How REAch2 use the wisdom of Dr Seuss to introduce new schools to the trust

Sue Northend - 28 May, 2019

Category : Blog

How REAch2 use the wisdom of Dr Seuss to introduce new schools to the trust

Today I’m going to talk about how to scale culture across your MAT whilst giving schools individual identity. I’m Sue Northend, Head of HR at REAch2, and I wanted to start by telling you a little bit about the trust and the journey we’ve been on so far. REAch2 is the largest primary academy trust

Today I’m going to talk about how to scale culture across your MAT whilst giving schools individual identity. I’m Sue Northend, Head of HR at REAch2, and I wanted to start by telling you a little bit about the trust and the journey we’ve been on so far.

REAch2 is the largest primary academy trust in England, and we have 60 schools scattered across 200 miles of geography. Our schools tend to fall into one of two specific categories; they’re either rural and coastal, which has its own set of challenges, or they’re in central towns and cities. Part of REAch2’s DNA is taking on schools that are in particular situations where there is a lot of social deprivation.

82% of our academies were sponsored when they came to us with severe issues of performance. We’ve got 20,000 children and 4,000 staff, and of the 60 schools we’ve got today, 17% of them were in special measures when they came to the trust. I’m really delighted to be able to say that 6 years later, 82% of our schools are now rated “Good” or above. There’s no doubt that it’s a journey, and part of the culture that we embed in our schools is to make sure that they know that we’re not looking for results over a 12-month period, because we want those results to be sustainable.

My background is in finance, so coming into education was a learning curve for me! Despite this, I think I bought some fresh thinking to REAch2 when I arrived. Really, any organization in the commercial sector that is growing in the way REAch2 has done (which is about 50% in three years!) would think it was utter madness. But what we’ve learnt along the way is that we don’t get it right all the time, and I think we as a central team have had to accept that it is a learning journey. What I want to share with you today is a bit about where we are, what our culture looks like, and how we reinforce it.

First of all, let’s take a look at what it takes to create and organise a culture.

One of our first steps when taking on a new school is to do what we call “facilitating a path”. When a MAT is small, alignment is easy – after a few conversations by the water cooler, a decision is made, steps are agreed, and we’re on the same page. As the MAT grows, that gets more difficult. It becomes all the more important to be clear and consistent, and to communicate what it is we do & what we’re about on a daily basis. So when a school joins the trust, we clear the path for the REAch2 culture, and some of this is really practical, as you might expect. We look at things like structure, accountability, and whether the school has the right talent (although we don’t sack the headteacher!). We have conversations with all the teachers about what REAch2 is about, and our CEO, Deputy CEO, COO & Leadership team make time to go out and spend time in the school so that the teachers can ask us questions and can see that we really care about the path that we’re clearing.

There are a lot of CEOs, COOs and CFOs here today, and make no mistake – culture is your responsibility. It has to start at the top. When we clear the path, we focus on supporting the school leadership by balancing what’s core and consistent across all our schools, with what’s individual to that specific school. I think that’s one of the attractions of REAch2 to all the primary schools that join us – we don’t insist that all schools have the same vision. We don’t impose a curriculum or a uniform – headteachers are headteachers because they enjoy the leadership, the ownership and the success that they bring to their own schools. We understand that.

So we’re very careful about what is core and what’s not. We’re not the Starbucks of the education world, and not every latte, frappuccino or mocha is the same. We see the trust and central team as being the enabler and the empowerer, facilitating and supporting change or improvement.

In order that we can understand what needs to change, we hold inductions. And during that induction, we introduce our Headteachers to “Oh, the places you will go”, by Dr Seuss (one of my favourite philosophers!). It’s a simple book, but it’s got some fantastic philosophy in there. When you first join the trust, it feels like this line in the book:

“You’ll be on your way up. You’ll be seeing great sights. You’ll join the high flyers who soar at great heights.”

However, we’re really clear about this to the Headteachers in our senior leadership team – for all of us there will be times when, as Dr Seuss says:

When you’re alone, there’s a good chance you’ll meet some things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some down the road between hither and yon, that will scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

Image 1: REAch2 use The Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss to onboard new schools joining the MAT

For me, part of the culture of REAch2 is making sure that all of our schools know that we are there when things are going well and when the chips are down. And, let’s be realistic – that can be a daily occurrence.

Before I talk more specifically about REAch2’s culture, I’m going to talk a little bit about what the word culture actually means. We tend to our schools in the same way that a farmer might tend to a field, or a parent might tend to a child. We’re there through the good weather and the bad weather, thick and thin, and no matter what the time is; I’ve been supporting teachers with cases over the weekend and during the evening. It’s important that they know we are there. Every school is individual – not only because of the location – but because no two pupils are the same. So why would our schools be the same? The DNA may be alike, but they’re more like siblings, not clones. Most importantly, the culture spans across all aspects of the organisation, from our trustees to our governors, our headteachers to our pupils, and we share our vision with parents. We tend to our staff through CPD, and coaching is available to all leaders, without restriction. For pupils, our Eleven Before Eleven programme means that children from disadvantaged backgrounds get to cook a meal together, sleep out under the stars, or travel on the train – things they’ve never had the chance to do before.

These are the kind of things that excite us. These are the kind of things that mean the curriculum is not core – it’s differentiated for school to school. So before I talk specifically about REAch2, I’m going to ask you a really easy question. Grab a pen and paper off the table, and I want you to score yourself in answer to these two questions (top marks is 10, and 1 is really low):

  • Could you personally describe the culture of your organisation?
  • Could you describe the purpose of your organisation?

You should have found those questions easy to answer. Now I’m going to move onto a harder question.

  • If you were sitting around a table today with your leadership team today, and you had to write down the purpose of the organisation, would you all write the same thing?

My guess is probably not (unless you’ve just done a session on this exact topic). But this is the work that you need to do, because those words will affect the way you’re behaving. No matter if your senior leadership team is 3 of you, 10 or 15 of you – if your behaviour is reinforcing different cultures, different words and a different purpose, you can imagine how your sphere of influence will dissipate as the organisation grows.