It was September 2016 and I still remember walking up to the busy reception of a hotel in York. There were lots of lanyards lined up neatly, my name said “proposed director”; it was the SPTA (School Partnership Trust) kick off event, featuring the new CEO’s speech highlighting the strategy for the trust and many other guest speakers.
Having been a business leader for many years, I had a degree of cynicism attached to such events – but I was really curious to see “how it’s done in education”. I never really had much of an insight into the sector, if you exclude going to parents’ evening and glimpsing at busy classrooms at the school gate and this was the first taster of what I would potentially be letting myself into!
I was impressed with the new CEO’s speech – at that moment I knew I really wanted be part of something incredibly exciting. He was picking up a troubled trust with financial issues and declining results, but I found his enthusiasm, energy and sense of realism refreshing. He had none of the shine and polish I had become accustomed to.
In his speech there were no buzz words or catch phrases, but a really crisp vision, coupled with a tangible drive and huge passion to do the right thing for the tens of thousands of children in the trust and beyond.
So – what was it like two years on? The beginning was quite difficult. Board meetings were a mix of me trying to understand all the acronyms – I will be forever thankful to one of my colleagues who would write meanings down to avoid me the constant embarrassment of asking – and also learning to balance the myriad of ideas and opportunities that buzzed around in my head with what was actually essential at that time for the trust. I had a sense of urgency and volcanic passion that initially clashed with some personalities, but I learned with time how to balance that and not rub people the wrong way. The truth is that these large multi-academy trusts are like a business and in many ways they need to be run like commercial organisations. For example, maximising opportunities for procurement and economies of scale can truly save hundreds of thousands of pounds, which can be deployed elsewhere (e.g. to help children learn).
I realised that being on a board is a delicate balance of influencing, challenging without being aggressive and keeping an eye on the strategy instead of slipping into constant detail and it isn’t something people can learn overnight. It’s also keeping an eye on everything but at the same time supporting and trusting the executive leadership team to deliver. Having the right tools is also very important for the board; I was lucky to receive some training, but I do think more in this area would have been beneficial. Over time it also became obvious that the use of data and reporting was something that enabled the board to be more effective in their role, and something I would urge everyone to encourage the executive teams to consider.
I was also lucky to meet some very inspirational people in the education sector, from both the teaching and non-teaching community – I even got the opportunity to meet three Lords! My overwhelming perception, contrary to what the media would have you believe, is that everyone I met came across as being so passionate about making a difference. Some of those I met have devoted their lives to education and whether you agree with their political leanings or dislike the framework in which they operate – have all given so much for the benefit of children.
If I had to be grateful for one thing and one thing alone, it would be the good fortune I have had in meeting so many inspirational people in the last two years.