Episode 2: Back to School

UNCOMPLICATED — a podcast for school leaders, managers and teachers. 

One of today’s biggest challenges for schools and MATs are the four ambitious education objectives set out by the DfE White Paper. 

In this episode, Simon, Nic and Tom sit down and share their views on key areas of focus for MAT leaders, education professionals, school staff and teachers. 

Simon Freeman
MD IRIS Education at IRIS Software Group

Nicholas Clark
Senior Product Manager at IRIS Education

Tom Kershaw
Education Market Specialist at IRIS Software Group

Tom Kershaw 0:00   

Hello everyone, and welcome to UNCOMPLICATED, a podcast for education professionals, MAT leaders, school staff, teachers and anyone interested in what’s going on in the world of education. My name is Tom Kershaw, I’m an Education Market Specialists at IRIS, and today I’m joined by Simon Freeman, Managing Director of IRIS Education, and Nic Clark, our Senior Product Manager. I’m really excited about this, because you know, I’ve got a background in teaching, I was a teacher for 11 years, and I love any opportunity to talk about the education sector. Simon, I don’t know if I can throw it over to you to introduce yourself.  

Simon Freeman 0:37   

Hello everybody, lovely to be here. As Tom introduced me, my name is Simon Freeman, I’m the proud Managing Director of the IRIS Education business. We deliver software to over 12,000 schools across the UK. And I think we form a key part of the day-to-day activities that go on in schools. Really passionate about education – I’ve spent over 12 years in the public sector, delivering technology and software into various bits of public sector and really pleased to be here today to talk about the exciting things that are going on in education. 

Tom Kershaw 1:07   

Thanks Simon, and Nick. 

Nicholas Clarke 1:09   

Hi, everyone. My name is Nic Clark, and I’m a Senior Product Manager here at IRIS. I’m a crafter bits of our MIS business. But like Tom, I was a teacher for around 12 years, a deputy head for around six of those and I spent my whole career reasonably obsessed with education and technology. 

Tom Kershaw 1:28   

And still is Yes, I definitely can attest to that. So today, this is a bit of an introductory podcast this because we’ve got a series coming up, where we’re going to go through various aspects of the march white paper and explore a few of the topics in there and quite a lot of depth. So, we’re just setting the scene here, we’re going to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing schools and tourists alike as they head back into school and kick off the new academic year, we’re going to explore how some of these challenges relate to the strategic and ambitious education objectives that have been set out in the March white paper. And we’re going to deliberately ignore any changes in secretaries of state over the last few weeks, I think we’re too far down the line for any, any changes in the direction of travel from the white paper. And we’re gonna begin with the four key topics in the white paper. And the first one was an excellent teacher for every child. And we’re going to go into more detail in our top tips for Effective Recruitment podcasts which you can listen to after this. But in essence here, this was about by 2030, every child being taught by an excellent teacher trained with the best evidence-based approaches. So, this was talking about things like securing a future for the education Endowment Foundation, the golden thread of professional development to these new MP cues for leading literacy behaviour and culture, and more support for initial teacher training. Early career framework problem is According to various sources, so I’ve got one in front of me here, the State of the City of education, the professional report, annual survey of national union members 44% of England state school teachers plan to quit by 2027. And schools are struggling to fill vacant posts. 73% of teachers say this has worsened since the start of the pandemic. And over half of teachers are now saying that their workload is either unmanageable or manageable most of the time, which is a significant increase up from 35% in 2021. So, we’ve got some problems here. We’ve got some problems with teacher recruitment. We’ve got some problems with teacher retention. Big Question is going into the new academic year. How do we solve those? Simon, any thoughts on that? 

Simon Freeman 3:37   

Is it’s clearly a, you know, a huge challenge for the education sector. And as you say, Tom, some some well reported stats there, I think there’s a few things that certainly will be addressed through policy, and obviously the focus that the government’s put on, on training new teachers, but there’s some things that we in industry, I think can do to help and certainly the making that recruitment process easier and providing the right tools and technologies that can facilitate roles being opened up and being visible to where the candidates are needed. And also providing better tools and technology just to make the day-to-day workload more manageable to try and secure teacher retention and to stop teachers leaving in the first place. That is something that I guess where I spend quite a lot of time focused on and will be good for us to touch on a little bit today. 

