Better together: Why joining an academy trust has brightened our future

An interview with Nicki Mattin, Principal of Spires Academy

Spires Academy formally joined E21C, a multi-academy trust based in South East London, in January 2018. In this interview, Spires’ Principal, Nicki Mattin, expresses that she feels the partnership has and will only bring about more excellent developments within the school, and perhaps for other Kent comprehensive schools in the not-so-distant future.

Why was E21C the best choice for Spires Academy?
When we first began the process of selecting a trust to partner with, we were presented with a variety of excellent choices. What we initially loved about E21C was how engaged they were with the school and our students when they came to visit us – I don’t think they realised, but we were looking at them closely as they were walking around to see how they interacted. We were impressed by their enthusiasm and energy, and that was what attracted us to them at first.

Ultimately, we felt that E21C were likeminded people; we liked their ethos, their people and their positive attitude. We wanted to partner with a trust who would recognise that there are real strengths in our school that could be used to their benefit, but could also challenge us to be better every day. What was really key for us was finding a trust that would be a strong partner and that could help us with school improvement, with our eye at the top. E21C has offered us that, and it feels like a true collaboration, rather than an uncomfortable take-over.

The moment that sealed E21C’s compatibility with the school was when the trust and Spires jointly signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ before our partnership had formally begun. Perfectly capturing the essence of our combined ethos, the ‘handshake’ agreement demonstrated good will on both sides. The uniqueness of the document expressed to us that E21C was willing to act receptively from day one and established trust and mutual respect from the very beginning of our relationship.

Has E21C had to adapt at all since your partnership began?
I think E21C has experienced a few surprises since working with us. Since we are a smaller, stand-alone school, I think our new partnership has tested E21C to think about secondary schools and secondary education in a different way. In addition, since we are a Kent high school and situated in the midst of a challenging selective system, it has enabled them to consider schools from a broader perspective and in a wider context.

In truth, there has been some give and take for both parties, but that has only strengthened our relationship and our progress. From our stand point, Spires has, naturally, had to relinquish some of our control and autonomy, but the school and E21C both recognise the value of having a critical friend and the benefit of being able to develop together.

What are the main benefits of joining a trust for your pupils?
For one, E21C’s support has enabled us to establish a sixth form two years earlier than we were going to; that’s a huge benefit to us and to the pupils looking forward. With the trust’s encouragement, we have explored the advantages of social media – something that was formerly too risky for us to entertain. What’s great about this is that we’ve been able to build a great and warm presence online, and for the students I think it’s wonderful for them to be recognised on a platform that they are really used to and that delivers updates instantly.

How have Spires staff taken to the partnership?
So far, they are really benefitting from the cross-conversation that is available to them now with other members of staff from within the trust. Several of our staff members have visited some of E21C’s other schools; there have been many opportunities for them to network with like-minded education professionals and develop as individuals as a result.

How has your role as Principal been affected by Spires’ partnership with E21C?
Primarily, the partnership has given me access to a very experienced Head and CEO to use as a sounding board whom I can bounce ideas off. Headship can sometimes be a lonely position and you can often feel quite isolated. Now, I’m part of a bigger, critical network, that will only help to strengthen me and the school, allow us to feel less secluded and reinforce our decisions.

How have parents reacted to the partnership?
I think parents in general are a bit suspicious of multi-academy trusts, especially those that go into schools and completely take over. I think because E21C has put the identity of our school first and hasn’t attempted to assimilate us in any way, parents still feel that they have that strong connection to the school. Day-to-day, they are dealing with the same people they always have done, so things haven’t fundamentally changed for them. The general feeling amongst parents, I think, is that the trust is just a wide, helpful umbrella around the school.

What does the future hold for Spires Academy and E21C?
It’s early days, but all I can say is that, as a school, we are very open, honest and positive and we are so looking forward to seeing the great things Spires and E21C can do together in the coming years. Hopefully this partnership will work really well and will be the start of something very special for schools in Kent.