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Academy trusts: Training the next generation of CEOs

Despite still being a relatively new role in education, academy trust CEOs are now in charge of budgets running into the hundreds of millions and oversee the education of thousands of pupils.

So what’s being done to develop the next generation?

Schools Week investigates…

What training is going on?

The 2022 schools white paper promised an academy trust chief executive training programme as part of the “golden thread of professional development”.

Today, the £3.8 million government-funded scheme, run by the National Institute of Teaching (NIoT), kicks off with a 25-strong cohort – whittled down from the 350 who expressed an interest.

Melanie Renowden

The 12-month course, which includes three-month “after-care”, is designed to help leaders run large academy trusts.

It includes four two-day conferences, three five-day “immersion experiences” in other trusts and up to 18 hours of self-study.

Between 15 and 25 trust CEOs will act as mentors.

Issues they will cover with “fellows” doing the course include the “approach and implications of trust operating models, communications within and beyond the trust, and how to achieve high standards for all pupils and the levers for this”, Melanie Renowden, chief executive of NIoT said.

The course’s curriculum is based on the government’s MAT leadership development CEO content framework, published last year. But it acknowledges that “limited quantitative evidence exists” in relation to the role.

Renowden described it as “comparatively a very new role and evolving quickly – we need to keep learning about what effective CEO leadership looks like”.

What are trusts doing?

The NIoT, which was founded by four leading academy trusts, will conduct research into “how effective different components of the programme are in developing CEOs’ knowledge and skills”, Renowden added.

A second cohort of 50 recruits is due to start in September.

While the government intervention will boost the pipeline, other trusts are already building their own CEOs.

The Reach Foundation, which runs Reach Academy Feltham, launched LeadingTrusts in September to train “a bold new generation of trust CEOs”, focused on tackling disadvantage.

Its first cohort of 16 leaders get 10 “visits and interactions” with trust CEOs, four training days, 12 webinars, termly coaching sessions and mentoring.

It costs £5,000 per person and applicants need a sponsor, usually the CEO of their trust. The trust pays most of the fees and the Reach Foundation helps to cover the rest.

The year-long course is for those who “would like to be a trust CEO in the next three years or so”, James Townsend, executive director at Reach Foundation, said.

The first cohort has been entirely drawn from the south-west of the country. But they hope to recruit up to 50, split into three regional groups, for this September’s cohort.

Meanwhile, Forum Strategy’s Being the CEO scheme has been running for five years and is on its ninth cohort, with 12 leaders undergoing the six-month, £8,000 course.

Who are the next CEOs?

Michael Pain, who leads the Forum programme with former CEO Sir Steve Lancashire, said it was for those either “currently a chief executive or on the cusp of it”.

Michael Pain
Michael Pain

On the Reach course, most are directors of education, one has a “people leadership” job, another is a head and the rest are deputy CEOs.

Townsend wants “more people on the operational side within their trusts” – for instance chief operating officers – to apply.

Serving CEOs have told him that many of the challenges they face relate to leading a large organisation, “not just dealing with educational challenges”.

The NIoT-run scheme has a roughly 50-50 split between current chief executives and those in central team roles, such as directors of education and deputy CEOs.

None are serving heads. Renowden said other programmes may be “better suited” for those looking to make this transition.

But what appetite is there?

Teacher Tapp asked 1,691 headteachers and senior leaders if they expected to become a trust CEO within 10 years.

Nearly two-thirds strongly disagreed, while another 19 per cent disagreed. Just 7 per cent overall envisaged that they would lead a trust.

But Townsend said: “If someone is a headteacher with a really big vision for this work, we say it’s possible for them to apply and step into the job.”

The rise to CEO may also be more gradual. Rob Price, who is on the current Reach course, is now director of education at Acorn Education Trust. He was previously a teacher, head of English and a headteacher.

“If you are talented enough, you need a pathway that goes all the way from initial teacher training to the next CEOs,” he said.

But many teachers “can’t see past senior leadership or headships and no one actually thinks about themselves doing that role. We have to open that discussion,” he added.

Is teaching background needed?

Another hot topic in developing new CEOs is whether they need a background in education. Schools Week analysis of the 20 biggest trusts in England suggests just two of their CEOs have a non-teaching background.

But two-thirds of trust bosses surveyed by Forum in 2022 thought having a non-teaching background was not necessarily a barrier to becoming a CEO, an increase on previous years.

Pain said the success of some of those from outside has led to the shift in attitude.

Townsend added: “I think a lot of the experience that somebody, say, running a decent-sized charity, a business or an NHS Trust, has could be really valuable.”

United Learning, the largest trust in England with 89 state schools, had a total income of £732 million last year, including the private schools it runs.

This is similar to the income of an extra large acute NHS trust (£500 million to £750 million) and is bigger than 14 of the 24 Russell Group universities’ income.

According to the Companies Market Cap website, United Learning’s revenue would put it in the top 175 publicly traded UK companies.

NextGen CEOs: the new challenges

A Confederation of School Trusts survey last year found improving the quality of education was CEOs’ top strategic priority for the coming academic year. That is unlikely to change.

In joint second place were both growth and financial sustainability.

More than half of pupils now attend an academy but the political will to push the academisation agenda seems to have stalled, and a big drop in pupil numbers means some schools face closure or mergers.

Townsend anticipates the “growth agenda is going to reduce” as more schools join already established trusts, or trusts themselves merge to consolidate finances.

“It raises a question, what’s the big thing for the new generation?” he added, saying the sector was in a “sort of interregnum”, halfway towards full academisation.

“Managing this transition period requires skilled leaders with a very clear purpose and the ability to flex in terms of how to get towards that,” he said.

Sir Dan Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation and a mentor for the NIoT programme, said the most pressing challenge over the next decade would be “shortage of resources”.

“Having people who understand how to maximise the benefits of working collaboratively with a group of schools and driving school improvement is probably never going to be more important,” he said.

Even if this means trust bosses “sometimes training future leaders for their competitors, it’s the right thing to do”.

‘Almost like the next stage of civilisation’

Lisa Dadds, director of primary education at the Priory Learning Trust and on the Reach course, added that collaboration skills will be key for the next generation of trust CEOs.

“It’s almost like the next stage of civilisation,” she added.

Townsend said these new CEOs will also “in many cases” take over “trusts already operating at significant scale” and should therefore be “excited” by that.

Lisa Dadds
Lisa Dadds

But Forum’s 2022 survey found less than 40 per cent of respondents said they had a potential succession plan in place. With government-funded support, that will likely change.

A likely barrier for busy school leaders is finding time. Renowden said that participants have “busy, demanding day jobs”, but “they need to be able to prioritise their own development”.

She said it was the equivalent of somebody doing a national professional qualification.

Pain said time was the biggest barrier for CEOs doing his course. But, “once people invest that time, they feel the benefits of it”.

Price said his trust was sponsoring him to do the LeadingTrusts programme in the hope that he can step up when the time comes.

He said: “If I’m the CEO of Acorn, I’ll be taking on 20 schools. You’ve got to hit the ground running.

“Whatever training you can do … you need to bloody do it. If you don’t, you’re going to sink.”

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