Tom Kershaw 4:24   

Yeah, certainly, I think in terms of managing that day to day workload, Nick, you know, a lot of our systems they’re really key to helping teachers. Yeah, I 

Nicholas Clarke 4:33   

think so. I think most teachers don’t leave the profession because they don’t like working with the students. Most teachers leave the profession because they have too much to do outside of that. And certainly, part of my x my my reason for leaving teaching was to do with that. But having good quality tools and technology to support that modern technology that enables you to do more with those tools, I think is incredibly important for managing have to retain good quality staff for longer periods of time. 

Tom Kershaw 5:05   

So, you talk about retaining and staff for longer periods of time. I think there’s also a big focus on sort of putting teachers more of a pedestal. And I think, this notion of starting salaries of 3030 grand a year, making them commensurate with other sort of graduate employment opportunities out there, that sort of thing is probably going to help to attract in the first place, I would have thought, I wonder, Simon, if there’s any more sort of strategic ideas, maybe we can think of in terms of teacher recruitment, you know, certainly from you know, your position within a leadership position within Iris, in terms of proactive recruitment, maybe teacher talent pools, things like that. I wonder if there’s any ideas you’ve got surrounding that, 

Simon Freeman 5:49   

rather than ideas or talked about sort of conversations I’ve had over the last two weeks actually, I was speaking to a CEO of quite a large amounts only a week ago. And this is the main topic for discussion for them around the leadership table, how do they attract talent? How do they get those increasingly fewer number of teachers leaving teacher training? How do they attract them into the map, because the ability for that organisation to differentiate itself and to deliver the attainment that that they were looking to deliver is, is entirely dependent on getting the right staff in and the leadership team will put in a huge amount of focus on how they presented themselves as an organisation. So how good were the adverts they put together? How clear were the roles? What was the local surrounding area, and what were the things that teachers could expect to to be to partake of when they’re joined? The trust that was really important to the candidate attraction experience. And I think, providing those sorts of tools that make the recruitment process easier, and enable trust to put themselves forward in the best possible light, be that Job’s boards bit where the jobs are advertised and how they’re positioned. I think that’s going to be increasingly important. 

Tom Kershaw 6:57   

And obviously, a lot of that has got to do with having, you know, a very powerful HR system in place to support that. And I wonder neck, you know, you coming from the point of view of student MIS, is there almost like an HR system for kids, are they not? But we don’t tend to value the HR system within education as much as the MIS for students, you know, what do you think there is in terms of the place for the HR system that almost is, is mirroring the the professional development of your staff in the same way as you would mirror the educational development of students? It’s interesting, 

Nicholas Clarke 7:30   

I think you’re absolutely right. And MIS, in my opinion is is for students and we track many details about the students lifecycle, through right from foundation stage all the way through to when they leave at GCSE, and we delve into my new aspects of their lives, we collect details about what happens to them observations and things like that. Often, the MIS is seen as a kind of small repository for staff details, but I think using a decent HR system, to manage the lifecycle of your people, your teaching staff, your support staff, your trust staff should give better insight to allow you to advertise, right, and also to retain staff well, and build a really, really high-quality culture around that. 

Tom Kershaw 8:21   

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s about valuing that development, isn’t it? And it’s, it is it your staff, knowing that that’s valued with you at the investments that you’re making as a trust. 

Nicholas Clarke 8:31   

Yes, indeed, and also communicating why those details are kept in the way that they’re kept on why we really value keeping that high quality data. So that staff can understand that it is a wellbeing tool. 

Tom Kershaw 8:44   

Perfect. So thank you, Nick, and we’re gonna move on to the next area of the white paper. So, this has to do with delivering high standards of curriculum behaviour and attendance. And we’re going to put that together with a third area and targeted support for every child who needs it. So just to recap for the audience. This was essentially the government saying that by 2030, every child will be taught a broad and ambitious curriculum in a school with high expectations and strong standards of behaviour. And I think this is this has always been quite a key feature. And but also specifically that the third point, though, was every child falling behind in English or maths will get the right support to get back on track. And this was talking about the parent pledge, it was talking about sencos, completing a SENCO, MCQ and increasing tutoring provision, and a really secure future for the education Endowment Foundation to evidence at the heart of heart of the system there. So, I think maybe I’ll come straight back to Nick, because this is data again, isn’t it, Nick? It’s, it’s how can student data be used and apply to quickly improve student outcomes and wellbeing with that targeted evidence-based support? You know? 

