Leading Together-Academy Groups, Accountability and Expansion

Academy Groups, Accountability and Expansion

In February 2014, there are 558 approved academy sponsors. When the Cabot Learning Federation (CLF) was first created, I think there were perhaps less than 20 at the time. This is huge growth and the refreshing thing about this is that it has come about mainly by more schools becoming accredited sponsors.

TES and Robert Hill-Friday’s interactions!

At the end of last week two separate interactions made me think about the dual questions of accountability and expansion. Firstly, I had a journalist from the TES asking me for an opinion on whether federations and chains should be inspected and then on Friday evening I read Robert Hill’s excellent blog entitled “Quality not quantity is the litmus test for academy chain expansion.”  (http://t.co/0KKJKqBjEC)

When the CLF became the multi academy trust it is today in 2009, many of my fellow CEO/Executive Principals were competing to see who could get the largest number of schools into their chain the quickest. This approach puzzled me then and it puzzles me now. As we know, the DFE and Lord Nash in particular as the new academies minister has been very clear that size is not what counts and that the best test of a successful chain is the capacity it has to improve the schools it already sponsors before it thinks about any more. I have felt all along that a sign of the growing maturity of the Cabot Learning Federation is to grow at a pace and with a clear rationale for expansion that balances the needs of the children we already educate alongside those we might educate in the future. Indeed, our charitable objectives as a multi academy trust states this aim almost word for word. So what frames the debate about the future of academy chains, federations and groups?

How do you hold an academy chain to account?

For me it is simple. A chain must be held to account because failure could be catastrophic for vast numbers of students and the communities in which they live. However, it looks significantly different to the ways in which we hold single schools to account. For me as CEO, accountability of our federation has two key strands:

External Accountability Structures

  1. The DFE over the past 12-18 months has increased the frequency with which they request data, visit our schools and invite me to talk with senior officials about the performance of the CLF. This has to be the correct approach but it also shows that to coordinate this from Sanctuary Buildings is unsustainable and that the regional and  localised approach that has been envisioned is correct. Nevertheless, the DFE knows more about us, has more insight into how we operate, and understands our challenges better than ever before and this has to be the right strategy for them and us.
  2. 2.      OFSTED have not as yet inspected the CLF but they will and when it happens I will welcome it. I think we have a positive story to tell about how we support our schools. However, in the same way that accountability should work differently for a chain as opposed to a school, so the same applies to an inspection. An inspection of a chain should not be conducted through separate inspections of all of the schools in the family. An initial inspection of the federation that focuses on the capacity is has to support its academies should mean that this basic information does not need to be replicated in every inspection of a school in the group for a period of time. Inspectors having inspected the chain, and when they believe there is a need to follow up with a section 5 inspection in any of the academies, can do so knowing that they can give the individual school the total focus.

Internal Accountability Structures

We have to know how well are schools are performing. The rigour with which I approach accountability now is far greater than when I was Principal at John Cabot CTC and then John Cabot Academy. It has to be, as you are several steps away from the classroom source of the data that you are being provided with. This is my approach and tips for driving accountability in a localised model;

  1. Trawl data for the headline statistics every month. Don’t be persuaded that student data does not change much since you last asked four weeks earlier. It does and it should and if it is not then you need to know why.
  2. Appoint a data manager that works for the central team who can produce what Sir Michael Barber calls “beautiful data”, presented in graphs and tables that are easily understood by a range of stakeholders
  3. Plan reviews of each academy and give the same notice window as OFSTED would. Use senior and middle leaders from across the federation to participate in the reviews. It is both succession planning and leadership development and has the added credibility of being carried out by colleagues facing similar challenges
  4. Structure professional meetings into the calendar around the need for the key leaders in the federation to meet every term.

                                                              i.      Raising Achievement Leaders meet in week 2 to look at the previous month’s data and to share the strategies they are using in their academies

                                                            ii.      Heads of English and Maths network in week 4 to monitor the progress towards the targets for CLF that are focused on every 16 year old we teach rather than academy by academy

                                                          iii.      In week 5 Federation network night (FNN) brings together all secondary and primary subject teachers to look at shared learning, curriculum and pedagogy from KS1 to KS4

                                                          iv.      In week 6 the CLF Vice Principal network meeting meets to deliver the core challenge they have been tasked with which is to understand why we do less well at GCSE with our KS2 level 4C children.

These ideas are not “rocket science”! They are however workable because the schools are close enough for these meetings to take place at 4pm in the afternoon. We would lose so much debate and dialogue if we could not take advantage of the proximity of our schools to one another.

The CLF Central Mock Exam for 742 16 year olds in English and Maths

In December 2013, we added a new strategy to our repertoire. Collecting the data is one thing but being reassured about the accuracy of GCSE current and predicted scores from six different academies is quite another. In December 2013, the CLF Teaching School leaders and the SLE team in English and Maths wrote mock exams that every 16 year old in the federation sat. The exams were marked centrally and then every department and every class teacher received an “examiners report” that identified the strengths and weaknesses of their students that we need to develop and overcome between now and the summer. Proximity again helps this, but the level of trust and engagement that enables such a vital piece of feedback to be shared with all teachers in English and Maths is due to the collaborative culture that you establish when we are in the federation together. This paragraph does not do justice to the fantastic work of the Teaching School team and as I prepare my term 3 data for the DFE submission next week, I have never been more confident that our data is accurate and therefore reliable.

