Managing a trust that is geographically dispersed – Mark Greatrex, CEO of Bellevue Place Education Trust (BPET) shares his strategy

Mark Greatrex - 27 May, 2020

Category : Blog

Managing a trust that is geographically dispersed – Mark Greatrex, CEO of Bellevue Place Education Trust (BPET) shares his strategy

Mark Greatrex has had a rich history in education; having held senior positions in three academy trusts and serving ten years at the DfE, his current position is CEO at Bellevue Place Education Trust (BPET), where he’s been for five years. BPET is geographically spread out, made up of eight primary schools in eight different

Mark Greatrex has had a rich history in education; having held senior positions in three academy trusts and serving ten years at the DfE, his current position is CEO at Bellevue Place Education Trust (BPET), where he’s been for five years. BPET is geographically spread out, made up of eight primary schools in eight different Local Authority regions across London and Berkshire.

Mark joined us for a brilliant webinar in our series “Adapting to change”, where he shared with fellow MAT leaders his strategies for leading a geographically dispersed trust, and how these strategies play out during the challenges of Covid-19. 

You can read Mark’s conversation with Arbor’s CEO, James Weatherill, below. Here’s a quick summary of the three main strategic areas Mark talked about:

  • Education autonomy – the importance of developing Headteachers to take ownership of their organisation, and how to monitor this autonomy through a strong performance management programme and school improvement strategy
  • Financial alignment – the power of having central oversight of the trust’s finances and top tips for efficient financial management
  • Plans to expand – the “10, 40, 100” model that Mark uses to plan how the trust would need be run as it grows, and the strategies to ensure geographical distance does not become a barrier to success

Why is educational autonomy important for your trust?

We’re very passionate about the breadth of provision we offer. We want the children to leave having real independence and confidence. Not only is the curriculum broad, but it’s delivered in an exciting, engaging and purposeful way. 

The most important thing for us is educational autonomy. We create the culture of the organisation centrally, and do have some policies that are approved centrally, such as safeguarding, first aid, health & safety and HR. But all our educational policies are approved at a local level. 

In the autonomy model, the role of the Headteacher is key. I’ve wanted to make sure that they have full ownership of everything that goes on in the institution they lead. It’s the middle leaders and the Teachers too, who are the engine room of the school. They own the curriculum content and the delivery of it. Because we serve schools across a diverse group of affluent and not so affluent areas, the curriculum needs to meet the needs of the local community that we serve. 

How do you build successful Headteachers?

The first thing I did as the CEO was put a very strong Headteacher performance management policy in place so that I can properly hold them to account, and that the metrics are shared and understood across the organisation. If we are pushing accountability, we need to reward so our Headteachers are eligible for discretionary bonuses every year of 2-8%. 

Headteacher objectives and targets are linked to our trust goals: Learn, enjoy, succeed

  • Learn: This curriculum objective is judged by the breadth of the curriculum and the richness of after-school provision. An example of a target within that is 60% of children attending an after-school club once a week 
  • Enjoy: This measures the effectiveness of the school and is judged by pupil numbers and attendance 
  • Succeed: This measures the quality of teaching and learning. Teachers are graded by “Outstanding”, “Good”, “Requires Improvement” and “Inadequate” (all of our Teachers are “Good”, and about 40% are “Outstanding”). We also look at pupil achievement here
  • Corporate target: This looks at what the Headteacher is doing across the organisation. Do they lead initiatives like learning reviews, collaboration groups, art projects or sports initiatives? 

How do you monitor school autonomy?

We make five two-day visits a year to review each of our schools. In the visits, we look at the school development plan, the safeguarding audit. The essential element is the learning review where we look at a particular piece of teaching and learning. 

Our review cycle is modelled on “C.O.D.E.” (Challenge, Ownership, Dialogue and Engagement). Each school chooses one area to be reviewed on each year. For example, under “Ownership”, we review childrens’ engagement in their own learning. This drives a powerful teaching and learning conversation within our schools. I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole Ofsted review cycle, because if the Central Team has got leadership right, and we’ve got teaching and learning right in schools, everything else will fall into place

Systems like Arbor MIS and Civica (our finance system) are invaluable to us as a Multi-Academy Trust, as they make those conversations a lot more focused. Five years ago, when I was going into schools with school improvement advisors, we’d spend a whole hour just trying to agree on a figure. Now we can immediately identify where the challenges are, for example persistent absences or behavioural issues. Arbor and Civia take us to the right places to focus our discussions and move the schools forward at pace.

How do you roll out your school improvement strategy?

As part of our school improvement strategy, we produce performance reports every term that are similar to the “school on a page” reports that some trusts use. These are two-page reports with RAG ratings covering attainment, quality of teaching and learning, leadership, attendance, safeguarding, behaviour, resources, staffing and engagement with the community. These consistent documents share the dialogue and increase visibility and accountability, bringing everyone into the conversation of improvement.

As a Central Team, we then plan strategic improvement interventions. As David Blunkett said “Intervention should be in inverse proportion to success.” We believe the system is improved by working on our worst performing schools

Depending on internal capacity, we sometimes commission organisations such as Local Authorities or expert private providers to do a piece of work with a clear scope e.g. improve attendance in one of our schools. 

How do you develop your staff?

