“We need a social contract that is about pooling and sharing more risks with each other to reduce the worries we all face while optimising the use of talent across our sector … It also means caring about the well-being not just of our own pupils, but of others’ too, since they will all occupy the same world in the future.” (Minouche Shafik)
For just over a decade, schools have been coalescing and forming into multi-academy trusts. The forces that push and pull these schools together are born as much out of circumstance and chance, than intelligent design. As Trusts mature, there is an ever-increasing responsibility falling on educators to find coherence, to create more value and to secure a Trust Dividend. A dividend that enables groups of schools to achieve more than the sum of their parts, and more than before.
Whilst Trusts have grown and matured, the sector remains under development, with trust leaders building purposeful collaboration across groups of schools to seek additional value. There is now enough maturity in our system, to understand and explore how Trusts create the conditions and climate for higher performance. This will require us to lift our horizon, to think beyond the immediate distractions, including growth and to take a longer-term view. So that together, altruistically, far-sightedly, we continue to build Trusts that make a difference now and into the future. It is a moment of uncommon opportunity to take greater stewardship and together build a stronger education system, where all Trusts, work together for all children.
“I would contend that now is a moment of uncommon opportunity, and we should seize it.” (Jon Yates)
By building strong, resilient Trusts that are connected as partner Trusts, we can seize our opportunity to serve communities and exploit the opportunities afforded by civic leadership, anchor trusts and investing in place. Seeking far greater equity through education, for all children in these challenging times and creating a stronger education system that creates social mobility, justice and reaches those presently disadvantaged; disadvantaged even over.
“Whether the systems that emerge… are better or worse than the current dispensation depends on our ability to tell a new story, a story that learns from the past, places us in the present and guides the future.” (George Monbiot)
We should continue to seek a story and a sector that is developed more through joint enterprise, than tribalism, and invest deeply in people and partnerships. A shared endeavour that explores how best to secure a trust dividend, adding value that is significant, persistent and contingent on the existence of the Trust, and a collective trust dividend that transforms our system now and into the future. We may need to re-orientate from a sector where Trusts struggle for existence to one where Trusts are joined in a struggle for performance. Creating an education system that is values driven and built on a collaborative model that transforms lives; the real promise of academisation and Multi Academy Trusts.
“History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.” (Nelson Mandela)
The following seeks to explore how Trusts can intelligently implement high dividend approaches and strategies to secure a trust dividend. Decisions made in these spaces on what is standardised, empowered and how these are sustained and intelligently implemented will determine the long-term trust dividend. It is not a framework or a checklist. It seeks to offer a language for discussing and thinking coherently about what Trusts are, what they need to be and what they can achieve.
“In these difficult times of upheaval and uncertainty, it is up to us now to build a resilient school system that has the capacity and can create the conditions to keep getting better. We believe that is the potential of a trust-based system.” (Leora Cruddas)
The Trust Dividend
The purpose of a Trust is to add more value than the sum of the parts and more than before. This additional value is the Trust Dividend: A significant and persistent level of performance that is contingent on the existence of the Trust and enables schools to work in a higher performance space over time, above that which would have been achieved without the Trust.
Securing a trust dividend, is contingent on the actions taken by a Trust, typically including a level of standardisation, empowerment and collaboration that creates value. As a Trust matures and makes good decisions about where to invest in high dividend strategies there is an inflection point when a discernible dividend is evident that holds the Trust in a higher performance space.
The following diagram compares the impact of a Trust (in blue) with the performance of the same schools if they had not become a Trust (in green). Over time, if the Trust successfully implements approaches that are significant and persistent a trust dividend is created above that of the original schools.
As a rule of thumb, a dividend is hard to achieve and to sustain, we should assume young and maturing Trusts have relatively low influence and capacity to secure a dividend. We should seek evidence of systemic and sustained influence of the Trust on performance and provision to build confidence in the existence of a dividend. The timing of the inflection point is dependent on a range of factors, including scale of trust, strategic decisions, founding principles, values, capacity, capital (intellectual and financial), geography etc. Engaging as knowledge building organisations, Trusts can build a body of knowledge that informs decision making to create stronger dividends.
“…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)
A Trust Dividend is a composite suite of strategies and approaches that Trusts employ to add value over time. Consequently, some actions and strategies add value sooner, some are stubborn, and barely add value, and a few unintentionally decrease value.
The Trust Dividend needs to be significant and persistent
We need to exercise caution, too often we over-estimate the impact of the Trust, too often mis-understanding cause and effect and attributing impact where it is not warranted. Achieving a trust dividend is a high bar it requires Trusts to implement high dividend strategies and approaches that are significant and persistent.
