Multi-academy trusts: what is expected of the CEO?

19th October 2023

In the following article Dafydd Lawday, CEO of Mercian Education Trust, provides his account on the expectations and responsibilities of a multi-academy trust CEO.

The CEO content framework

Where schools establish a multi-academy trust (MAT), the CEO will take on the critical role of leading the management team. In accordance with the Academy Trust Handbook, the CEO will be the senior executive leader of the MAT.

Given the importance of this role in shaping and leading the MAT, the Department for Education has produced a Chief Executive Officer content framework (the Framework) setting out the knowledge, skills and behaviours required of a CEO leading a large MAT. The Framework forms the basis of a professional development programme to equip CEOs with those capabilities.

In early 2022 the Schools White Paper committed to creating a new MAT CEO development programme. It also established 5 pillars of a quality trust:

  1. High-Quality and Inclusive Education
  2. School Improvement
  3. Workforce
  4. Strategic Governance
  5. Financial Management

The content of the Framework is aligned to these quality pillars, which have been adapted into 6 domains for strong trust leadership.

Leadership and organisational development

The Framework sets out how a MAT CEO can create a cohesive organisational culture, which is focused on providing a structure through which staff and pupils can thrive. Some of the traits which would be expected of CEOs in this respect include building a trust strategy which is driven by a theory of change and supported by a methodology, which sets out how interventions lead to educational improvement.

To achieve this, the CEO might, for example, consider how key activities are recorded in, and implemented through, the strategic plan and ensure the theory of change is communicated repeatedly and differentiated to mobilise internal and external stakeholders.

In addition, the trust’s culture must embody the behaviours and beliefs that shape how staff, students, and other stakeholders work together. This may be achieved by the CEO creating a strong organisational culture, which supports overall health and performance by creating mechanisms for regular feedback across the organisation, demonstrating a commitment to safeguarding and ensuring that the staff code of conduct sets out clear expectations and is actively implemented.

Within Mercian Educational Trust (MET), leadership and organisation has matured and changed as the trust has grown. In the first year of stepping into the position, MET was small, with only two schools. The Trustees had taken the bold step to appoint someone ‘neutral’ to both schools.

Being fresh to the organisation was a huge advantage in creating the organisational culture. Being truly impartial to both schools allowed me to create a culture based on my beliefs and the strengths identified in both schools. I appreciate the advantage I had through this Trustees action. Many CEO’s organically progress into the role from an original position as a Trust School leader and face the challenge of creating an ethos that is separate from their school of origin, showing that it is a collective, not a single school leading the MAT.

Quality of education

The Framework also sets out the role taken by the CEO in providing the strongest possible education for pupils. This includes disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND, with the CEO expected to ensure that the MAT meets its obligations and puts accessible support in the right place at the right time with regard to statutory guidance in the SEND Code of Practice.

In terms of the quality of education, CEOs should recognise that pupil resilience and wellbeing is key to academic achievement, and accordingly CEOs should ensure that character education is a focus of learning, and an inclusive learning culture is created. CEOs can achieve this by implementing explicit, implicit, and embedded trust values in the day-to-day life of the MAT through the routines and behaviours of all members of the MAT community, and setting a culture of high behavioural expectations for all pupils.

MET’s commitment to pupils’ quality of education was enhanced through the creation of a second central trust role: a School Improvement Officer (SIO). The post was created as growth and opportunity made the role viable. The trigger was a third school, MET’s first Sponsored Academy, but was heavily supplemented in the early phase by providing external support.

The primary role of the SIO was to immediately support the sponsored school’s educational improvement on conversion; ensuring that much needed support continued. As the role matured and trust growth continued we developed the role into its current form, providing quality support to schools through a combination of ‘non’ and ‘negotiable’ levels of tiered support; partnership and signposting expertise across MET.

Another important approach taken by MET was to ensure an ethos of collaboration. Our school leaders value the opportunity to work together, share ideas and reduce workloads. We have implemented several strategies to encourage collaboration, a mix of subtle and obvious activities. The success of these approaches led MET to welcome a converter academy into the trust.

Strategic governance

The Framework states that a successful CEO must:

  • Understand and welcome the role of trust governance
  • Recognise that the board of trustees is responsible and accountable for the trust
  • Understand the respective roles of those involved in the governance of the trust.

In addition, the CEO must demonstrate that they understand the duties of the Accounting Officer in relation to governance, including the specific responsibilities for financial matters and the duty to raise concerns.