How do you decide when the time is right to bring another school into the group?

This is becoming a key question for academy groups. The question is often framed as relating to the optimum size of chain. I find this impossible to answer but our board of directors have worked with me to create a protocol for making the decision about a new school if and when we are approached. We simply ask the following questions:

  • What will be the benefit for current CLF students and will there potentially be any adverse impact on current students and schools within CLF?
  •  Is the rationale for a new partner based upon any of the following;
    • Link(s) with existing schools (as a feeder or CLF Teaching School Alliance partner)?
    • Geographic proximity to allow staff (and possibly student) exchanges?
    • CLF actively inviting a new partner because of a feature of the new school that the federation needs or is seeking?


Have the following been made explicit?


  • Strengths, capacity and benefits that the new partner offers CLF?
  • The costs of support, especially in years 1 & 2 of the new partner joining CLF?
  • New partner’s needs and the extent to which CLF could meet these?
  • The origins and brokerage of the new partnership
  • The degree to which the new partner recognises the value of collaboration and the federation?
  • The degree to which the new partner demonstrates a readiness to give and receive support?


This is a start and might be useful for colleagues setting out on this journey. Last year, Steven Twigg MP when he was shadow education secretary visited the CLF and asked me what the test should be to ascertain whether a chain was ready to expand. I replied that if the CEO could not name all of the schools and Principals in the group then they were not ready! Whilst this still resonates with me, our protocol might be a little more transparent!




One thought on “Leading Together-Academy Groups, Accountability and Expansion

  1. John Pearce (@JohnPearce_JP)

    Good stuff! The need to hold Academy Chains to account is obvious, indeed I’m amazed it hasn’t happened yet. So, this really useful piece (together with Robert Hill’s and the NCTL debate) moves us a long way forward. John, I hope that my semi-detached position, from previous roles holding organisations and people to account* might offer a useful perspective here.

    (on re-reading it might seem patronising – I don’t mean it to be – I am with you in what you are after – so put it down to old man’s enthusiasm)

    In your piece I’d pick out one phrase for special mention, “Use senior and middle leaders from across the federation to participate in the reviews” and I’d applaud your call to, “Structure professional meetings into the calendar around the need for the key leaders in the federation to meet every term”. These are especially important because I’ve learnt the success of any accountability process is directly proportional to the extent it harnesses and respects the colleagues with day to day responsibility for performance.

    This is based on my long perspective (doesn’t mean it’s right of course) which began when schools and even LEAs were not held to account in any systematic way! I wrote in “The Evaluation of Pastoral Care” in 1986, “We believe that School Improvement can only be achieved if an evaluation process is established as part of the normal business of educational life… schools must evaluate what they are doing. As teachers, we should take this initiative – we carry the responsibility and need the information most.” Then I added in fear of what may follow, “Furthermore, if we do not evaluate, then the evaluation may be done for us and to us!”. Ofsted began five years later and the rest is important history, not least last week’s breakthrough about the demise of Lesson Grades. So, what am I seeing as I look back?

    I think we have perpetuated what I describe as a huge hypocritical error – so massive it has blurred the vision of many our supposed wisest. It is this. We have, in the last decades, learnt to applaud teachers, who hold plenaries, involve students in A4L and listen to pupil voice but at the same time have spent the same years denying teachers, heads and senior educationists the same dignity. We have inspected, quality controlled and assessed our colleagues whilst praising them for their quality assurance processes. And some are in danger of perpetuating this “non learning” approach to accountability with colleagues with their “done to” approach to PRP. (I know from your other work that you are not in this camp, neither am I)

    So, John what am I actually saying? Good stuff… hold to your title…Leading together (perhaps add learning together?) You wrote, “The rigour with which I approach accountability now is far greater than when I was Principal at John Cabot CTC and then John Cabot Academy” I think I know what you mean. In one way you are more accountable and responsible for the chain and yet in another you are less responsible and accountable for the performance of the links in it. So. I’d say, keep the faith, above all work with and alongside the “day to day link” colleagues and, above all, get them to report to you about the data, the progress and issues. Build their capacity to self-evaluate and then validate their self-evaluation. Delegate the accountability. Help them build into their day to day processes the accountability measures. Resist any temptation, when under pressure, to bolt on evaluation and inspection measures. Dare I add, also resist the temptation to behave as Principal i.e. do the analysis/judgement/planning for them because inevitably, they will let you do it and slowly they will become dependent operatives. And watch the data manager. You say s/he “works for the central team” but when s/he starts producing beautiful data s/he will, inevitably (because s/he will be so proud) develop the first view about what it means… S./he will want to present it and lecture…. Like a great teacher can resist the temptation to show and tell, what they are about to learn…. so should we, who feel ultimately accountable, resist the temptation to show and tell what they should be doing…

    All the best – this is a real chance to make accountability an interdependent process. That’s why I took the time to respond


    * teacher, senior LEA officer, ofsted inspector, head teacher, lead assessor, senior consultant etc


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