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I put my job on the line to recommend a merger for my trust

It always surprises me to see job adverts for small MATs seeking CEOs. Quite apart from the question it raises around the quality of succession planning, I can’t fathom why those boards don’t grab this natural opportunity for merger.

In truth, however, while they may be responsible for setting strategy, boards invariably rely on the expertise of their CEOs in matters of growth. And how many CEOs will willingly risk their jobs by recommending a merger rather than carrying on for a few more years to fill the pension pot or find a higher-paid post?  

Well, there’s me for a start. I’m currently in the process of merging my own small MAT with a larger one, entirely of my own volition.

The acquiring organisation already has a CEO, who has no plans to leave and is highly regarded by their board and the DfE. There’s been no pressure from the DfE, and this is not a case of a larger trust “swaying” the board behind my back.

I’m not intending to leave the organisation, but like most others in my position, I need to work. I have an impressive CV, but I’m still a single mother with a mortgage to pay  and there is no juicy promotion awaiting me on the other side.

So why on earth have I voluntarily placed my own job at risk? Do I know something other CEOs don’t?

The short answer is no. I’m no less terrified of giving up my hard-earned position at the top of the hierarchy than any CEO. But I can’t currently be the leader I want to be, and I’m not prepared to compromise my own standards of leadership to preserve my status.

More importantly perhaps, as a small MAT we simply lack the institutional strength and sustainability to achieve my ambitious vision for our staff and pupils. Working together at scale, schools are better able to adapt to challenges like funding pressures, climate change, soaring SEND, and the crises in teacher recruitment and retention and pupil attendance.  

It takes trust to hand over control of your destiny

Moreover, I believe my own pupils deserve to be educated within a group of schools at the forefront of innovation. That’s why I selected a merger partner whose game-changing curriculum is now in over 500 schools across the country. To be part of school improvement at a national level is something we could only have dreamed of as a group of four primaries. 

Changing the face of education is about so much more than just what’s going on in our own schools. We need to come together, pooling our energies as school leaders. 

But the MAT system has inadvertently set us in competition with one another. We hungrily vie for the remaining maintained schools, desperate to gobble these up before we ourselves are swallowed by a larger predator.

How many small trust CEOs have been distracted from school improvement work this year by cajoling leaders of only slightly larger organisations, offering to work ‘collaboratively’ while barely disguising their salivating slurp and the menacing glint in their eye? Are they motivated by improving the life-chances of pupils outside their trust, or just desperate to ensure their own survival?

The sector is ineluctably consolidating. So perhaps it’s time for small MATs to reframe merger as part of their evolution rather than their demise.

I hope my actions inspire other CEOs, who will see it is possible to do the right thing for pupils without sacrificing their own security. It takes a great deal of trust to hand control of your destiny, but hope and trust are better values to model to our people than fear and doubt

And if others don’t follow my example, then I hope the boards of small trusts come to explore merger more readily when a CEO’s departure is in the offing.

All industries go through shakeout, and the academies sector is no exception. This isn’t a reflection on the great job small trusts’ executives and boards are doing; it’s simply that pupils get a better deal from organisational scale.  

And isn’t that the very reason we do this stressful, lonely job? For the children.

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