Some of the behaviours that CEOs can adopt to demonstrate this understanding are developing a relationship with the chair of trustees, keeping them abreast of key developments across the MAT, as well as welcoming performance management and recognising that board meetings focus on trustee questions and challenge, rather than executive presentation.

MET has been fortunate to have worked with a range of dedicated governors, Trustees and Members since it’s conception, and has always focused on appointing volunteers that have the necessary skills to help trust growth and recognise opportunities.

Trustees have also made and supported bold decisions to ensure the ongoing success and growth of MET. This has included taking calculated risks to welcome sponsored academies, negotiating Article changes to work with Church of England VC schools, and recently to develop a specialist education hub.

The appointment of a Governance Lead has added significant strength and expertise to the governance of MET. Following a review of governance, we have identified several areas to enhance our provision through additional focus and delegation of responsibility.

Finance and Operations

CEOs need to employ financial management and operational systems to ensure the sustainability of the education delivered in, and growth of, their MAT. The CEO, as Accounting Officer, has a personal responsibility not only to ESFA’s accounting officer but to Parliament for the MAT’s financial resources. They also take personal responsibility for assuring the board of compliance with the MAT’s funding agreement and with the Academy Trust Handbook. Activities can be delegated to, the MAT’s Chief Financial Officer or other specialist finance/operations professionals, although the CEO must ensure that they maintain oversight and responsibility.

CEOs will therefore appreciate the need for strong working relationships between the CEO, Chief Financial Officer, and the MAT trustees. They can demonstrate this by supporting the Chief Financial Officer in their professional development, and access and support expertise from both within the MAT and externally so that best financial practice can be delivered.

As MET grew in member schools and size, additional roles became viable. MET started its journey with a part time Trust Business Manager. In the ‘early-days’ much of this person’s time was occupied by combining all income into one Trust Budget while ensuring that the schools felt they weren’t being disadvantaged by being in a MAT, which was an incredibly tough balancing act. Over the course of time this role has evolved into a full time Chief Financial Officer. This role is crucial to MET, ensuring not only the obvious financial aspects but also bringing together the ethos of working together in a consistent manner.

Workforce and talent development

Workforce and talent development management within a MAT relies on CEOs interacting with staff and providing opportunities for professional development across the MAT. Creating a culture of mutual trust and respect between members of staff allows for supportive professional environments to be built within the MAT.

CEOs should ensure that the values of the MAT are communicated to staff to encourage engagement of staff and are embedded through frequent communication. Processes should also be put in place to monitor the effectiveness of instilling the MAT’s values and to allow practices to change and develop as the MAT expands.

Collaborative work between MET’s schools is an integral feature for developing respect, trust and development of staff. We have created support groups, projects and events that allow our schools to work together in various areas and with different levels of focus. We have taken opportunities to allow and encourage staff to broaden their experience through secondments at other schools within the trust and created a STEP (Short Term Exchange Placement) programme that allows professionals in the same roles to ‘swap’ schools to broaden their experience.

Maintaining MET’s ethos within schools is key to developing inter-school activity and demonstrating to other potential schools the benefit of being within a trust. However, we carefully balance trust values with characteristics that make our schools unique and attractive to parents and their communities.

Public benefit and civic duty

Finally, the Framework outlines the role CEOs play in prioritising the legal and moral imperative of the MAT as education charities. As academy trusts will be aware, the trust’s objects are contained in its constitutional documents, including in its articles of association, and MATs must be operated in a way which seeks to fulfil the objects. CEOs must therefore develop a detailed understanding and knowledge of the MAT’s constitutional documents and be able to articulate how the objects are being fulfilled.

In ensuring that public benefit is embedded in the strategic direction and culture of the MAT, and statutory and legal duties, including the Public Sector Quality Duty are fulfilled the CEO should take steps to confirm that the MAT is addressing the needs of the community it serves. Where the MAT includes faith schools, these needs will include the Church, or other relevant body.

The CEO should also ensure that the MAT’s growth planning is reflective of a commitment to advance education as a public benefit, which should encompass supporting pupils from all backgrounds, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Public benefit should be reported through the MAT’s published accounts, curriculum and extra-curricular details published on the MAT’s website and performance tables.

Next steps

The Framework is aimed at CEOs leading small MATs or looking to lead a large MAT effectively. In addition, Chairs of academy trustees should be familiar with the Framework, as it acts as a guide to assess potential CEO candidates. Governance reviews can also be a helpful tool in ensuring that a 360 view of the MAT is obtained, including the strength and effectiveness of the CEO’s working relationship with the Board of trustees.

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