Turning around a failing MAT: Debbie Clinton & Vince Green share their journey with Academy Transformation Trust (part 1)

blank Debbie Clinton and Vince Green - 5 December, 2019

Category : Blog

Turning around a failing MAT: Debbie Clinton & Vince Green share their journey with Academy Transformation Trust (part 1)

At Arbor’s MAT conference on 8th November in Manchester, Debbie Clinton, CEO, and Vince Green, Principal and Regional Director for Education, shared their experiences of turning around Academy Transformation Trust over the past year. We’ve transcribed part 1 of their presentation below!  Debbie:  I’m Debbie Clinton, the Chief Executive Officer of Academies Transformation Trust and

At Arbor’s MAT conference on 8th November in Manchester, Debbie Clinton, CEO, and Vince Green, Principal and Regional Director for Education, shared their experiences of turning around Academy Transformation Trust over the past year. We’ve transcribed part 1 of their presentation below! 

Debbie: 

I’m Debbie Clinton, the Chief Executive Officer of Academies Transformation Trust and I have been in post since September of 2018. A bit about my background: Secondary headteacher (named in the House of Commons!) and all these accolades that actually were very precious to me at the time. And then I left all of that to join the dark side and become an HMI (forgive me!) but it was very useful. Then I went over to the Diverse Academy Learning Partnership in the East Midlands to be the deputy CEO and then acting CEO of a much smaller trust than the one I work with now. And then, obviously I mentioned that I started at ATT just over a year ago, and I’m loving it. But it’s also a bit loony, which we’ll come to.

Vince: 

I’m Vince Green and I’ve been a principal within the Academy Transformation Trust since 2014. It’s my 6th year with the trust and I’ve really experienced the interesting journey that our trust has been on during the last 5 years – very much ups and downs all along the way. I was principal for 5 years at Bristnall Hall Academy in Sandwell. But this year, I’m in a fortunate position. Having worked with Debbie for just over a year, I’m now Regional Education Director for Secondary West and also Executive Principal over Bristnall Hall and two other academies in the West Midlands. 

Debbie: 

First, we’ll do the boring bit. So this is us. We are big. We have 22 academies, 10 primaries and secondaries, 1 special school and 1 FE College. We operate across 2 regions, 10 local authority areas, 10 lots of schools forums, 10 lots of CED funding models, 10 high-needs funding models. It’s just great. We have a turnover of over 8 million – not enough, but obviously a significant budget to manage. We have 13,000 students and around 2000 colleagues. If I had had my old HMI hat on – and there’s at least one other former HMI in the room – I would have put our multi-academy trust straight into category for all sorts of reasons, and we’ll come to those now. 

(Image 1: A slide taken from Debbie Clinton’s presentation showing key stats from the Academy Transformation Trust)

The main reason is actually very simple: the multi-academy trust was not behaving as a multi-academy trust. It was behaving as a set of 22 individual entities, some of whom, like Vince’s old academy, were fairly high-performing and doing quite well. So, they kind of just got on with it and thought “the trust is just a pain so I’ll just park that to one side.” As a formerly strong Head, I would’ve done the same. But others, of course, were desperate for the structure and support and challenge that lies at the heart of an effective multi-academy trust – and they weren’t getting any of that. So, everybody lost.

There’s a theme we hope that you pick up running through our presentation: the need to behave as a trust, but then defining what that actually means. We had the following problems: significant debt, 4 CFOs in as many years, management that wasn’t fit for purpose (I’m not talking about the individuals, actually, because many of them are still with me – which is actually a great testament to how far we’ve come). But the structures were just all over the place. Very poor systems. We’re still unearthing things now that are news to some of my senior leaders. Very poor control. Almost absent control at all levels, actually.

Then there’s risk management. I can say this now, because we’ve got one. We didn’t have a risk register. Can you imagine my reaction when I arrived to that? And the trustees were being told that everything was actually tickety-boo when it certainly wasn’t. Some academies had a risk register, so they were compliant, and in some cases quite good registers. But there wasn’t one in the centre. This was a huge problem.

(Image 2: A slide taken from Debbie Clinton’s presentation showing key financial problems within the Academy Transformation Trust)

Vince: 

Can I just add from a principal’s point of view that within our trust during that time, it was quite a strange scenario. About a year in, lots of our academies with financial issues were in positions where there had to be restructures and redundancy processes. We very much did those off our own backs, because we had worked with principals or head teachers before who’d always done the right thing: cut their crop accordingly. If you haven’t got enough money moving forward, you have a redundancy process. But many didn’t, and it wasn’t imposed on them by the Trust at all. 

At times, it would appear to most of us principals that financial people didn’t really know when these problems were coming. So, the only academies that were addressing this were those that had good financial systems and managers within their academy already. We realised this during a major redundancy process at my own academy at the time and I remember turning around to my SLT at one time and saying, “You know what? I reckon today we could go out and spend £100,000 on stuff for this academy and I think we’d get away with it.” Unfortunately, it’s taxpayers’ money, because otherwise it would be great fun. That was the kind of world we lived in at the time. 

