Tuesday 4 April 2017

Research and formal MBA studies

The seed of an idea for me to study at Masters level was first planted during my annual Performance Management meeting in the autumn of 2014.  This came after a summer of significant research into how our trust was crumbling before our very eyes (18 months after our conversion) and how this could be rectified or if not, how we as a the seemingly insignificant entity (as a primary school in a 2 secondary schools merging and 1 primary MAT) could endeavour to protect ourselves and the interests of our staff, pupils and wider community.

One of the biggest findings in my research was the outcome that the governance practice did not marry with the policy.  I think this is worryingly typical of some of the earlier converters where the fundamental constitutional documents were not fully understood.  Everything was fine during good times but scratch under the surface when things are going wrong and it was clear that there were several gaping holes. 

The detail of what went wrong is not relevant.  The issues related to lack of communication and lack of trust leadership and management - governance had remained largely with the governing bodies of individual schools.  For the secondary, the risk of our primary impacting the overall trust in standards and finance were small but the risk the secondary placed on us was significant and when we provided challenge to the system requesting certain documents this was not received well.  We battled our way out of the trust, negotiating permission from the DFE to set up our own MAT (initially with just one school) and the original trust was eventually terminated. 

So, sat in my Performance Management meeting, still only part way through the above story, it was clear to me that people in core roles were not providing the challenge and rigour to the system of governance and whatever the outcome, I felt that our governing board needed to have someone to take on that protective custodianship.  I felt huge responsibility to the pupils and staff at our school having been on the original consultation group during our academy conversion.  One of the main reasons for our initial conversion was ironically the desire to have a say over our own destiny and here we were on the verge of being swallowed up by a sponsor against the wishes of our governing body.

My line manager instantly saw the benefits of Masters Level training in my role and was keen for me to begin the search for an appropriate course.  By this time I had become a member of the NASBM (National Association of School Business Management) and sought their advice.  They put me in touch with Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) who were running a distance learning MBA in Educational Leadership and Management - this seemed to be just what I was looking for and I enrolled for the coming year.

NASBM are currently promoting other Level 7 courses on their link below:

The equivalent course currently available through ARU is:

Before the course even started our situation had changed substantially, we had been graded Outstanding by OFSTED (from a prior grade of Requires Improvement) - this was a turning point in our future allowing us to gain permission from the DFE to 'go it alone'.  In June 2015 I attended Company Secretary training from our legal firm in London and took on this role.  This enabled me to see exactly where we had gone wrong and the kind of structure needed.  I was very conscious that our governors (now trustees) may not fully understand the various roles and on the train on the way home I knocked up the following diagram to help their understanding.

This has been updated over time to fit our trust development but this old template still outlines the various roles.

So in September 2015, we returned to a new academic year as a new trust and I was due to start my MBA course.  I never could have imagined just how aligned the tasks required over the next two and a half years would be.

My studies provided the vehicle for some of the most important areas of strategy required by the trust to be formulated using a research focus and receiving external validation.  The first two modules covered research projects and how to undertake this.  The need to marry theory and practice made me take time out to understand Why? and to provide an evidence base not just for the project undertaken but in choosing this as the most appropriate direction of travel in the first place. 

Prior to my studies I had tried to use a common sense approach in my work, balanced with a desire to do what is right for our school.  The journey that we had come on taught me that that is not enough and had it all gone horribly wrong there would have been huge consequences for some involved.  At the very least, a research based approach can provide evidence to those decision makers to increase confidence and justify their actions.  Accountability and transparency have quite rightly never been more important.

There have been times since I started my MBA when I have wondered why I opened my big mouth during that Performance Management meeting; times of real struggle with sheer workload.  As a school that originally converted over 4 years ago; joining an existing trust, our transition should have been long completed and we should be operating as a well-oiled machine but the additional workload in researching what was going wrong, how we could rectify this, what are our options to join a different trust or set up a new one, permissions associated with this and finally going ahead with the legal process of this were huge.  Not to mention keeping up with the day job that as an academy had become exponentially complex!  I think this t-shirt pretty much sums up the changing role of the School Business Manager post academisation.  If you're interested in seeing a more informative version of the changing role - another of my blogs may offer more specifics.

The first two modules focused on research itself, looking at types of studies, tools such as options appraisal and S.W.O.T. analysis to assess what would make an effective project and ideas such as appreciative enquiry to develop and decide the direction of a project.  Ethics applications, surveys and interviews, data collection and evaluative methods were also studied giving a wider perspective to considerations in collecting quantitative and qualitative information and the processes required to be able to ethically use the data collected.  Some of this seemed to be beyond the realms of the type of research that I might need to complete, however, the knowledge gained has added a perspective that I would not have had without this theoretical learning.

The next 3 modules covered Developing Management Systems, Leading Educational Change & Improvement and Strategic Management.  Each module studied theory behind the topic and then allowed the development of a project (including case studies, literary reviews, presentations etc) - at such an early stage in developing our trust, this was hugely beneficial allowing me to focus on governance structures, risk management, business planning and income generation as well as the development of our trust growth planning and leadership.  My grit and determination were somewhat tested during the 3rd module where there were staffing issues and changes with the tutor.  This element was pretty much self-taught and really required me to dig deep to keep going.

The following modules were all supported with wise words and inspiration from @iantindal  - his blogs are extremely informative and thought provoking (usually leading me to another area of research).  Another dimension was the sharing of experience with others on the course - peer review and support was equally appreciated by all at different times throughout the duration.  This encouraged self reflection and critique of my own and others work in a deeply constructive manner; something that was new to me.  I think this (perhaps more than anything else) will enable me to be a better leader and strategic planner. 

The last part of the course was a 'Major Project' directly linked to our trust development as well as the wider education system including investigating lessons to be learnt from international research which was fascinating.  This section of the course pulled together all the different threads from earlier modules (as you might expect).

As I juggled my studies with the joys of year-end and bulge class building works it felt like this at times but all in all this period of study has been invaluable.  Thinking back to my own understanding of MATs when we first academised and not for the lack of commitment with the process, the learning curve has been phenomenal.  The combination of life experience and in-depth research results in me truly understanding the entity that is 'Veritas Multi Academy Trust'.  I think it also played a large part in my accreditation as a Fellow of the NASBM which I received in May 2016; a huge personal achievement.

In terms of Educational Leadership and Management, I hope to be able to balance the needs of my team with the needs of our organisation in its goal of providing the very best educational experience and outcomes for those pupils in our care and further afield.  We intend through our research to provide failsafe systems that maintain rigour and challenge to ensure standards are continuously improving.  And with succession planning at the core we intend to ensure this remains future proof. Surely a research based approach allied with collaboration and effective leadership cannot fail to improve outcomes for all; there is no place for an insular approach.

It feels now as though we are on the cusp - a pilot about to take their first flight; there is no way after the journey we have been on that we are going to crash and burn so the only alternative is to buckle up and enjoy the ride!
We may be a fledgling trust but the experience gained goes beyond its years.

For interesting & informative blogs from others at Veritas Multi Academy Trust take a look at our website:

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