Where it is neither significant or persistent it approximates to normal to status quo. If it is significant, but not persistent, it may have an impact, but not over time, may be dependent on transient conditions, inputs or specific people (Teflon). Something that is persistent and not significant, sticks, but is of low value (Velcro).
A higher performance space | seeking the signal in the noise and antifragility
The Trust Dividend holds schools in higher performance space that may become irreversible and ultimately self-improving (where normal routines hold the trust in the higher performance space) beyond that of stand-alone schools and the previous system. A dividend should be sought across provision and in schools within a Trust, it should act to reduce variance and improve standards within a Trust over time. A dividend that is identifiable, and undeniably contingent on the actions of the Trust. Whilst quantitative measures are the easiest to interrogate for evidence of a Trust Dividend, qualitative dividends add significant value and are often the foundation for quantitative measures.
Reliably identifying a trust dividend requires that we search for signal in the noise. The dividend that emerges from the noise needs to be beyond the noise of normal variations in performance over time. The emergence of a dividend is likely to not happen across a Trust at the same time or with the same potency. An evaluation of positive deviants in the population may indicate early dividend and/or where we should seek future value. Understanding the causes of variation between schools, particularly over time, in the same Trust is invaluable in understanding how value is added and dividends created.
Whilst a trust dividend should be significant and persistent, we should seek dividends that display antifragility, the dividend becomes stronger not weaker under stress. This indicates that the Trust is moving into a self-improving space that sustains and holds up performance that will go beyond our time and become a long-term dividend.
Seeking Expected Value (EV) and Future Value (FV)
As trusts seek a dividend it is helpful to consider the Expected Value (EV) and Future Value (FV) of strategic moves. Whilst this pushes us to think in bets, these are not one-off punts, more a strategic identification of areas of work (in the right order) that the Trust invests in deeply, to secure irreversible improvement and conditions for performance. It is an inconvenient truth that seeking this added value is typically high effort for lasting impact and, annoyingly, it is rarely quick to pay-off. Areas including shared curriculum, shared assessment, deep investment in Trust culture, professional services and building trust leadership are considerable undertakings, but carry high expected and future value.
Why do you (your Trust) exist?
If a Trust is to secure a dividend it needs to know where it is going and what it seeks to achieve; to know why it exists.
It is the reason for existence that directs the dividend. Too often values, mission statements and visions are cliché ridden, assumed, taken for granted and superficial. Unless you know where and what you specifically aim to achieve, where you want the trust to go, then anywhere will do. Leaders who paint the clearest picture of the preferred future, who tell stories of what will be, in high-definition, inspire movements, create greater value, and create the climate for stronger dividends.
“If everything is important, then nothing is… When you know your reason for existence, it should effect the decisions you make.” (Lencioni)
If the values, collective purpose and direction of the Trust is widely owned, this creates the climate, language, habits and behaviours that secure a dividend that is more self-sustaining; pointing colleagues in the right direction, joined in a shared endeavour and mission to make a difference.
Mis-aligned energies will weaken the force and dilute the dividend, we tend to approximate the value that would have been achieved if the Trust did not exist.
A Trust dividend acts like a force that holds the trust in a higher performance and cultural space. The values, principles, ethos and culture of a Trust creates psychological safety to colleagues, a place of belonging and one that gives status and esteem. This gives identity, motivates and encourages discretionary effort that taken together lifts the Trust into a self-improving space; creating the purpose and the autonomy to seek mastery.
Where to play? | Standardise the complicated, empower the complex
Achieving a significant dividend requires Trusts to make good decisions about how they work. Aspects of provision can be broadly divided in to complicated or complex. Understanding this difference supports decisions about where Trusts (and academies, departments or any team) should standardise and where they should empower colleagues.
Areas that are largely complicated are open to standardisation. Complicated areas act largely the same way each time. These areas can often be reduced to a checklist; if this, then do that. Trusts should play in these areas and standardise as there is limited need for local decision making or creativity. For example, shared curriculum, shared assessment, professional services, data, Trust values, Trust leadership, governance…
Areas that are largely complex should be empowered to schools and colleagues. Complex areas respond differently each time and are typically influenced by the unpredictability of human action and interaction, requiring in the moment decision making. In complex areas of provision, we need to push decisions closer to the action where quality and outcome is linked to the situation as it emerges. For example, academy culture, ethos, behaviour, teaching and learning, academy leadership, quality assurance…
…under the conditions of true complexity – where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns – efforts to dictate every step from the centre will fail. People need room to act and adapt. …they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation …and also to measure progress towards common goals. (Atul Gawande)
“You can mandate to get the system from awful to adequate but not from adequate to great. To do that you have to unleash potential and creativity. This cannot be centrally mandated but has to be locally enabled.” (Michael Barber)
Where should Trusts standardise and empower?
