Paul Glover started teaching in 2002 and has since built a career transforming the outcomes of ‘unfixable’ schools. He is now Executive Headteacher of Heathfield Academy, Deputy CEO at STEP Academy Trust and has been designated a National Leader of Education (NLE).
I love a challenge. It’s the main reason that my career has followed the path it has, taking schools that have been in special measures for some time and introducing effective, rapid change to ensure that children’s potential isn’t wasted.
In fact, I think many MAT leaders would agree that dealing with challenges is simply part of everyday life in this role. When you are faced with a failing school – the associated high rates of exclusion, low rates of attendance, extreme behaviours and expectations around pupil attainment that are on the floor – staying calm and focused can be a true test of your mettle. You certainly need to be resilient, creative and solution-focused to make sure that you make a difference. And above all, you need to carefully balance realism with optimism, to make sure you keep your sights firmly set on the possibility for positive change.
A great team
It would be nigh on impossible for someone to single-handedly make all the necessary changes to turnaround a school in special measures. It is always a team effort. Because of this, the importance of relationships and people skills cannot be underestimated. If I had to guess what percentage of being a good MAT leader is to do with social intelligence, I would estimate around 90%. Without it, you can’t get people onside, no matter how smart you are.
Part of this social intelligence is acting with integrity, ensuring great communication and making use of the expertise of the people around you – no one person can know everything. In my experience, maximising other people’s skills is a short cut to getting a job done harmoniously, well and quickly. At STEP Academy Trust, we endeavour to take this philosophy a step further, and apply a similar approach to the schools we work with, preferably partnering with them for up to a year and a half before they join us.
Having the right back office team in place is crucial too. In fact, when a new school joins us, this is one thing we build first. We’ve found that bringing things like finance, HR and catering in-house means that you can direct funding back into the school, instead of paying stakeholders from different companies. And that means more money going towards teaching and learning.
A shared vision
Our Trust motto, ‘Striving Together for Excellence in Partnership’, underlines one of the key elements that I think is among the greatest challenges for all MATs – achieving unity.
Unfortunately, some schools I’ve encountered see their trust as completely separate from their school, which is somewhat counterproductive when they should be working as a team. In my opinion, setting unity and consistency at an early stage is vitally important, and that has to come directly from the MAT leaders.
One way to do this is to be really clear from the outset about your reasons for making changes. I take the view that, when it comes to new ways of working, one plus one should always equal more than two. Establishing clear values and joint mission statements gets everyone off on the right foot and enhances the capacity for unity.
Be goal focussed
Being prepared to set the bar high and keep progressing towards these goals are also essential qualities for MAT leaders. This applies to the outcomes for the children themselves as much as the way the new academy is taking shape. When data collection and monitoring is poor, it can be very difficult to get an accurate picture of what is really going on so using SIMS helps us track our pupils’ progress efficiently. We use it across our MAT which, incidentally, again helps with the feeling of unity.
When it comes to schools who join us, the only way to successfully move towards our ambitious targets together is to provide the right level of support. We have to fully prepare schools for the next level of growth too. There’s no point in them growing and then discovering that there isn’t the capacity to achieve what they set out to.
Getting the right balance between supporting children and achieving results is a constant consideration for the best MAT leaders. It requires the ability to be flexible and change tact when needed.
When our trust was in its infancy and we had just a couple of schools, senior leaders got together every six weeks and shared detailed information about each school. However, as we got bigger we needed to scale up support so we now have a trust-wide evaluation form called the STEP Standard document. It is seen by our management team, governing body and the board, and ensures that the quality we are striving for is met.
It also prevents us from resting on our laurels. And that is another important indicator of sound leadership – an enduring sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo. This is what fuels the transformation of a school such as High Cliff Academy in Newhaven, which received an outstanding Ofsted rating in all areas in 2018.
What really marks out a good MAT leader at the end of the day is a relentless focus on improving opportunities to succeed in life, for all children.