5 ways to scale culture at your MAT using values-driven leadership

This blog has been written for Arbor by Dr Vanessa J Ogden, CEO of Mulberry Schools Trust

Dr Vanessa J Ogden, CEO of Mulberry Schools Trust, spoke at our MAT conference about how to scale culture and the importance of maintaining a strong sense of identity across your MAT as you grow. She highlighted the need to create a set of values that are shared by everyone when scaling, from your company members and directors through to your school principals, senior teams and Local Governing Bodies. Read on to learn the 5 key ways that you can scale culture at your MAT using values-driven leadership

This photo shows my ‘place’ – where I started my headship in 2006 and where, on 1st May 2017 (after a 7 year journey) the Mulberry Schools Trust was born. The end of the rainbow (with its mythical pot of gold) is right in the City of London. To the side is one of the tower blocks in Shadwell where pupils in my catchment area live – one of the many similar blocks with overcrowding and damp, where people have little personal space or privacy or money. Poverty is patchwork across our country in the same way and so all MATs encounter it in some way. I’ve seen this at close hand through my work chairing the board of the Somerset Challenge and the National Schools Forum for Teach First

The point of stating all of this is that it means our work at Mulberry Schools Trust is heavily influenced by the need to counter the dynamics of ‘place’ – to counter the close nature of urban financial and social disadvantage shown in the photo, open up opportunity, deal with inequality, offer routes to prosperity, stability and security, and to work towards greater social harmony and human flourishing. As a result, the Trust’s culture is framed by a set of values that are quite specific to this task. In a way, we have chosen to ‘specialise’ as a MAT in this work at this point.

From my experience, I cannot stress enough the importance of values-driven leadership at all levels as you grow. Values frame the culture that is created in all organisations and are easily diluted as you scale up, so values shared by your company members and directors through to your school principals, senior teams and Local Governing Bodies are critical. 

Our values at Mulberry Schools Trust

Scaling up your organisational culture and maintaining your identity requires senior leaders to place values and a deep understanding of the context of your schools at the heart of your work. There is a dynamic relationship between a school, its context, its culture and the values which frame that culture. Understanding that dynamic is very important when thinking about scale.

Context or ‘place’ affects education. A school both influences and is influenced by its community. Where a school is situated has a profound, multi-layered effect on its character and the challenges it faces. In turn, good schools enrich their communities and can have a regenerative effect. 

Our values are absolutely aligned with carrying out this task. They hold that:

1)Education is a public good: The chance to be educated is a human right and state schools should provide a high quality education for every child regardless of the barriers. An education should provide rich intellectual and personal development for individuals and communities. It should equip young people for employment, making a contribution to the economy as well as enabling them to sustain themselves financially 

2) The Trust’s work should make a further system-wide contribution to educational improvement beyond being a MAT: Hence being a significant part of Challenge Partners and standing shoulder to shoulder with other school leaders to work collectively for an outstanding school system

Scaling culture as you grow
A fundamental question for us is how we retain these values so strongly and protect our culture from erosion across a growing number of schools. Even within the relatively small 4 square mile patch that my MAT currently occupies, the ‘place’ in which each of the three secondary schools is located is quite distinctive and affects each school’s culture differently. If spread across a wider geographical area and sometimes amongst quite far-flung regions for some MATs the challenge is magnified. However, there are a number of things that have been important for us in going to scale:

Statement of identity, vision and values: having a very clear sense of identity and of the vision and values of the Trust that is written down and shared effectively with the whole MAT community has been fundamental to our work. Helpfully, there is a track record of success already to back its importance, and that success also provides authenticity for people. This is an essential ingredient in education leadership – both in individual schools and at scale
Governance: building a Trust board of committed trustees and company members that share our values has been very significant. There have been hard conversations and some very difficult moments connected with building the Board and holding true to our values – particularly when faced with issues of equality. Ensuring that our LGBs are similarly robust has been important too so establishing an appointments committee for the board, having board development, evaluation and training as well as a robust SOD and a handbook have been key to ensuring we retain our identity and culture across an expanding number of schools

Policies that reflect our values too: what becomes a central policy adopted fully by all and what becomes a statement of policy principles for all schools to follow is an interesting discussion. I am also well aware that what you do in a small MAT might be different to a larger one: take curriculum and approach to teaching and learning, where the values of an institution are also expressed. Having a ‘loose-tight’ approach works fine when as the CEO you have time to talk regularly with the principal and to review practice. When you have a larger MAT and take on schools in special measures, for example, a non-negotiable curriculum model that everyone follows is an easier way of quality assuring what is done. I’ll come back to this point at the end because there are more compromises to be made either way on this particular aspect of a MAT’s practice

School leadership: school principals are obviously critical to the retention of culture and identity when going to scale. Either you appoint like-minded leaders who already share the MAT’s culture, values and approaches (we have done this twice now) or you create a talent pipeline that brings people through internally – which we are also doing – but this takes longer to establish. Like others, we have a strong internal leadership development programme which draws upon the talent within our Trust and a headteacher in training / deputy headteacher in training programme which is bespoke and personalized as well as group programmes and courses. The way you interview to test ‘fit’ for a school is, as you know, a sensitive and complex process - but worth investing time into to get the right appointment. And not appointing if it’s not right is always a brave decision

Community: integral to school improvement is the relationship between a school, its context and its community. Investing in external relationships and finding the right ambassadors to enable you to build trust and confidence amongst wider stakeholders helps enormously. Schools in marginalized communities are the community glue and I continue to see the gulfs between groups of different heritage made visible by the events of recent time – such as Brexit, the Syrian conflict and terror attacks. Islamophobia is rife and suspicion between people is unhelpfully fueled by media and social networking sites. Our values around schools’ wider role in social cohesion are strongly held and so for us, work in this domain of scaling up is very important

The close attention of the CEO to these elements of a MAT’s work is essential in scaling up culture and retaining identity, and the work in it over three years to six years is considerable but worth the investment. Facilitating strong governance, nurturing senior teams, building relationships with school communities and having a keen eye on policy implementation are for us the key things that we have considered and continue to develop.

Recommended reading:
Hugh Greenway, The Elliot Foundation: My guide to running a successful MAT (Part 1)
How and when to scale systems within your MAT (by Dominic Norris, United Learning)
Why schools and MATs are moving to Arbor