You wouldn’t go into a rough trawlerman’s pub in Cornwall dressed in red chinos, a multi-coloured blazer and a cravat. Trust me, I did it on holiday in the Duchy this year and it was not a great experience, especially as they didn’t sell decent Tuscan red and they hadn’t heard of sourdough focaccia either.
Likewise, you wouldn’t try getting into the stewards’ enclosure at the Henley Royal Regatta dressed like a weather-beaten sea dog after a week on the boat surrounded by fish and people with a shared ambivalence towards personal hygiene.
You see, not causing a stir is all about fitting in. But you cannot always pick your environment and demographics.
As chief executive of a multi-academy trust you might find yourself taking on a school in an area where the concept of academisation is warmly welcomed or at least tolerated if it improves the education of local children. And there are times when you might find yourself taking on a school in a different area altogether – an area where people are ideologically opposed to the concept of academies.
Like Brighton. Or, near to where I live, the brilliant but bonkers area of East Oxford. Basically, the sort of places where revering one type of ‘Jeremy C’ – Corbyn – is quite the fashion, and admiring another type – Clarkson – will get you burned alive (and then enthusiastically recycled).
So, what do you do when you are that man in the red chinos in the boozer in Newlyn? How do you engage with the locals so that you end the night, while not exactly arm in arm singing Neil Diamond songs, at least not in A&E having a cod surgically removed from somewhere nasty? Metaphorically.
Well, we have some tips for you, some of which are even serious. Following them is not going to guarantee that you will not get placard-waving parents out on the streets. But doing so might make a difficult relationship a little easier…
- Admit that you might never totally see eye to eye on the idea of academies. This is also known as the ‘we-are-where-we-are’ approach. Stress that you did not design the system, nor did any of the hard-working teaching staff who are seeking to provide children with the best education possible. Tell opponents to challenge the system nationally, by all means, but urge them not to try to undermine the local manifestation of that system, because it only damages the education of local children.
- Don’t debate the pros and cons of the system. Just state what you believe the pros are and accept the cons of your opponents. Don’t waste energy trying to change the mind of someone who is not going to change the way they think. And don’t get angry with them. (This is a bit like No 1, I admit).
- Be transparent about the process of complaints. People want to know where to complain if something goes wrong, and MATs don’t communicate this information very well. The ‘old’ system was straightforward because people had an idea of who to complain to. They might not have understood the way different tiers of local government worked or who their LEA was. But they had a vague notion that ‘the council’ or their councillor would be there for them if there was an issue. It simply is not clear to people where to complain with MATs, academies and free schools. You might feel it is, but nobody else thinks that. Setting out a comprehensive structure for complaints on your website and all your schools’ sites helps clarify this (maybe a flow chart?). And do it conspicuously, not just in the footer of the website. Recognising that accountability is opaque with MATs and academies will help relationships with local parents enormously. It shows that you do not fear scrutiny.
- Don’t sack popular head teachers because they are not buying into your vision. And then appoint a new head (possibly shared with another school) with the word ‘executive’ in their job title. These are very bad things to do.
- If you are a chief exec, don’t pay yourself £250,000 and drive a Bentley. Again, these are bad things to do.
These simple tips are not going to guarantee that running a school in the Independent People’s Republic of East Sussex or somewhere similar will go completely smoothly. There will always be some parents up for a scrap. But seeing both sides and not being evangelical about academies and MATs will make your life a lot easier.