The government has made it clear that it would like to see more schools join multi-academy trusts; many observers expect that this will result in more smaller trusts growing and merging, rather than much growth in those that are already large, writes Simon Hepburn
Research carried out by Glove Consulting in summer 2021 among 28 multi-academy trusts found that more than half planned to grow over the next 18 months.
It’s vital that trusts consider what this will mean in terms of their ‘brand’, the ‘lived experience of an organisation’ which goes well beyond a logo or uniform. What will it be like, in practical terms, for a new school joining a trust? How can you use your existing brand to persuade governors, parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders of the benefits of the new arrangement? And how will you listen to – and respond to – their concerns?
Different trusts, different routes
After over 10 years of trust expansion, there are some clear examples of how this can be done – for example, if you attend an academy that is part of the Harris Federation the school will be clearly identified as a ‘Harris’ school, from the name of the school to the logo on the uniform (see this case study from their design agency, Cleverbox, and, perhaps even more importantly, from the many policies and practices that are the same across all schools. The result is that more and more parents are clearly choosing (or in some cases not choosing) a Harris secondary school as a result of their experience in other schools in the chain.
By contrast, there are many trusts which sit very much in the background, retaining the uniforms, names, ethos, and styles of the existing schools – perhaps only being visible to teachers through centralised recruitment or professional development, or to school business managers through purchasing, letting and other central cost-saving deals.
These two options exist at the extremes of a continuum, of course; the LEO Academy Trust in South London has a fun and clear ‘lion’ concept that is visible across all schools and used to introduce clear themes led by the trust, but the names and individual logos of the existing schools have also been retained.
What should my trust do?
There’s no ‘right or wrong’ path for a trust to choose to use its brand, but it’s vital that you plan and work through the steps below. Worryingly, the Glove survey found that 25% of trusts had not started doing this, including many that were in the process of expanding quickly.
Understand what your trust offers to schools and their stakeholders
Author and speaker Simon Sinek delivered one of the most watched TED talks of all time by challenging leaders to ‘Start with why’ – to understand the purpose of their organisation. What is about your trust that makes it different from others? You might also want to conduct some external research here to see how other trusts are perceived – and also what school governors and leaders are looking for when they join a trust.
Be clear what changes will happen at your schools to deliver this purpose
What practical changes will happen in your schools because of your trust brand over time? Take a step back and consider what has happened in schools that are already part of the trust – would you make all those changes again – and, if so, have you gathered evidence of their impact?
Identify all those who will be affected by these changes
A full stakeholder analysis will often find groups that you might not have thought of such as those using the buildings at weekends, or local charities or faith groups who have an association with the school. They need to be factored into your communication plan.
Consult with these groups though the process.
A common reason why opposition to a change in governance rises is a perceived lack of ‘reasonableness’ – the perception that the new trust isn’t listening. To overcome this, you must be prepared to listen and to make adjustments – but, when you do so, also communicate clearly what you have done. Parents can and will write to local politicians and the media if they are upset!
Set a clear timeline for changes that allows for practical issues
It’s easy to want to jump into change, but there can be practical issues – one common one is a dash to update a school uniform which imposes unplanned costs on parents.
Finally, trusts can often assume that stakeholders will hear ‘by word of mouth’ what is happening, but this is often not the case. Make sure that you have a plan for ongoing central communication from the trust, as well as from each school. So, for example, if you’re improving the quality of teaching by centralising recruitment, or creating links between primary and secondary academies to improve transition, make sure stakeholders know who is responsible.
Simon Hepburn is founder of Marketing Advice for Schools and works with Glove Consulting to help multi-academy trusts solve communication and branding issues.