust. We need to make sure there is a consistency of approach in improvements as new academies join. Our SIMS management information system is core to this process.

Having the same MIS across all our schools helps us see the bigger picture across the whole trust. It means we can closely monitor student attendance and performance, and keep on top of any behaviour or safeguarding issues. And we can make early interventions should the situation require it, perhaps by working more effectively with families that need support.

We want our school leaders and teachers to have access to the same detailed attainment information about our students. This is key to ensuring that every child progresses as they should and that there are no gaps for anyone to fall through.

Going beyond the classroom

St Bart’s Academy Trust has swiftly grown from four academies in 2013 to the nine academies we have today. While there is lots still to be done, we also feel we have a lot to be proud of.

Our commitment to the wellbeing and achievement of our pupils doesn’t stop at the school gates.  We are now even more explicit about our expectations of pupils and teachers from the outset.  Overall, the result of our ‘no-excuse, working together’ ethos is that once we were on top of behaviour and attendance, achievement started heading in the right direction too.

We are delighted that, in all post-academisation inspections, every academy has been graded as a good school, with one as outstanding. When Ofsted last visited St Nathaniel’s Academy, it had changed from ‘Inadequate’ to ‘Good with many Outstanding features’.  This turnaround highlights the full and on-going commitment of the Trust, academy leaders and the whole staff team to raising standards.

With the support of well-run MATs, many more failing schools can also look forward to exciting and successful transformations.   

Chris Brislen is Chief Executive Officer of St Bart’s Multi-Academy Trust and a National Leader of Education (NLE) Chris has led several academies to an improved future. 

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