We’re lucky to have an “Enrichment fund” which we use for certain passion projects across our schools, such as “Philosophy for Children” staff training, or hiring a Maths advisor five days a year for each school. 

Our CPD offer is critical. We’ve developed new Headship, Senior and Emerging Leaders programmes. We run one trust-wide INSET day a year in one of our schools, with about fifty one-hour taster sessions in different areas e.g. having courageous conversations with parents. These really drive enthusiasm and give staff tools and techniques they can take back to their schools. They’re also aimed to continue to fire their enthusiasm for teaching and learning.

We also make sure we do safeguarding every year for new staff or those who need a refresher. It’s possible to do things centrally but you can’t do it as often and you need to use remote formats. Going forward, we plan to do 4 out of 5 of our collaboration sessions per year virtually. 

Why is financial alignment important to your trust?

Where we give our schools educational autonomy, the opposite is true in terms of how we’re structured financially. By managing finances centrally, I want to invest funds in the schools that need it the most. That’s not to say we pool school funding. Each school retains their budgets based on the school funding letter. 

We’ve set three key financial performance indicators:

1) No school will go into deficit. Those who are in deficit have a goal to be out by the end of the year 

2) Staffing should be no greater than 75% of each school’s budget. This has allowed us to prioritise our numbers of staff 

3) 95% of invoices should have a purchase order. We want to ensure a formalised process where all committed spend at school level is raised in our finance system (Civica) as a purchase order. We then process all invoices centrally in weekly payment run across all schools. This ensures all our suppliers are paid against their payment terms 

What are your top tips for managing finances across your schools?

  • Give Headteachers access to cash. Our Heads have a procurement card with a monthly limit of £3000. This means they can buy supplies for breakfast clubs, make small purchases from Amazon etc. However, they don’t have bank accounts
  • Only have one bank account. If you have more than one account, ask yourself why? Why move money? It’s too much of a risk
  • Have one role instead of multiple. We have one payroll provider so everything is in one place when we need to do things like gender pay gap reporting. We also have only one catering provider and one ICT provider, and we’re moving towards having one facilities management provider
  • Go cashless. We use Arbor for meals and trips. We also use SchoolsBuddy for our schools who run lots of clubs, because it can rank clubs 
  • Think about your pension options. Because we’re based in London and our Teachers have large student loans, we offer a third pension option alongside LGPS and TPS, which has a 0% employee contribution for Teachers and 2% for Support Staff, and we pay an 8% employer contribution
  • Have a separate internal auditor so you know what you need to know and the external audit isn’t a surprise
  • Hire more efficiently. Some MATs have a Business Manager per school being paid highly for a mostly administrational role which only requires a small amount of financial expertise. At BPET, we have one central Finance Director who has complete control of the finances, and school Office Managers to do the admin work. This saves us around £5-10,000 per school which goes towards supporting the schools. It also gives me visibility of finances across our organisation, and means we can react very quickly to the needs of schools 
  • Procure large spend centrally. We procure any expenditure over £20,000 centrally, such as staff appointments. This means we can look at our spend across the whole trust. We work with Schools Buying Club who tender our contracts for us and hold them to account, which helps make sure we get real value for money across our contracts 

Is distance between schools in a trust a barrier?

Since 2011, the MAT market has been growing and evolving exponentially. The question of proximity was only really brought up by Lord Nash when he recommended an hour’s journey time between schools. Hopefully the way we support our schools will give confidence that distance doesn’t have to be a barrier, but we take responsibility for our growth, not only in numbers, but in geography, and work hard to make sure we don’t have any true outliers.

Do you plan to grow? What is your expansion model?

A management consultant once introduced to me the rule of “10, 40 100”. If you think of these proportions applied to an organisation – it could be the number of employees, or the turnover – organisations with 10, 40 and 100 need to be run in very different ways and probably need very different CEOs. In our case, we think of this in terms of number of schools. Our aim is to grow to 15 schools, but if we’re successful at 15 and the trustees want us to grow to 40, that will be a very different business model.

However, where operational alignment works well for 15 schools, the question is, is it scalable within the 10, 40, 100 rule? I don’t know. If we grow, Regional Directors and hubs might be an option. We could also split the Finance Director role into four hubs. What we’d have to think about, however, is how we’d bring those hubs together to maintain consistency. 

How have you adapted to managing your schools remotely?

Over the past few weeks we’ve been thrown into web calls; we use Zoom for all of our conversations with Headteachers. Normally, having a meeting with a school can take two hours out of everyone’s time, so doing them virtually is really powerful. I think having a blend of the Internet and meeting in person is important – Zoom is something the finance and operations teams use quite a lot anyway, and have been for a few years now. But you can’t deny the power of personal contact. I think we’ll always continue our physical meetings with Headteachers four times a year.

Look out for more webinars in our series “Adapting to Change”, where we’re interviewing MAT leaders about how they’re adapting to partial school closures and all the changes that are happening at the moment. You can catch up on one of our recent webinars with Dan Morrow, CEO of Woodland Academy Trust all about “Nurturing Staff Mental Health and Wellbeing” here

If you want to find out more about how Arbor MIS could help your trust work flexibly and remotely, get in touch at or 0208 050 1028. Or alternatively you can book a web demo here