Strong Trusts build collaborative structures and platforms for great schools to create more value for all children, over time. This trust dividend enables groups of schools to achieve more than the sum of their parts, and more than before. Strong Trusts are values-led, purpose-driven, learning organisations who establish the conditions for colleagues to create collaborative intelligence that becomes trust wisdom that strengthens great schools.
“Instead of seeing trees (schools) as individual agents competing for resources, she proposed the forest as ‘a co-operative system’, in which trees ‘talk’ to one another, producing a collaborative intelligence she described as ‘forest (trust) wisdom’. Some older trees even ‘nurture’ smaller trees.” (Robert Macfarlane)
There is now enough maturity in our system to identify how strong Trusts create enough value to sustain groups of great schools; school is Trust, Trust is school. Deepening this understanding will enable educators to take greater stewardship of the sector and build strong Trusts that work together for all children. The following identifies five functions of a strong Trust that, taken together, create a trust dividend that supports, empowers and sustains great schools.
The five functions of a strong Trust | in brief
One: Strong Trusts are values-led and purpose-driven, they understand why they exist, live out their values, achieve their purpose, tell stories of the future, create coherence and clarity to establish a climate where colleagues belong to something bigger and are empowered to add value.
Two: Strong Trusts standardise areas of provision that build platforms for colleagues to stand on and exploit, areas that are high dividend and rise the tide, particularly a shared curriculum, shared assessment and wider professional services. These are significant investments in high dividend areas, over time, that add future value.
Three: Strong Trusts invest in leadership, particularly of headteachers, so that there is a deep investment in relationships, setting direction and implementation within schools. Leadership that builds and sustains a strong culture and great teaching, hallmarks of great schools and areas that are largely empowered to and owned by schools.
Four: Strong Trusts create collaborative structures, an architecture enabling colleagues to collaborate across the Trust in networks and communities, creating, designing, developing and aligning approaches that add value. Trusts are risk-informed, distorting resource and expertise to tackle underperformance.
Five: Strong Trusts maintain high standards creating the conditions for healthy competition, great schools joined in the shared endeavour of raising standards, transparently using trust-wide data, building shared intelligence and using research-led approaches to inform implementation and school improvement.
+One: Strong Trusts act within and on the system, working together with other Trusts, to create a collective dividend and take responsibility for the education system, serving communities as anchor institutions and working with other civic partners to support all children.
The Five Functions of a Strong Trust, the next level of detail
One: Values-led, purpose-driven | building culture and belonging
Strong Trusts know and understand why they exist. They have a set of compelling values and clarity of purpose that galvanises colleagues into shared endeavour and collective responsibility. This clarity aligns colleagues, informs the strategic investments and paints a compelling future, that guides the big and small decisions made across the Trust by all colleagues every day. It is in these actions, over time, and not in the written words, that culture emerges.
“…understanding the “cultural magic” that makes an organisation feel truly human, and creates a sense of connection and belonging.” (Tracey Camilleri, et al.)
Without this clarity of purpose, colleagues struggle to place themselves and their work within the Trust. Strong Trusts create a sense of belonging, give status and build esteem, because the rules of the game are clear, colleagues understand the journey and are empowered to add value. This is a significant investment in people, actively building well-being to create psychologically safe, high trust, heart felt collegiality that holds people in the Trust.
“To feel a sense of belonging is to feel accepted, to feel seen and to feel included by a group of people… to not feel belonging is to experience the precarious and insecure sense of an outsider.” (Owen Eastwood, 2021)
Strong Trusts bring coherence and clarity on how we do things here, what is standardised, empowered, the routines and collaborative structures that secure school improvement at scale. Deepening understanding of the Trust’s Theory of Action empowers colleagues to build great schools on the platform of the Trust.
Two: Standardisation | creating a platform for colleagues
Strong Trusts deliberately standardise areas of provision, typically complicated areas, that add value and create platforms for colleagues to focus on the Main Thing(s). Amongst the most important to standardise: a shared curriculum, shared assessment, syllabi and professional services.
A shared curriculum where learning is progressive, sequenced, and coherent over time is one of the most important levers available to Trusts; being experts and collaborating on one curriculum, rather than many.