Nicholas Clarke 9:56   

I think for mats and schools alike, data has become Being more and more valuable, it’s becoming more and more important if we look into the private sector, to, for me, a particularly boring example is the insurance industry. Data is huge. The data warehousing and the way that they compare contrast and use that data in assessing risk for my car insurance, or whatever I choose to insure. Data in that industry is really paramount. And it’s becoming that way in education. But having good quality data about your students, and about your staff, is incredibly valuable and incredibly impactful, but having it all in one place without spending, and I spoke to a CEO of one of the trusts that I work with a few weeks ago. And he said, well, actually, we spend 95% 95% of my time and my data managers time and my people’s time is spent collecting and looking at that data 5% is spent doing something with it. How can we flip that? And that’s that the question that I ask the team that I work with, in building our products, how can we flip that so that schools can spend 5%, collecting that data, and 95% of their time actually doing stuff with it, rather than learning Excel school skills are pulling that out of a database in order to do something with it. Because bringing data of different types, different places, different varieties, about our students, staff, finances, all of those things can be used to really benefit and build up that whole picture. You know, if we know we have attendance data about students, that’s great, that gives us part of the puzzle. But once you plug in maybe behaviour data or demographic data, even crime data or postcode data, you start to build up those areas of the picture and the puzzle that you don’t have already. For me, that’s fascinating. But I know that some trusts are already doing that to great effect. 

Tom Kershaw 11:56   

Yeah, and I think it becomes harder, doesn’t it as trust grow in size. And I wonder, Simon, again, coming from your leadership position in, you know, in a large organisation, and the experience you’ve had there, managing data on a big scale. So, if you’re a multi academy trust, and you’ve now got your 10 schools or more, and you’re pulling in lots of data from various sources, that’s got a lot of challenges related to it. 

Simon Freeman 12:19   

It’s a huge challenge. Time is a huge challenge. And you think about an organisation on the scale you’ve just described, there are millions of data points, be attainment data, a bit of finance, database, HR data bit public data that Nick just referred to, and how could you possibly plug all that together in a series of spreadsheets and ask the right questions to get the right answers. It’s just, it’s just not possible. And increasingly, you know, I’m having conversations and it just referred somewhere. Those higher performing maps, I’ve really understood that if you can put this data together in a sensible way and interrogate it, it can be insightful into how we improve attainment of children, and asking simple questions like, why is the English performance in this school in a trust, doing better or worse than the English prompts in a different school might not, might not be obvious on the surface. But actually, when you start to look at all the variables, maybe attainment, maybe public, maybe socio-economic data, might be teacher absence might be teacher training, many, many things that could impact that. And actually, when you can see what’s driving those differences, you can make very targeted decisions. And that informs a leadership team about how they can improve. And ultimately, that’s what everyone’s had to do in education to improve the attainment. And I think the data is absolutely the key to being able to do that. If I could just expand on that point, though, the data is only available if you have the right tools in place. And if you have lots of different data in different silos and different bits of systems, it’s almost impossible to stitch that together, unless you’re going to spend a very long time putting spreadsheets together, which I know many schools complain that they do spend a lot of time doing that. But investing in the tools that enable you to do that. And surfacing those, those potentially linked bits of information is something that we’re focused very much on and can, as I say, deliver some pretty significant benefits. 

Tom Kershaw 14:12   

And I suppose it’s removing the need to work with just anecdotes. You’ve got actual hard data, which can go Well, absolutely. This is this is happening. We can do something about it by doing this because we know now, we followed that we made that intervention, this has been the change that’s resulted from it. So, it’s evidence based. So again, it’s keying in with some of the ideas of the white paper here. So the last area of the white paper was to do with a stronger and fairer school system. And I think this is probably the most significant part of it. In terms of the changes to the education landscape, this is going towards a fully trust LED system. So this is the notion that by 2030 all children will benefit from being taught in a family of schools with their school and a strong multi academy trust or with or with plans to join one. Now we know at the moment that I think the average size of the multi academy trust is about six and a half schools, there’s a lot of big players that are skewing that average, and the modal average is only about two. So what that means is we’re going to get a massive amount of growth, if this is going to be realised by 2030. This is this is going to make massive changes to the educational landscape. And it’s probably a big time of uncertainty for CEOs and multi academy trusts, and indeed, schools that haven’t yet academized. So, I suppose Simon, if I come to you first, if we take it, from the point of view of a school that may be, it’s still local authority maintained, they’re looking out there, they can see the landscape is changing, they’re going to have to do something about it. What would you be your advice for them? 

