Management Information System (MIS) for schools
Expert ideas for a better working life at your school or trust
Category : Blog
We know there’s always pressures on schools and trusts to grow, retain staff and improve staff wellbeing and culture. But creating and executing a good people and culture strategy is no mean feat to achieve in the context of the great resignation, cost-of-living crisis and other challenges that schools and trusts face daily. Last year,
We know there’s always pressures on schools and trusts to grow, retain staff and improve staff wellbeing and culture. But creating and executing a good people and culture strategy is no mean feat to achieve in the context of the great resignation, cost-of-living crisis and other challenges that schools and trusts face daily.
Last year, in the context of taking on hundreds of new schools and trusts, we hired 100 new people at Arbor. At the same time, we managed to exceed our retention goal of 80%, maintain our ENPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) at above 40 and sustain a strong company culture! I thought it might therefore be interesting to share my learnings from the past year as Arbor’s Head of People and Culture, to see if any insights might be useful to those also going through rapid growth or taking on new schools.
This first point is the easiest to talk about. A good people plan or strategy is critical, because people are the most important part of any organisation.
What’s slightly harder to answer is what makes a ‘good’ people and culture strategy. I think we have to go back to basics here and make sure every people strategy is people-focused, which sounds obvious, but it can easily be overlooked. There’s a reason at Arbor that we call ourselves the People and Culture team (rather than HR) and it’s because we are always human-first. It’s important that this gets buy-in from the wider team, as a people strategy should align with the general business strategy.
As well as this, a good people strategy will unlock the full potential of our people. I think this is summed up quite well by our unofficial mantra in the People and Culture team: giving people the tools to do their best work, in an engaged and inclusive culture where they can bring their full selves to work.
As much as having your finger on the pulse of things is important just by the ‘feel’ of the company, I really believe in using data to understand where we are as a business and to inform our future strategy. We do this in several ways:
This helps us to anonymously monitor employee engagement, employee feeling, and employee sentiment. Anything above 0 is considered good, but our target is to have our ENPS at about 40, where we have averaged over the past 12 months – which makes me really proud.
We measure ourselves against time to hire, diversity of our recruitment pipeline and the quality of hire (e.g. if individuals make it through their probation period and tracking that everyone is progressing as we would expect them to.)
Last year (2022), over 30% of our employees were either moved or were promoted into a new role, which is way above anything I’ve seen in businesses that I’ve worked in before. Rightfully so, people want to be in roles that they enjoy and where they have a sense of value and self-worth. We’re lucky that by working for Arbor we get to demonstrate real value by improving the education sector, but it’s my job to create an environment where people can feel self worth internally and how they progress. This is reflected in the roles of school staff who do a very ‘rewarding’ job, but it’s important that individuals working in schools feel that their role is fulfilling and that they are progressing. We have a dedicated person who owns learning and development within our teams.
We also encourage employees to use our dedicated tool for anonymous feedback, which goes directly to senior management. We make sure once a week that, as a senior management team, we take the time to respond to these, both privately but also where appropriate in a public setting such as a company-wide town hall. I would recommend setting up monitored and transparent feedback loops and to take them seriously as an organisation. This gives employees a voice and shows that we listen and act, but also gives the space for senior management to respond and explain.
Culture can be actually quite tough to quantify as a lot of it’s quite intangible. It’s the things that you know are there but can’t necessarily explain. Having said that, I do think a good school or company culture should be easy to describe.
At Arbor, we do pulse surveys, welcome interviews and stay interviews, as it’s important to get a measure on how the culture feels to someone who’s just onboarded, as well as someone who has been in the organisation for many years. More importantly, it’s acting on the feedback you receive, especially where you start to see trends.
We do more thorough surveys annually where we encourage every employee to go into detail on areas surrounding leadership, communication, wellness and general culture. Importantly, we have a team of people with the word ‘culture’ in their titles – this shows how much weight we give this in the business. It’s why it’s important to me that my title is ‘Head of People and Culture’, because it comes back to my original point of a people strategy being personal and human-first.
It’s also important to me that CEO, James, is so passionate about our people strategy as he becomes almost an extension of our team. He’s a real driver for people and culture as well, meaning the people agenda is heavily prioritised. Having this buy-in from the business, as well as clear lines of communication, action and accountability, means that our people and culture strategy can be more impactful.
Your people strategy will change based on the phase of the journey that you’re on. So having an organisation in a zero to 50 employee range is going to be very different to when you’re 250 plus. The answer is not to just continue to increase headcount and increase the size of your team.
