October 2015


  • The new normal
    At the start of the academic year, education is going through a period of transition with system leadership fast becoming the norm. Reflecting this, ASCL is introducing a raft of changes of its own, says Brian Lightman, to recognise the new skill-set that leaders now require. More
  • Unlocking potential
    Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan sets out her priorities for the next five years and says she is committed to working with ASCL members to achieve them. More
  • Turning the tide
    The number of women deputy and assistant heads is growing but if they are to aspire to headship realistically, the profession needs to offer them more targeted career support and development now, says Carol Jones. More
  • Briefer encounters
    The impact of leadership is the key evidence that inspectors will be seeking under the new shorter Ofsted inspections. Suzanne O’Farrell explains this and other significant changes to the framework. More
  • Joint enterprise
    Peter Tomkins explores the thinking behind a new multi-academy trust that has no CEO and where every school is an equal partner holding the others to account. More
  • University challenge
    The University of Southampton is supporting sixth form students taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) to give them a taste of what academic life is like – and what skills they will require – at a research-intensive institution. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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Peter Tomkins explores the thinking behind a new multi-academy trust that has no CEO and where every school is an equal partner holding the others to account.

Joint enterprise

The Montsaye Community Learning Partnership (MCLP) Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) has a model of leadership and governance that is rare, if not unique.

The trust, consisting of one secondary and seven primary schools in Northamptonshire, has no central team and no CEO. It has a board supported by a strategic advisory board (SAB), made up of the heads and chairs of governors, which provides school-level input, mainly around standards and other localised issues and helps ensure that individual schools retain their autonomy.

“We are working together and there is collective decision-making rather than a centralised model,” says Jason Cumming, the Principal of Montsaye Academy, the secondary school. “It only takes 2.5 per cent of school budgets and it is all spent on resources to support schools. Money that should be spent in the classroom is spent in the classroom.”

Continuity for students

The model evolved from the Area Improvement Partnership (AIP) that all the schools were already signed up to and its focus is providing continuity for students in the local area, says Ann Davey, Executive Head of Havelock Infants and Havelock Junior Schools. “They are our students and we want to work together to support them and the local community.”

The decision to form the trust in this way was taken against a background of debate around the value of trusts and the effect they may have in areas such as schools’ relationships with their communities and on the role of the head. In January, former Education Secretary Estelle Morris argued in The Guardian that the academy programme missed a crucial dimension, the local community (http://tinyurl.com/p2sawdo). More recently, Ian Comfort, CEO of the largest academy chain, the Academies Enterprise Trust, acknowledged that being part of a trust limits headteacher autonomy (http://tinyurl.com/qaoexx7) while ASCL General Secretary Brian Lightman, responding to the Education and Adoption Bill in June, pointed out that schools fail for a number of reasons and “simply changing their structure may not address the whole picture” (www.ascl.org.uk/magicwand).

For MCLP, changes locally that had seen all but one of the secondary schools convert to academy status, opening the door to a number of national academy chains, were the tipping point. The fear was that the existing collaboration between the schools would fragment as each formed either a stand-alone academy trust or joined one of the larger chains. It was time to take control of the situation and to act on three key principles:

  • a local solution: engaging with the community to benefit all the students in the towns of Rothwell and Desborough
  • ‘earned autonomy’: relationships built on the twin principles of trust and collaboration, so the MAT intervenes internally in schools only when issues arise
  • improving teaching and learning through collaboration and shared expertise

Moral purpose

There was a clear moral purpose at the heart of the process, says Jason.

“The decision was pretty easy: we decided to form into a tight-knit group and support each other. We wanted to be able to work together to improve the quality of education for all children in all of the schools, to ensure a seamless journey for children from four to 19. By working closely we expected to share best practice, utilise resources more effectively and support school improvement across the group.”

It also built on the Area Improvement Partnership that was all about the community – students and families as they moved through the schools.

“We really liked the local feel of it and this is what we wanted to preserve. We wanted to make a difference for our students. We were driven by a moral viewpoint,” says Ann, adding that the MAT has made a real difference to education in the area to the extent that positive Ofsted inspections would not have been achieved without “collaborative school support”.

The Schools Advisory Board (SAB) was central to the process.

“The discussions were around how we were going to make this equal,” says Ann. “Once the schools knew they were all represented on the SAB then they were happy. Although it wasn’t the final decision-making body it had influence. It wasn’t the big secondary school wanting to take us over; we were equal partners.”

Power to intervene

But it has also meant a big change for individual schools, she adds.

“Previously, we were independent schools who might have been working together but we weren’t accountable for each other’s results. That was comfortable. We realised that it would have to be more than that and there would be some uncomfortable moments. To be autonomous we also had to have the teeth as a trust to say, ‘That’s not good enough and we need to do something about it.’ That’s the only way to retain our autonomy. Unless we are prepared to do that, and unless we have the bodies in place to do that, then this won’t work. It might be hard, but it is better we are tough with ourselves than let someone external take us over.”

The trust does have the power to step in where required if there are problems.

“We intervene where there are issues and have done so,” says Jason. “The advantage we have day-to-day over traditional models is strong relationships between the schools within the trust, so there is plenty of support to ensure schools are improving. Heads meet regularly and support each other. The trust monitors closely the progress of students and deploys additional resources into schools that need more support.”

The trust’s role in addressing underperformance has been tested by a difficult situation where it had to find its teeth and stand firm on what needed to happen in the face of opposition from one of the governing bodies. Ann believes that turning around underperformance won’t be easy, but will be “far easier with support from the trust”.

School improvement partner

One of the key decisions was to employ an external school improvement partner. Tracey Briggs was appointed and has a dual role to monitor and ensure accountability and to develop systems for collaboration and training. Essentially, it is about ensuring that collaboration between the schools occurs, she says. “We have established principles which are then applied appropriately within each school in its own context.”

If things aren’t working effectively then the trust’s first response is that all schools rally around to support. Where things are working well than that good practice is shared. Unlike in previous models, Tracey says, the schools cannot back out and must maintain their joint accountability for the outcomes.

The schools have a joint, cross-phase CPD programme that culminated in a Great Teaching and Learning Fair at the end of the year where all eight schools set up stalls to share best practice. Research and ideas are also shared across the trust via a journal, The Montsaye Approach.

The strength of the trust is in building the individual capacity of schools, Tracey adds. “We don’t have to all do the same things, but we do have to all come from the same place.” For example, Ofsted has recently praised the feedback strategies at Rothwell Juniors, so Montsaye Academy is integrating this best practice into its own strategies.

A model for change?

In ASCL’s Blueprint for a Self-Improving System, collaboration and partnership are critical: ‘There is a strong correlation between collaborative cultures and system success. We believe in continuous improvement through principled strategic partnerships’ (www.ascl.org.uk/booklet). The MCLP is putting this idea into practice.

…the MAT has ma de a real difference to education in the area to the extent that positive Ofsted inspections would not have been achieved without “collaborative school support”.

Further reading

  • Hattie, J, 2015, What Doesn’t Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction, Pearson.
  • Hutchings, M, Francis, B, & Kirby, P, 2015, Chain Effects 2015, The Sutton Trust.
  • Tomkins, P, 2015, The Montsaye Approach, http://tinyurl.com/ovqmzss

Peter Tomkins is an experienced headteacher and currently Vice-Principal of Montsaye Academy, part of the Montsaye Community Learning Partnership (MCLP) Multi-Academy Trust (MAT). Email Peter at ptomkins@montsaye.northants.sch.uk