Speech to Learn Academies Trust launch conference, 25 August 2016

The launch conference of a new multi-academy trust (MAT) in South Leicestershire was held in Market Harborough on 25 August 2016. Nearly 300 staff from the 7 schools in the MAT were present to hear from each of the trustees and headteachers about their aims for the Trust. They also heard an inspiring address on learning without limits from Dame Alison Peacock. I made the following speech:

It is a huge privilege to be here this morning, at the launch of our own multi-academy trust. For me, this is a positive and exciting step on my journey in education.

Eight years ago, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), of which I was general secretary, published a book called Achieving more together: adding value through partnership. School partnerships at the time were often informal and could be dropped at the first sign of trouble. Good ones were few and far between.

You don’t need me to tell you that much has happened in education since 2008 – lots of things we haven’t liked, as well as some good things, not least that the government has acknowledged the power of partnership and the benefits of encouraging schools to work together in more formal arrangements.

Thankfully, the system has moved on from the culture of competition that was prevalent when I was a headteacher in the 1980s and 1990s, when the government believed that schools would improve if they competed more. Politicians set school against school and, inevitably, the hierarchy of schools became sharper and the job more difficult for schools that were not at the top of the hierarchy.

Now, some competition between schools remains – after all, we all want our school to give the best possible education to its children. But I am delighted to see that the national policy climate has largely moved from competition to collaboration and partnership working between schools.

As a governor of St Andrew’s in North Kilworth, where I live, for the last 16 years, I have long recognised that the future for small to medium sized primary schools lies in working together with other schools in formal partnerships. Multi-academy trusts, it seems to me, are exactly the right format for schools like ours. Having spent the last three years exploring local possibilities, I was delighted when the opportunity came for St Andrew’s to become a member of the Learn Academies Trust.

The top criterion for successful school partnerships is having a shared set of values. And as I get to know the schools in this partnership, I have absolutely no doubt that we fulfil this criterion. By putting these values into action together, we can achieve so much more for the children in our schools.

There is plenty of research available now on school partnerships. Evidence tells us that successful partnership working between schools in multi-academy trusts is based on nine essential ingredients:
• Shared values
• Shared aims
• A relentless focus on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment – a compelling curriculum, skilful pedagogy and rich assessment
• A strong belief in the value and potential of every child, no matter what their background
• A deep commitment to professional development across the whole Trust
• Commitment to the success of other schools in the Trust as much as to the success of our own school – one for all and all for one
• Quality assurance. That is, rigorous self-evaluation and peer review of the quality of work in all our schools
• Sharing data and using it analytically to improve our performance, and
• Using resources where they are most needed in the Trust

Every one of us – school staff, governors, trustees – must be completely committed to work together in all these areas.

The Trust – and today’s launch – are all about school improvement. The whole point of coming together is nothing to do with jumping through a hoop created by Ofsted or by the government.

It is because we believe that we are stronger together than apart; that we can achieve more for our children as a group of schools than we can on our own.

To build a good school, Ofsted and government guidelines can be followed; to build an outstanding school requires something different. So it is with a group of schools – and that must be our aim together.

Doing this will need us to grab the opportunities of joining forces
– to focus on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment;
– to have high aspirations and expectations – learning without limits
– to be innovative and to encourage responsible risk-taking; and
– to challenge each other continually to improve.

Our aim must be to spread the best practice in each school across the whole Trust – the best work on phonics, the best literacy and mathematics teaching, the most interesting exploration of science and of the world around us, the best in sport and the arts. In short, we must aim to give the best of everything to every child in our schools.

Our approach must be led by our shared values, creating a sense of Trust identity and shared responsibility for what happens in our own school and in all the other schools in the Trust; to unlock the potential of every child, whatever it takes; to feel as responsible for giving children in other Trust schools outstanding educational opportunities as the children in our own school.

Part of our culture must be to listen: listen to the pupil voice, and listen to the voices of parents, so that we improve our practice and the children improve their learning. That is a really important part of the message we have heard this morning from Alison Peacock.

As members of the Trust, we must be evidence-informed and outward-looking, to other schools in the Trust, to our partner schools in the Affinity Teaching School Alliance, and beyond to excellent practice elsewhere and to the best education research available. Learning about local, regional, national and international best practice will become part of the normal professional life for every one of us, whatever our role.

We may not have as many disadvantaged pupils as some other schools and trusts, but Every Child Matters and every disadvantaged pupil deserves our extra support if they are to succeed in life. It must be part of the moral purpose of all of us that we do what extra is needed to level the playing field for these children.

Evidence shows that poor teaching disproportionately holds back disadvantaged children by about half a year, compared with their more fortunate classmates, whereas excellent teaching disproportionately benefits deprived children. This is an important reason why we must continue to strive for excellence.

I have visited many schools that have academy status and many of them are part of trusts. Lots of these schools are using their status to be innovative and to improve their practice, but not all. Some just continue to jog along in the same way, rejoicing in not being part of the local authority, but not much else. They are missing so much. As a group of 7 schools, we will have more opportunities ourselves, as Trust staff, to develop professionally.

We can achieve more together for all our children than we can as individual schools.

Every school in the partnership – and every member of staff – will be able to both give and take from the Trust: to give of your best and share it with others across the 7 schools, and to take from the best practice elsewhere in order to help to provide the best possible education for every child.

In coming together as Learn Academies Trust for the first time, we must all be determined to make the most of the opportunities offered by the Trust to build an outstanding group of schools. Outstanding in the Ofsted sense, yes, but more important than that, outstanding in the way that every member of staff develops professionally; outstanding in the quality of teaching, learning and assessment; and outstanding in the breadth, depth and quality of education that we give to every child.

This is an immensely exciting opportunity and I look forward to being with you on the journey to making the Learn Academies Trust a successful venture for everyone in the partnership. Together, we will achieve amazing things.