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Society and communities

System leadership in disruptive times: robust policy making in school trusts in England

In recent years, there has been a policy-driven revolution in the way that the school education system has been configured. Many schools have been designated as ‘academies’, with more autonomy with regard to finance and curriculum, alongside more direct accountability to central, rather than local government, for students’ progress and achievements. These stand-alone academies have been encouraged by successive governments to join with others, and these groupings are known as school trusts. They have become quasi businesses under the governance of boards of trustees and led by CEOs and a central education and administrative team.

To date, there has been limited empirical research which has focused upon the leadership of school trusts. The unprecedented challenges to all schools of managing the effects of Covid-19 on their abilities and capacities to sustain their core purposes of teaching and learning workings provided a unique opportunity to ‘map’ how trust schools were individually and collectively supported, and how ‘robustly.’

The research, funded by the University of Nottingham and the Economic and Social Research Council, is the first stage in an ongoing research programme which was co-designed and implemented in partnership with Dr Stanmira Taneva, Senior Researcher, with the university’s School of Sociology and Social Policy. An important feature of this research has been the initial and ongoing close partnership with the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), a key stakeholder, with close links to other national policy-makers.

This project aimed to capture the ways in which school trusts serving different socio-economic communities had managed challenges to core aspects of both the academic progress and wellbeing of various groups of students, and, in addition, teachers’ wellbeing and ability to maintain high-quality teaching and learning, during the Covid-19 pandemic. From this, we aimed to identify successful approaches to policymaking and implementation, and especially those approaches that can be described as “robust”.

The research confirmed robustness in policy-making as capturing:

”…. the principle that conscious and proactive building of key capabilities can allow systems, organisations and policies to change and adapt in order to cope with shocks and still maintain their core functions… In this way robustness has a developmental and evolutionary quality that is not necessarily shared by the ‘bounce back’ nature of resilience” (Rollett, 2020, p.4).

In this project stage, we set out to collect, analyse and triangulate quantitative and qualitative data about policies and strategies that different school trusts employed, as they managed multiple disruptions to all students’ academic progress and welfare, especially those from socio-economically disadvantaged communities, and others who were judged to be more at risk of learning engagement.

The project enabled us to gain an early insight into the impacts of robust and resilient policy making for both students and teachers, and the leadership roles played by CEOs.

The results provide new knowledge about the extent to which school trusts serving different socio-economic communities, have successfully led and managed challenges across their member schools. In revealing this knowledge, we have been able to produce a conceptually sound, empirically based, tentative ‘ knowledge map’ of system leadership in school trusts in different geographical contexts, with different school populations and serving a range of communities as a future reference point to inform future policy-making nationally. We have also contributed to the establishment of a national trust -wide “think tank”, focusing upon robust policymaking, enactment, and impact.

As Leora Cruddas, Chief Executive of CST, wrote in her Introduction to the research report:

‘This report by the University of Nottingham delves deeper into the ways in which Trusts enacted policy, identifying twelve indicators of robustness and rigour. It demonstrates empirically that trusts are robust structures that have withstood the perturbations of the pandemic and will withstand future perturbations.

The lessons about leadership are particularly noteworthy. The research finds that “regardless of the size and geographical distribution of their schools, [CEOs] had demonstrated a strong sense of efficacy, agency and robust resilience, a profound sense of care, and agile, adaptive, values-led leadership which had permeated their schools, minimising disengagement of most of their pupils from learning, connecting closely with their parental communities and external agencies”.

This research shows how civic leadership has been enacted through the pandemic and argues for the importance of connecting with others. As we begin to construct ways of leading in a post-pandemic world, we will need forms of leadership that enable schools to be ‘protective organisations’ that can mitigate the economic, social, health and educational impacts of Covid-19 on children and families. The story of the impact of Covid-19 on our children and young people has not yet been written. What we do next – the way we lead – is crucial to ensuring that we enact the sacred duty of holding trust with children’.


"The results provide new knowledge about the extent to which school trusts serving different socio-economic communities have successfully led and managed challenges across their member schools."
Professor Christopher Day

As I write this, I am reminded that the journey through this pandemic is not yet completed. Families continue to grieve the loss of loved ones, there are fewer businesses, poverty is affecting many of those who have been ‘furloughed’ or lost their jobs permanently, and mental health issues for school students and others are likely to continue for many more.

It is almost a truism to state that the work of teaching is complex, and that it occurs in challenging circumstances. Not all students share a love of learning, or necessarily want to be taught in the same way or by the same teachers. Not all schools are led by system leaders who are able to create and sustain ‘learning communities’ for their students which contribute to their welfare and academic progress and achievement. Not all are able to support their staff in ways which contribute to their morale, motivation, individual and collective efficacy and pedagogical efficiency and effectiveness.

Even as many countries begin to emerge from the various ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and life returns to a semblance of normality, it would be easy to be less than optimistic about what the future holds. Yet embedded in the range of data assembled by this research were unambiguous messages of trust leaders’ strong sense of intelligent agency, agility and adaptiveness, allied with a capacity for resilience, unwavering commitment, enduring moral and ethically driven purpose, and determination to provide the best possible educational opportunities in the circumstances they were experiencing.

Because they were managing groupings of individual academies, they were able to ‘buffer’ their schools by providing key administrative, financial, health and safety and HR services, harnessing the necessary resources, and enabling their schools to focus on their core business of the academic learning and welfare of their students in ways that stand-alone schools and academies might, perhaps, find difficult to match. The next stage of our research will examine how school trusts lead and manage their academies as they return to full-time education of all students.


Christopher Day

Christopher Day is a Professor of Education in the School of Education 

Institute for Policy and Engagement

This blog appears as part of the Institute for Policy and Engagement's Making a Difference blog series

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