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How to build trust in multi-academy trusts

Michelle Doyle Wildman, Acting Chief Executive at PTA UK, explains how academies can harness the power of stakeholder engagement

Posted by Lucinda Reid | January 28, 2018 | People, policy, politics

Sitting at the heart of our communities, schools by their very nature generate vast and varied interest from a wide pool of stakeholders. These include everyone from the staff, trustees and members of academy trusts, school staff and pupils, regulators, local authorities and others. And of course at the top of the tree, parents.

Creating a meaningful stakeholder engagement process to encompass all these interests is clearly not easy but, as far as I can see, there is a growing need to tackle this in our academy trusts and there is lots that can be achieved with a splash of commitment and planning.

It’s also timely. Although the recent discourse has been dominated by school funding, parents, commentators and politicians have continued to articulate their discomfort on what they see as a lack of transparency and local accountability in our academies. Great stakeholder engagement will help tackle that head on.

For me there are three areas that are worth reflecting on:

1. Who are MAT stakeholders and why can engaging them be beneficial?

Although the term ‘stakeholder’ slipped into jargon years ago, put simply academy stakeholders are those with a personal interest in the performance of a school or MAT (multi-academy trust) and its pupils.

Boards really need to know their school communities and the stakeholders within it to govern well.

A good place to start when creating a plan is to map out your stakeholders as well as what you know about them and what they need. They will include:

  • Parents (current and prospective)
  • Pupils (current and prospective)
  • Staff
  • Members, trustees and governors
  • Education sector/other schools
  • Community interests
  • Employers, suppliers and businesses.

Due to the proven difference parents make to how well kids do in school (as well as being tax payers), parents should be considered your key stakeholder group. But of course your ‘parents’ are a highly diverse group and you need to have a reasonably sophisticated offering to ensure that parents from all parts of your school community have a say in the decisions that affect them and their families.

Personally, the wins from great engagement include:

  • Better pupil outcomes
  • Better staff and trustee retention
  • Fewer issues, less resistance to change and better solutions
  • Creating a fan club of local advocates that (dare I say it) builds your ‘brand’ and makes your school or MAT more attractive to prospective pupils, parents, staff and trustees
  • Enthusiastic partners who may be willing to put in their own time and resources.

2. What can MATs learn from other sectors?

You may recall what happened when the newly appointed head teacher at the Charter Academy in Great Yarmouth sent a letter to parents and pupils at the start of the term. It completely backfired with SLT having to take additional action to placate the school community and with a media storm to manage. What an unsatisfactory and unsettling start to the academic year for all those young people.

Before I crossed the floor to work in education policy, I spent twenty years as a stakeholder engagement specialist in the public sector working mainly on environmental issues. What happened at Charter Academy reminded me of the old school planning practice of ‘decide, announce, defend which sometimes led to ‘abandon’. This has been replaced by ‘engage – deliberate- decide’ and I feel academies can adopt the latter approach. This would mean, for example, inviting stakeholders into the conversation early on, say, conversion to an academy, new policies, delivering the school improvement plan or helping shape and getting ‘buy-in’ to a MAT’s ethos and vision.

Another perspective worth considering is from the RSA’s Alison Critchley. She published a blog in April last year where she asks whether MATs should seek to emulate the charity sector by, for example, opening up MAT membership to a wider set of stakeholders better able to truly hold boards to account including parents, staff and older pupils.

3. How can academies be pioneers and innovators?

The DfE’s governance handbook is very clear – boards are required to be connected to, and answerable to, the communities they serve. But how far is this actually happening in practice?

Like in other key areas, schools and MATs need to bring in expertise to do this better.

The bottom line for me; is it really beyond our abilities as a sector to have a parent or stakeholder council in every school with a clear line of sight to senior leaders, local governing bodies, trustees and members.  Training and consultancy is available on this from experienced organisations such as Parent Councils UK and schools and MATs should seek this out.

Is it fantastical also to create parent-interest forums to help inform the work of the regional schools commissioners? I for one would be up for having a conversation about this.

I hope that our academy trusts do take action themselves on this before they are compelled to do so. I am excited to see who the true leaders are in this emerging education landscape – the ones who open up, build trust and harness the benefits so that every child has the opportunity to thrive in our schools. 

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