A shared assessment system across all year groups, based on the shared curriculum and shared examination syllabi create an accountability framework and the intelligence for raising standards. This provides the elements required for co-opetition and the transparent sharing of data for the purposes of school improvement; school is Trust, Trust is school.
Three: Trust Leadership | empowering leaders to build great schools
Strong Trusts invest in leaders, particularly Headteachers, as the key agents in building and sustaining great schools, investing in their knowledge, development and wellbeing. Great leadership builds relationships, sets direction and implements well. Strong Trusts seek to drive-up the quality of this leadership, they build a curriculum for it and create the conditions that empower leaders to lead great schools, within a strong Trust.
Strong Trusts understand where to standardise (complicated) and where to empower (complex). Whilst great schools are great at many things, two areas stand out. Firstly, great schools propagate a strong culture of high expectation that is scholarly and builds character. Secondly, they secure great teaching, through professional learning and developing individual teachers. Both areas are largely empowered to schools as they require contextualising and local decision making, to follow learning to meet need and to build culture in context.
Four: Deliberate collaboration I networks, communities and expertise
Strong Trusts create collaborative structures for colleagues to build collective intelligence and understanding; an investment in people. Networks and communities connect colleagues horizontally across the Trust and within and beyond phases to create the conditions for improvement, the sharing of practice and alignment; moving towards a self-improving Trust. Creating the architecture, time, artefacts and purpose of collaboration that empower colleagues to focus together on the Main Thing(s).
“…we can speed this process (trial and error) up by creating systems and platforms where we search for new knowledge systematically… integrate the result into our body of knowledge, and apply it into new ways of doing things.” (Johan Norberg)
Strong Trusts deliberately build expertise and improvement tools that support school improvement, particularly in areas of provision that are specialist and in high demand; one of the key advantages of Trusts. The accessibility and use of expertise commissioned and utilised by schools and headteachers creates the conditions for a self-improving Trust.
“The stars we are given. The constellations we make.” (Rebecca Solnit)
Strong Trusts are risk-informed, use information, intelligence and data to concentrate and distort the resources developed by the Trust to improve areas of underperformance. They develop expertise and capacity over time, commensurate with scale, and use school improvement teams and specific expertise to improve schools in a timely, proportionate and deliberate way.
Five: High Standards | competition and transparent performance data
Strong Trusts balance co-operation and competition to drive up trust standards; co-opetition. The transparent, deliberate use of data (democratised data) to understand performance and school improvement, in high-trust environments, builds intelligence and informs improvement. Great schools invest in quality assurance as part of strong implementation practices, supported by the trust and accessing trustworthy expertise, resources and tools.
Strong Trusts are research-led, often working in cognitive dissonance, holding opposing ideas in tension; resisting simplified swings based on trend; tempering influences and instead leaning on seminal readings and peer-reviewed research. They are learning organisations who use the Trust as a test-bed to understand performance and deliberately share intelligence.
+One: Sector engaged | all trusts working together for all children
Strong Trusts work within and on the wider system. They understand that the success of the Trust hinges on the success of other Trusts and that we all have a shared responsibility and stewardship for the education system as a whole; all trusts working together for all children. By working in partnership and with a sense of altruism, Trusts can better understand how to add value, achieve dividend, and take greater collective responsibility for our system.
By building strong, resilient Trusts that are connected as partner Trusts, we can seize our opportunity to serve communities, build partnerships and exploit the opportunities afforded by civic leadership, anchor trusts and investing in place. This creates a stronger education system, better able to secure equity through education, social mobility, justice and to reach those presently disadvantaged; disadvantaged even over.
Great schools, strong Trust | the five functions
The five functions seek to create a trust dividend, establishing a strong Trust with great schools. The functions create the opportunity for Trusts to be self-improving, with leaders empowered and connected to lead on the platform of the Trust. This long-term investment builds strong Trusts who can work with partner Trusts to add a collective dividend that transforms the life chances of children. All trusts working together for all children.
Dan Nicholls | February 2023
The thinking presented here is based on the work, experience and thinking of colleagues across Cabot Learning Federation.