Classroom life – Trent Academies Group

At its best, academisation is about mutual support, cooperative development and above all, individuality, says Phil Crompton

I had been a head teacher in Nottinghamshire for ten years before I took a post at Rushcliffe School in 2010. Rushcliffe is a mile away from Trent Bridge Cricket ground. It’s in the leafy part of town; the Right Hon. Kenneth Clarke lives across the road. I suddenly found myself in a very different patch to my previous two headships – both of which I had thoroughly enjoyed. It became obvious at a very early stage that Rushcliffe ought to be ‘outstanding’. By February 2014 it was – and the multi-academy trust story began.

A couple of months earlier OFSTED had swept through the city of Nottingham like an invading army. School after school had special measures imposed and help was needed. I was keen to do something as I felt I knew all about the challenges that faced schools in white working class England – low aspiration, years of unemployment in families, disaffection with education; there’s no need to tell the story in detail again. The Rushcliffe Governors were interested, too. I had always made it clear that my aim was to help Rushcliffe acquire the outstanding badge and then to support other schools in more needier areas. We had already spent six months supporting another school and I knew we had the capacity to do it on a permanent basis. So we took the Rushcliffe motto “Everyone will be given the chance to shine brightly” three miles down the road to Farnborough, where we joined forces with a new build, very much in special measures. 33 year old Ben Chaloner, a talented senior leader from Rushcliffe, was put in charge. By January 2015 it was The Farnborough Academy and the Trent Academies Group had been born.

We steered away from calling our group The Rushcliffe Trust because we didn’t want to be seen as people who ‘took over’. We preferred the idea of ‘working with’. And it was this view that attracted the governors of Arnold Hill Academy. It was on the north of Nottingham in a relatively wealthy catchment but it had increasingly become the less attractive of the two academies in Arnold. Half of the buildings were quite literally falling down and a new build was about to start. There was no headteacher and Rushcliffe didn’t have another candidate, so I led it myself for three months before we recruited Sharon Smith.

So, that was three academies within the Trust by Jan 2015. Each was very different. Rushcliffe was thriving, with GCSE results in the 80s, outstanding on the door and my former deputy Steve Lewis in charge. Farnborough was demoralised with the feel of a worthy but beaten army. And in Arnold Hill we had a proud but wounded beast – with 1700 pupils in its care. The challenge for the new Trust was to ensure that the needs of each academy were met. As an executive headteacher – soon to become a CEO – my role was and is to ensure that each leader has the resources and advice necessary to move their organisations forward. Sometimes it has felt that all that united us has been my enthusiasm and the “Everyone will be given the chance to shine brightly” line. Fear not. It isn’t so bleak now.

Different strokes

To others facing this type of scenario first and foremost I would say: Make sure your Board is ready for action and that you have a clear vision and sense of shared purpose. All the directors need to know why things are being proposed and really have to take an interest in each academy. Without that the world can seem a lonely place. I quickly learnt that an answer to a Rushcliffe issue will not necessarily work at Farnborough – in fact, it probably won’t.

It’s also vital quickly to establish a central team at the heart of the Trust and meet with them on at least a weekly basis. It took me a few months to get heads of HR, finance and ICT in place. The IT leader emerged from Farnborough and it took time for people at Rushcliffe to realise that he was right to flag up failings in their systems. An outstanding school isn’t the best at everything, and can learn from those in other circumstances.

Getting the headteachers together every Friday morning at 8.00am has also been extremely helpful. Sharing concerns and offering advice to each other is powerful. My biggest fear has been that Rushcliffe – the National Support School after all – begins to believe its own publicity, and that it doesn’t think it can learn from colleagues at Arnold Hill and Farnborough. This is far from the truth, and the headteacher meetings have been crucial in identifying talent and keeping Rushcliffe humble.

However it would be wrong to say that Rushcliffe can’t provide help. It does. At Farnborough the senior team has a head, deputy, assistant head and head of English who have transferred over from the prosperous suburbs to the council estate. They find life frantic, exhausting but, largely, very satisfying. Each was promoted into his or her new role and I am very proud of all of them. The staff at Farnborough have shown no sign of resentment and have embraced the new systems they have introduced. It is far from perfect; the behaviour is better, the teaching is better but the GCSE results were disastrous in 2015. Holding morale together wasn’t easy but they have done it and we are confident results will be good now that there is stability in the system.

It has been more difficult getting theTrent Academies Group presence into Arnold Hill. Financial pressures have meant the priority has been reducing the number of senior leaders and teachers, so injecting extras into the academy has been far more tricky. When the last OFSTED visit in October 2015 took the academy out of ‘serious weaknesses’ and parked it in the ‘requires improvement’ bay they made it clear that whilst GCSE results had improved there were concerns about behaviour management. So I personally led an INSET day on the subject, asked Helen, the Rushcliffe pastoral deputy, to train staff, and moved an assistant head over to lead on behaviour.

Common ground

The Trust needed something to unite it. I think we found it in employability. At the first Trent Academies Group INSET day we looked at what we offered and asked if it was preparing children for the world of work. I asked if the curriculum was really providing what society needs – and in doing so, managed to annoy and please the same proportion of staff at each academy. That was the intention: provoke to unite. Subject teams are now busy identifying links with local businesses to bring to life less inspiring parts of the curriculum. We have had some major successes, with linguists working at a tapas bar (Central TV covered that one, much to students’ delight), technologists designing and manufacturing bags, scientists advising a housing company about insulation and actresses being invited in to advise pupils about how to develop a career in the arts. More projects are underway. This is giving three very different academies a common identity.

Misunderstandings can develop so easily across three academies, and avoiding this is a major part of my job. The INSET day helped; twice-yearly meetings with all the senior leaders make a huge difference. I write a weekly blog, but am not naive enough to think that everyone reads it, so I am currently working on a quarterly bulletin. It’s about communication, and I’ll consider anything to ensure there is clarity across the Trust and that everyone sees they have something to offer.

I like Rushcliffe so much; it’s a good place to work, with supportive – but sometimes challenging – parents, pupils who see the point of education, cared for buildings, and books that come close to balancing. But the staff, capable though they are, are not more able and do not work harder than those at the other two academies. Only by communicating this regularly and clearly can we come close to ensuring the Trent Academies Group makes the difference it ought to make.

Since forming the Trust Rushcliffe has stayed at a very high level and was awarded World Class Status last term. Farnborough and Arnold Hill have improved and will be judged ‘good’ soon, I hope. It has not always been easy – in fact at times it has been very difficult – but we are doing the right thing and I believe fortune will eventually favour the brave. My biggest regret? Two years ago I cycled to work every day and now I have to drive in order to get to each academy. And I moan about it every time I get the chance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Phil Crompton’s is Executive Head of the Trent Academies Group. He tweets at @ptc23 and @trentacadgroup

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