“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work” (Seth Godin)
As Trusts standardise areas of provision a column is built on which colleagues can lean and stand upon to focus on the Main Thing(s). Where these standardised areas are developed by teachers for teachers (curating curriculum and designing assessment), we move to a self-improving system owned by colleagues across the Trust. On this platform all colleague across the Trust are empowered to Red Dance, to do what they do best and what they signed-up for; to make a difference to the lives of children.
Areas of provision that are standardised and empowered need to be sustained, guided, held and validated. Empowerment can be supported and magnified by strong values, principles, trust standards, co-opetition, transparent data, horizontal collaboration and a deliberate development of trust leadership and implementation. It is the investment from the Trust in these sustained areas that reinforce the high dividend areas of work and create the conditions for a persistent Trust Dividend.
The following table identifies the key areas that are standardised (typically complicated) and areas where Trusts should empower (typically complex). Contextualisation ensures that standardised and empowered areas strengthen the dividend, owned locally; how we do things here.
The need to standardise, empower and sustain works at all levels within the trust, it is fractal, relevant at Trust, academy, team-level.
Creating the column holds colleagues, simplifies approaches and builds a platform for red dancing, to do what they do best, reducing workload and removing the need to re-invent complicated provision. Empowering colleagues is an expression of trust, it says that they are best placed to make decisions in complex areas and make a difference. We create the sustaining collaborative structures, invest in trust leadership, networks and communities, democratise data and quality assurance to create the conditions for colleagues to feel secure and feel success. This investment is about belonging, giving status and building esteem.
Overcooking Standardisation into the complex areas
It is desirable for Trusts to build standardised approaches that raise the tide and create Trust effectiveness. As the level of standardisation increases it reaches a sweet spot where there is a desirable balance. Beyond the sweet spot further standardisation stifles local decision making and reduces effectiveness.
Trust Leadership | Headteachers as the key agents of improvement
In any Trust it is hard to understate the importance of headteachers. Whilst a number of things separate high and low performing schools, it typically hinges on the quality of leadership and particularly that of the Head.
This is still very much true within Trusts. Seeking and securing a Trust Dividend is strongly hinged on the colleagues that turn up in schools every day. Great heads are experts in relationships and implementation, understanding the complicated and the complex and standardising, empowering and sustaining to seek a dividend. Trusts need to invest in an on-going leadership curriculum the secures and develops trust leadership, focused on Headteachers. Michael Barber’s model is useful for considering implementation, the importance of execution and the boldness/promise of a strategy.
Trusts and headteachers need to place a few bets well, principled innovation on high dividend strategies, that are executed well to achieve improvement and transformation, a dividend. Multiple initiatives that promise much (or little) that are not well executed will be ignored or cause controversy; if this happens too often it weakens the credibility of leadership.
Horizontal collaborative structures | seeking self-improvement
Sustaining and enhancing a Trust Dividend requires strong collaborative structures within a Trust that purposefully connects colleagues to collaborate, creating the conditions for intensely focused collaboration. This is perhaps the greatest advantage that Trusts have. Expert Networks allow the sharing of expertise and development of practice across the Trust, aligning and strengthening the standardised as well as the empowered. Subject Communities, curate curriculum, design assessment and focus on enactment and pedagogy: by teachers for teachers. The sum of this connectivity and collaboration enhances and develops practice that adds dividend and becomes self-sustaining, self-improving.
“Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Etienne Wenger)
All Trusts working together for all children
We have an uncommon opportunity as educators to build an education system that is more about joint enterprise and shared endeavour. Trusts working together for all children, seeking trust and collective dividends that exploit our collaborative structures within and between Trusts to bring greater coherence and effectiveness; reaching all children and bringing light in these gloomy times.
A greater understanding of why we exist, what constitutes a trust dividend, and what does not, the nature of complicated and complex, how this links to standardisation, empowerment and how this can be sustained as well as the importance of Headteachers, implementation and collaborative networks and communities can secure dividends. Seeking a sector that is a co-operative system, where collaborative intelligence becomes wisdom and we enable groups of schools to achieve more than the sum of their parts, and more than before.
“Instead of seeing trees 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 wisdom’. Some older trees even ‘nurture’ smaller trees that they recognise as their ‘kin’, acting as ‘mothers’.” (Robert Macfarlane)
Dan Nicholls | February 2023
The thinking and ideas in this piece are heavily influenced and created by colleagues across Cabot Learning Federation.