We’ve obviously scaled massively in the last year and flexibility in our approach has been crucial. You have to drop things and pick things up as and when. But how can you make sure you’re not losing sight of what you’re trying to do but also still tackle some of the more urgent business needs?
A starting point is to clearly define roles and responsibilities within your organisation, as well as assigning clear goals and using a prioritisation framework within that as well. Setting out non-negotiables. Having this framework helps teams to focus on things that are going to continue pushing the business forward, without compromising on business need.
It’s also important to have the right processes and systems in place. These can’t break as you scale, as it’s really difficult to retrospectively fix and mend when your organisation is moving at such a fast pace. To make sure of this, we commit to continuous review of our systems and processes. Typically every process or policy will be reviewed on at least an annual basis – and this review cycle includes getting feedback and input from employees to make sure they continue to be impactful. If you’re able to streamline, then your processes and systems should reduce the amount of manual and administrative work done by your teams, so they have more time to deliver genuine impact.
Because people are the most important part of any organisation, having a clearly defined people and culture strategy is critical. And, hand-in-hand with this, recognising that a people strategy is a vital organisational function.
At Arbor, I’m really proud of the people that we have working for us. I think all of those people are so driven around our mission and focused on improving education that it makes me really energised and really happy to come to work every day.
Whilst I know that Arbor as a business will function inherently differently, I hope some of these insights or principles are useful to those working on HR in schools or trusts. If nothing else, remember to be people-first, always!
Culture | MAT Operations
In February 2022, we surveyed 164 MAT leaders about how they were thinking about culture in their trust. One of the interesting things that came out of this debate was the question of whether schools in a MAT should be close together, and how much this had an impact on the sense of community and
In February 2022, we surveyed 164 MAT leaders about how they were thinking about culture in their trust. One of the interesting things that came out of this debate was the question of whether schools in a MAT should be close together, and how much this had an impact on the sense of community and belonging.
Interestingly, less than 10% of respondents thought that all schools in a MAT had to be in the same area. There were a variety of reasons to justify this response, such as the importance of joint school activities and the equity of treatment from governors who understand the local area.
On the flip side, 26% of respondents said that it was of no importance that all schools in a MAT were in the same area. This was largely put down to the ability of technology to supplement where face-to-face isn’t possible. One respondent also made the point that geographic distance should not be a barrier to taking on schools that are well-suited to the MAT or are in need of assistance which a MAT further away can offer.
Ultimately, the middle ground was popular, with 62% of respondents agreeing that they would want at least clusters of their schools to be near each other for practical reasons like sharing teachers and resources.
Despite this fairly mixed response, the reaction changed when we asked our participants to consider the effect of geography on MAT culture, rather than just the logistics or practicalities of running a MAT. 75% of participants actually agreed that culture can be sustained even when schools within a trust are not geographically close, which was generally justified by the notion that, “technology can link schools that are not geographically close.” This marks a definite shift in attitude, as pre-Covid, MAT leaders were much more likely to state that having a smaller geographical footprint helped to maintain a tight culture.
In fact, nearly 1 in 3 participants felt that having the same systems was one of the most important factors when thinking about how to work together as one organisation, as summarised by one respondent who added, “divergent technology platforms create a barrier for communications and make it much more challenging to operate as a single organisation.” 88% of our participants agreed that, in an ideal world, all of their schools would share the same Management Information System in order to work better together.
It’s certainly an interesting take that, while many seemed to agree that nothing beats face-to-face communication, a shared culture could be sustained through technology.
We put this dilemma to Laura Gregory, Director of Education at Bellevue Place Education Trust. Her piece on the MAT distance debate is one of five articles in our ebook for MAT leaders. Creating a Cohesive Trust also includes our other survey results, insights and a discussion guide. You can download your free copy here.
Keep up with our other blog and ebook releases on Twitter and LinkedIn.
New to Arbor’s content? Click here for more MAT blogs and case studies.
We’re excited to launch part two of our ebook for MAT staff – click here to download your free copy! In our last book for MAT staff, we explored whether trusts could and should create a shared culture. This is now more relevant than ever, spurred on by the government’s statement that all schools should
We’re excited to launch part two of our ebook for MAT staff – click here to download your free copy!
In our last book for MAT staff, we explored whether trusts could and should create a shared culture. This is now more relevant than ever, spurred on by the government’s statement that all schools should belong to ‘strong’ MATs by 2030. We wanted to take another look at what having a strong and cohesive MAT really means and as part of this, how every school could benefit from being in a trust.
