IRIS Elements: What do you need to be the CEO of a Multi Academy Trust? image

IRIS Elements: What do you need to be the CEO of a Multi Academy Trust?

The IRIS Education podcast series, UncomplicatED, is known for quickly getting to the core of an issue.

onThursday 2 May 2024

In a recent episode, What does it take to effectively lead a Multi-Academy Trust? Lord Jim Knight, Former UK Minister for Schools, Digital & Employment, joined Simon Freeman, MD of Education at IRIS Software Group.  

Jim co-founded the Tes Institute, the fifth largest qualifier of teachers in England, and he also chairs the board of the 28-school E-ACT Multi Academy Trust. 

The pair immediately began discussing what’s needed for the top job in a MAT. 

What qualifies someone to be CEO of a MAT? 

Simon Freeman: Is it preferable to appoint a MAT CEO who's come up through the ranks of education and understands the challenges that go on within education, or do you think alternative career routes are equally possible? 

Lord Jim Knight: My preference is to hire someone who has the credibility of having been a teacher, having led a school, knowing what good looks like in the classroom – but who then also has the strategic leadership skills to manage a large organisation.  

Now, there are really good examples of MATs being led by people who don't necessarily have that, and they’ve been able to ensure they have a really good education team who can take care of that element of the business – and then the CEO brings their other strategic skills, and their skills in being able to manage the highly regulated environment, the people side of the business, etcetera.  

So it can work.  

Simon Freeman: I do talk to a fair few CEOs. The very successful ones have got an education background and education experience. I think, on balance, the learning curve for the education part of the role is much steeper for somebody who’s come in from the private sector than maybe the business leadership challenge is for somebody who’s come in from the education sector.  

But to your point, there are always a few who are able to demonstrate that learning and do an amazing job, even though they haven't got that education background. 

Lord Jim Knight: It's a question of risk in a way, like everything, isn't it? And the Ofsted risk is a really major risk that everyone's trying to manage – and the related things around safeguarding and so on.  

The path to MAT CEO 

Simon Freeman: This is a sector that’s difficult to recruit into, and the more that the sector can show strong career growth, the better for everybody. Do you think the MAT CEO is an attractive role for ambitious teachers and head teachers? Is there a mapped-out and nice progression in terms of professional development? If there isn't, how do you think that can be achieved? 

Lord Jim Knight: No, I don't think there is that straightforward a career progression route, and I know there is some effort being put into an equivalent to the NPQH – the national professional qualification for headship – for those who want to become MAT leaders.  

I'm sure it would help if those career progressions were straightforward. 

I think we've got a much bigger problem recruiting into headship of a school, where the accountability pressures are acute and where the work-life balance is very challenging. Most heads that I know work exceptionally long hours both in secondary and in primary, and we see a reluctance on the part of deputy heads and other members of senior leadership teams in schools. They look at what their head does, and there's quite a lot of fear and worry about whether or not they want to step up.  

Now, to step out of headship and on into a head of education, a director of education role for a MAT – probably with a bit more money, but, in a way, with less responsibility – and then potentially stepping up to run a whole MAT, with even more money and a bigger team to support you, might be quite attractive.  

But we do have to solve the problem of enough people wanting to be heads as potentially the big blockage in the funnel. 

Simon Freeman: I've got family who’ve been in head teacher roles and moved out of them, and I saw firsthand how challenging that was. If you're a deputy or other member of the senior teaching staff, looking at that role and making that first jump can be quite a daunting experience. 

Lord Jim Knight: I guess the obvious career progression would be you move up through middle leadership and senior leadership into headship. You then perhaps go to a second school that might be more challenging. You get it successfully through Ofsted. Get it into the right place, and then people want you to either take on more difficult schools – with even more pressure in possibly a less attractive area of the country to work in – or you move into a MAT leadership role. 

But built into that, then, has to be professional development and working up those management skills. Running a set of schools is a different proposition from running a single school. Now, there's the executive head position, which became very popular some years ago. So, you might end up being the head of two or three schools, and that can look a bit like one of the small MATs. 

At a large MAT level, I still think it’s a big jump to just take your headship skills – which become your exec headship skills – and then apply them. I think you need some other management training on top of that to really provide strategic leadership for an organisation that might be educating 10-15,000 pupils and employing 2-3,000 staff. That's a big job. 

The responsibility of community leadership 

Simon Freeman: If you look at any moderate-sized town in the UK, the school or the school network is probably by far the biggest budget and employer in the area, aggregately. That’s a huge responsibility to lead, with a very demanding skill set. 

Lord Jim Knight: Yeah. And you're a community leader as well. We saw that during the pandemic, where the schools were providing an emergency service for those parents who had to go in and work in the health service and elsewhere.  

Schools are these places in our neighbourhoods we look to, and they provide sports facilities, they provide community facilities, and they might provide worship facilities.  

So you've got that community role as well as your core responsibility of delivering great education. 

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