Our Trust Diagnostic: why it’s needed and how it works

Nov. 15, 2019
Sir David Carter

Sir David Carter

Executive Director of System Leadership, Ambition Institute

Over the past ten months I’ve been working with trust leaders across the country to identify how we can support them to diagnose, prioritise, and implement changes that will benefit both staff and pupils.

We’ve examined the research, crunched the data, and learned from the feedback. And finally, we’re ready to launch our new Trust Diagnostic; an in-depth, face-to-face consultative review that supports trusts to identify and understand their strengths and development areas, and build an action plan for improvement.

Why is the Trust Diagnostic needed?

The multi-academy trust (MAT) model is now more than ten years old and whilst our knowledge of what works well is growing, for many trusts the learning is still in its early stages.

The new model of Trust Diagnostic which I lead, brings school trusts closer together to provide a developmental process of scrutiny, whilst sharing the effective strategies that we see at Ambition Institute across the sector.

School trusts are subject to accountability on a scale that few others in the education system face. Our Trust Diagnostic approach is different and is not part of the holding to account process.

Our model is developmental and formative as opposed to judgemental. We start conversations between MATs, boards, and executive leaders, that helps trusts get better.

My work enables each trust to co-design the lines of enquiry that we explore when we visit, so that the outcomes of the diagnostic work are at the heart of the strategic improvement plan.

Once the review process has been completed, and the written report presented to the board, we will support the trust to deliver the action points that they have identified for the next six months; improving standards for their children.

Randal Cremer_ three leaders talking as a group

How does the Trust Diagnostic work?

The Diagnostic supports the MAT on its own developmental journey.

We use several different methods to build a complete picture of where the trust is in its journey, including where it’s competent and where the areas of challenge are.

The first phase sees the trust complete a survey of around 100 questions that focuses their response around ten core strategic areas that school trusts appear to be developing. The survey respondents should include a range of individuals and teams including the executive team, academy principals, staff and local board members, using perception and opinion to shed light on areas for development.

This is followed up by a visit from a review team, made up of experienced CEOs and trust Chairs. The trust and lead reviewer decide on the agenda and identify who the key people are to meet during the visit.

We then analyse the data and within 10 days provide a comprehensive feedback report direct to the trust Chair and CEO. It is for the board to determine who else should see the feedback and how it is to be used. The written feedback includes suggested actions that could lead to further success and change.

Following that, we work with the Chair and CEO to prioritise and implement these actions. One member of the review team will often take on a mentoring role with the CEO and Chair. From the early pilot reviews, we saw a number of reciprocal visits between the trusts as they built confidence in each other. For some trusts, this is enough, but where there are specific and targeted actions that need further support, we can broker this from our networks across the system.

Finally, we repeat the survey conducted at the start of the Diagnostic to determine progress and next steps.

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How do we know that this works?

While it is early in the process of introducing this model, the early reviews have shown us the potential of the Trust Diagnostic to support trusts at scale.

There are three consistent themes emerging from the reviews already completed:

  • Firstly, there was overwhelming feedback that having a model that was developmental and supportive whilst bringing external scrutiny from credible peers, is something to be welcomed, and helps leaders to reflect on their practices.
  • Secondly, trusts frequently spoke about the reassurance they gained from learning that the priorities they are working on were the right ones, and welcomed feedback that they needed to go quicker or be even more ambitious in their thinking.
  • Finally, as the database of the diagnostic surveys builds, being able to share system-wide data responses to the same suite of questions is useful in helping to develop a clearer picture of how trusts compare with each other when the priorities are similar.

What are the first set of trusts saying?

One of our first reviews was with the Windsor Academy Trust, where we’ve been continuing to work closely through ongoing engagement and support following the diagnostic survey and discovery day. Their CEO Keith recently presented at our training for Trust Diagnostic CEOs and said:

"In commissioning we felt that we owned the review, shared the process and received the outcomes. We were challenged as a team by the process. The conduct, engagement and integrity of the entire process from the whole team was first class throughout."

- Keith, CEO, Windsor Academy Trust

Keith’s comments reflect those of others; a positive experience and being part of engagement that is challenging, robust and focused on action.

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