In February 2022, we conducted a survey of 164 MAT leaders and discovered that nearly 1 in 5 respondents did not feel that their trust had a cohesive culture which all their schools felt part of.
When we asked participants about the factors they felt best contributed to a shared culture, our survey also revealed that MAT leaders were not drawn to surface-level factors, such as having the same uniform or a standardised curriculum. Instead, respondents were more focused on having shared opportunities for staff and students, and shared vision and values. This seems to direct us towards what having a cohesive trust truly means: sharing, not sameness.
Hear from five MAT leaders
To look further into what it takes to create a cohesive trust, we invited five different MAT leaders to write about what they thought helped build cohesion and resilience in their trusts.
Our book opens with the importance of communication at Learning For Life Education Trust, and the resulting cross-trust oracy programme. You’ll then hear why Wellspring Academy Trust has committed to 125-year plans for all their schools, and how The Learning For Life Partnership shares best practice both within and beyond their own schools. The fourth piece in our book features interviews with three key trust leaders from across the country, exploring how sharing courses between their schools has benefited their students. This is followed by The Kemnal Academy Trust’s unique approach to trust-wide staff retention and opportunities. Our book closes with a look into moral leadership at Prince Albert Community Trust and how this has helped transform a number of vulnerable schools.
The ebook is free to download for anybody interested in helping their trust work together as one organisation, not many schools. We hope you gain some inspiration on how to make sure that every school, and every student, is benefiting from everything your trust has to offer.
Click here to download your copy.
If you missed the first part of our Cohesive Trust series, you can download it for free here.
To keep up with all our other exciting new content and news, follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Culture | MAT Operations | MATs
Click here to read our latest ebook, exploring how different trusts are building a shared culture. The debate around autonomy vs. alignment for schools in Trusts has been animated over the past few years, with some MATs giving their schools independence over their policies and others preferring a more centralised approach. If we accept that
Click here to read our latest ebook, exploring how different trusts are building a shared culture.
The debate around autonomy vs. alignment for schools in Trusts has been animated over the past few years, with some MATs giving their schools independence over their policies and others preferring a more centralised approach.
If we accept that trusts will always differ on how centralised to be, perhaps the more interesting question becomes: how do you create a trust which works really well together as one organisation, regardless of where you sit on that scale?
What are the factors which create a successful, shared culture in a MAT? And how do you make sure the academies in your trust benefit from being part of a greater whole?
To get a sense of the national picture, in February 2022 we surveyed 164 trust leaders from around the country. 94% of respondents agreed it’s important all schools in a MAT feel part of the same culture. In fact, many indicated that having a shared culture was fundamental to a MAT’s purpose; one respondent wrote, ‘I would wonder what ‘the point in being a trust would be if there was no sense of a shared culture.”
Having said this, nearly 1 in 5 respondents said that their trust did not have one cohesive culture which all schools feel part of, with many emphasising that this was an ongoing journey for their MAT.
One participant put this down to “each school [being] reluctant to take on ideas and processes the other schools use”, whilst another explained that “we have not had time to build a common ethos beyond our founders’ vision which was entrepreneurial.” For some MAT leaders, a shared culture is simply “a difficult thing to achieve when you are a big, mixed-phase MAT across different authorities.”
We asked those who felt they had already achieved a strong culture in their MAT about what they thought were the main factors that had led to this success. 78% of respondents to this question said that having a shared vision and values were the most important, with having clear leadership and shared staff opportunities also proving to be popular choices. One participant explained that, “shared vision and joined-up leadership are a precursor to successfully implementing any other measures.”
This speaks to a wider trend, where respondents seemed to value structural, trust-level factors over teaching and learning or pupil-driven factors, such as having a standardised curriculum, sharing the same visual identity (e.g. uniforms) and having shared opportunities for pupils across the trust.
With nearly 1 in 5 respondents saying they were yet to achieve a shared culture in their trust, we wanted to explore what some MAT leaders felt were the key drivers and best practices when it came to meaningful cultural change. To do this, we’ve compiled leaders’ viewpoints from five MATs across the country and put them together with our survey insights to create our latest ebook for MAT leaders, called Creating a Cohesive Trust. As well as our survey results and a question guide, hear from MAT leaders on how their trusts work together as one organisation, including discussions on:
Click here to download the full ebook.
Want to read more MAT content? Get stuck in with our MAT MIS series, perfect for MAT Central Teams.
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