Turning around a failing MAT: Debbie Clinton & Vince Green share their journey with Academy Transformation Trust (part 2)

blank Debbie Clinton - 9 December, 2019

Category : Blog

Turning around a failing MAT: Debbie Clinton & Vince Green share their journey with Academy Transformation Trust (part 2)

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. To read part 1 of their presentation, click here.  It’s scary, isn’t it? How these edifices can collapse really, really quickly in

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. To read part 1 of their presentation, click here

It’s scary, isn’t it? How these edifices can collapse really, really quickly in our sector.  So how have we fixed it? What have we actually done? I suppose we’ve done a lot of obvious stuff, really. First, I went on a grand tour – it had to be done. I don’t know how you can do it any other way as a new Chief Executive. You’ve got to get into these academies and get to know them, smell them, breathe them – just to feel what they feel like. 

So I said to the principals, “I’m going to carry out 22 section 8 inspections over a two term period.” That went down well. But it was actually really, really helpful. I did this because, with the absence of effective school improvement strategy and an effective MIS, I didn’t have intelligence I could trust. I didn’t feel that I could trust what I was being told across all 22 academies. On reflection it was useful because you see things that vary in quality from superb to rubbish.

It’s important to decide this: what are our priorities? A delivery plan was absolutely vital, because there was no culture to hold people to account whatsoever. While I am surrounded by lots of talent in the league of Vince, one of the problems that I had was that the absence of effective systems meant that quality assurance just wasn’t happening on a routine basis. 

So the executive leadership team complete an annual delivery plan and decide the following: here’s our strategic priority, here’s what I am going to do and here’s what that will be. Now, if  only getting the structure right led to rapid school improvement – wouldn’t we all be happy? 

I appreciate that I’m now in year two. Year one was spent doing that. And now in year 2, my trustees will say, “Okay then. Let’s see the impact of these significant changes.” It’s a fair enough question. But I hope what you see is a coherence; an approach to regionalisation; an approach to mirroring directorates that look like each other, which helps in terms of becoming one entity.

(Image 1: A slide taken from Debbie Clinton’s presentation showing how she will act on her three year strategy to improve Academy Transformation Trust)

People development is perhaps an obvious thing to bring up, as is the urgent need for the assessment of safeguarding and risk. We’ve appointed a Director of Safeguarding because we didn’t have one before. One of our schools went into category last academic year on the back of a very serious safeguarding criminal case. We’ve moved on quite a bit since then, but one of the reasons for it was that we just really weren’t understanding the complexity and the vagaries of safeguarding. I think Ofsted upped their safeguarding game remarkably in the past 12 months (about time, mind) and we don’t always agree with them, but actually, in light of that, it means that someone’s got to be driving safeguarding.

Governance is also really important. Our governance trust board had been radically reformed with the DFE’s involvement before I got there. They’re very impressive. Local academies were all over the place – outstanding through to absent, basically, because there’s no approach to governance. There’s no coherent approach to understanding what governance means in our trust.

We appointed a head of corporate affairs which was crucial. Neutrality is also really important. I know that Andy will happily whistleblow about me at anytime because he’s very clear that he is accountable to the chair of the trust. So, although he’s a salaried employee, he operates in a neutral way. 

We’ve taken a lot of time to think about the style with which we bring about the recovery. This is perhaps a bit blindingly obvious, but actually I’ve inspected too many MATS and schools to know it isn’t always: “What leadership technique and strategy will I use in this meeting, this workshop, this line management, this performance development compensation, etc.?”

(Image 2: A slide taken from Debbie Clinton’s presentation showing the style of her three year strategy to improve Academy Transformation Trust)

It’s also important to be humble. Humility: you can’t underestimate that. But you know that already. CEOs are famous for their egos aren’t they? I hope I park it as much as I can. There’s too much ego in our system already. We need to acknowledge that around us, we have so much talent. Tact: I’m mostly tactful, but I also don’t mess around. If someone’s not done a good job, they do know it.

I am patient mostly and ethical always. You can look at my expense plan. You can look at my salary. I’ve worked really hard and I spent a long time with my P.A. and one of our finance team talking about the management of my expenses accounts and how it was going to be; how it would be quality assured.

Then the other stuff is obvious. Communication practices: the most obvious thing. We haven’t got that right. In fact, we’re not very good at that yet. It’s getting better, but we need it. We do need an effective communication strategy. You can’t just by accident run a MAT of our size. You’ve got to be consciously thinking about how you get it all behaving as one entity. How will you constantly revisit what we are and what we say we are?

(Image 3: A slide taken from Debbie Clinton’s presentation showing how her strategy has started to improve outcomes for Academy Transformation Trust)

So as you would expect, there are some quantitative and qualitative examples of the impact of all of this activity so far. We ended last year with a £2.9 million deficit. We ended this year in surplus for £2 million. We still have a historic debt, which won’t be settled until summer of 2021. But in a year, we’re down to £2 million. So despite everything, despite ruthless financial leadership, we still did that because we were spending amounts like £200,000 on an army of goodness knows what. I’m out of time now, but I think that the rest speaks for itself.