Debbie: 

Absolutely. It’s a picture that I recognised from my inspection life as well. With regard to operations, you’ve got to think about the context. 22 academies, 10 local authority areas across East and West regions, massive geographical challenges and a massive geographical understanding that needs to be grasped that wasn’t. So, we’ve done quite a lot with H.R., which is getting there and ICT, which wasn’t regionalised – I mean how do you not regionalise IT and MIS? How can you not actually make sure that the very architecture on which you build your MAT has been properly regionalised? 

We also had poor procurement leadership; there was a Procurement Director. I have no evidence of the impact of that job at all. We had poor MIS leadership – absent, in fact. When you’re looking at areas like risk management and control systems, you need to be really clear on performance with regard to finance, operations and education. We don’t just do education in MATS – of course we don’t. We’re a multi-million pound business! How did we actually know what was going on? Well, we didn’t. And that’s kind of the point. Classic left hand, right hand stuff: too many people. 

If you look at old versions of our website, you will see that there’s all these people employed at the centre doing goodness knows what. And morally, I have an issue with that. So one of the first things we’ve done is try to drive ethical leadership culturally through the organisation. We have to be absolutely clear. What is that job that isn’t either a teacher, head teacher or member of associated support staff? What do they do? What is the point of me? What is the point of a job like this? And how do we continue to evidence the impact of these fairly highly-paid people? 

“What do you do?” That was a question that couldn’t be answered effectively by quite a number of people in those roles. Then there was an equally large problem: no approach to people development. There was no strategic, deep understanding that the most important thing you ever do as a trust – as any large organisation – is look after your people. Develop them. Challenge them. Bring them on. Make them feel like they want to be part of the journey. 

(Image 3: A slide taken from Debbie Clinton’s presentation showing key operations problems within the Academy Transformation Trust)

Vince:

I agree. In terms of education, there were some pockets of great practice going on within many of the academies and actually within our central team. We’ve had a lot of different staff that have worked separately for our trust over the 5 years I’ve worked with ATT. We’ve had some great individuals within those groups, but it’s never been joined up. And what it has resulted in is these academies pretty much working in silos, occasionally collaborating with other academies because the principals have taken it upon themselves to do it. But it’s been very much them and us. 

So that brings me on to where we are now. We are one organisation. We are one trust. I think what attracted me initially to work for ATT – to take on my first headship with it – was the fact that I was clearly going to have huge amounts of autonomy, which was very attractive at the time. I could bring in the people I wanted, which was great fun, and so on. And that worked well, even in my environment. I’m not just saying that because it’s me necessarily, because I had a number of other great things in place, but this did not work well in other academies where that wasn’t the case.  

We had, as I’ve said, uncontrolled spending. We had crazy staffing structures in some places and things not driving on educationally as one would want. Another big issue was definitely our people development strategy. In terms of talent mapping, capacity mapping and skill mapping, it was only done well in some academies. In others, we’ve lost some fantastic people along the way and I see them doing great things now in other trusts and in other organisations. And really, you know, our kids are missing out on those people now because it wasn’t mapped out properly at the time. 

Debbie

You know, Sir David Carter, as he left his role as National Schools Commissioner, talked about the spectrum of autonomous alignment and standardisation. What do you tightly control? What do you not really care about and what do you need to make sure you align? We did a lot of work on that, which is nowhere near finished, but we have begun a very important piece of work in our Trust about that. 

One of the things that most fascinated me in my interview for ATT was the total absence of this.  There were about 8 trustees involved in my appointment. During the interview they asked, “Have you got any questions?” And I said, “Talk to me about your school improvement strategy,” and they couldn’t tell me anything. It was disgraceful. 

In fact, the trustees were quite clear that this was one of their main worries that they felt unable to articulate. That classic Ofsted question: “Talk to me about how you improve academies.” What do you do? What’s your model? How do you know it works? 

So defining that was was really, very important indeed. When I arrived, they were spending £185,000 on consultants. So I asked to see the 16 contracts for these 16 consultants. Not a single KPI on any contract. One of them is charging around £800 a day (to fund his villa in Spain, clearly). I could not see any KPIs in any of those contracts, so they’ve all gone. 

(Image 4: A slide taken from Debbie Clinton’s presentation showing key education problems within the Academy Transformation Trust)

Vince:

Just to conclude, I mean, we will all be very aware of what’s happened with certain other high-profile MATs that no longer exist. And I think the bottom line was that ATT was in a position which was seen externally as relatively healthy. It was a MAT that had been allowed to grow – in a crazy way, really. If you look at the geography of a lot of our academies, we had at the time very rapidly declined, in a way that could have basically forced us to cease to exist.

Click here to read the next instalment of Debbie and Vince’s presentation, in which they talk about exactly how they approached turning around Academy Transformation Trust.