Simon Freeman 15:45   

I think the first thing would be to look at what has gone on in the local area. And there obviously will have been others that will have would have taken the categorization status and listening and understanding the journey that they’ve been through. I think there are many, many use cases where that has been a very positive, positive outcome, as clearly quite a lot of support available within the market to help some of the thinking and the administration that goes behind becoming, becoming an academy. But the benefits that I think we observed from the leadership teams that we speak, to have the ability to make more independent decisions, the ability to potentially attract talent, that they might not be able to attract the ability to share resources across multiple schools, that might not be possible within a local authority, all of the sort of building blocks we’ve talked about earlier today, actually can come together to create that stronger, fairer system. That means, you know, schools can pull on wider resources than otherwise might be available and have a level of independence to drive performance in the way that they feel is the right way to do it. So, I would, I guess my guidance would be a listen and learn because there’ll be others who’ve been through that process, and probably encouraged us to do it, because I think it’s a positive way forwards, 

Tom Kershaw 17:00   

I think quite sage advice there, Simon in terms of looking at others who have gone through the process. And I think, you know, equally on the on the front of multi academy trusts that are existing at the moment that we’ll probably have to look to expand, Nick, I know, change management is one of your specialist areas or areas of interest. And I mean, you’ve talked to me at nauseam about it. So, I’m sure you can give us a couple of bits of advice here on the podcast. You know, what, what advice would you give to CEOs who maybe have two or three schools? Who are thinking right? Well, we’ve got this journey now towards this minimum size of 10 over the next few years. What’s that going to look like? 

Nicholas Clarke 17:39   

Yeah, I think it’s really interesting. And I’m really sorry, our board you have changed many times in the past, I’m really interested in it, because it it kind of cuts through as a thread through all of this. And I’ve been on that journey with a school overstepped yet, before I left teaching, and we joined an academy trust. So, I understand the worry and the fear that goes through the school, the teaching staff, support staff, and those things are around joining a multi academy trust, I think the landscape has changed a lot and I’m privileged in my job to work with lots and lots of multi academy trusts and see lots of different cultures and ways of working across those trusts. And of course, if you’re a single school looking to academized, or understanding that the way of the world is that schools are going to be asked to customise or move towards that within the next few years. There are lots of different trusts out there from Nationwide trusts where you can join different groups up and down the country that may be fit your culture or your values, or local trusts, which maybe fit more with the local needs of your community. So I think there is a lot of choice. But through all of that there is a change management aspect. Because of course, people are fearful fear drives most of the most of the worry around change. I’m quite lucky, I genuinely like change. I like changing things and doing things differently. But I think I’m in the minority. There’s some really interesting, interesting research around change management. From who starts that first right through to who are the kind of the laggards at the end, or the people who don’t want to change. Most people are somewhere in the middle. And there are a few things that you can do really well, to help bring those people. That’s a very politically correct statement, but bring those people on the journey with you. And one of those is to make sure, first of all, very simply that people are aware of what is going on, communicate all the time, because your people in your school will understand what’s going on whether you tell them or not. Things have a way of finding themselves out. So, communicate all the time with your stakeholders, your people who work in your schools and your community as well to help them understand the right time. What’s going on, because that can seed this understanding, as well as perhaps a little bit of interest in the change rather than I don’t know anything about this, I don’t want to do this I’m going to dig my heels in, are definitely not going to be part of this to a curiosity, I suppose around, actually, I wonder if this might be an interesting thing to do. So, making sure that that communication is there, which leads to in in change management terminology, I suppose, is desire, isn’t interested in the change. Building champions, network, building groups of people who can help you to manage that change as you go through is also really important because they can communicate both up and down your organisation. That there’s lots of ways to do that. But the thing that cuts through all of this, I think something that’s far too big to talk about in this in one section is culture. What does what’s the culture in your school at the moment? What’s the culture in the trust that you’re joining? It’s incredibly important that that is that’s thought about, it’s a really big topic, you can change culture. You can also fit yourself to other cultures, but it takes a lot of work. 

Tom Kershaw 20:59   

Yeah, and I suppose this must have parallels as well, Simon to, you know, mergers and acquisitions in the commercial world. You know, this, this is happening within education in maths, but, you know, what, what, what’s your experience of how do you successfully merge two organisations together? 

Simon Freeman 21:15   

That is a great question. And I agree, it does have a huge amount of parallels in the commercial world. And I think it comes to next point about culture, you take two different businesses that will have very potentially very strong cultures that have done really well, there’s not there’s a good cultural battle tomorrow, two businesses got brilliant cultures, that just might be very different. And I think that the leadership challenge is how do you bring those things together and keep the best of both without destroying or over overlaying one or the other. And that’s a real challenge. There are going to be schools that join academies going to dramatically adjust where there are fantastic aspects of the culture and that will be seen in in student performance and other aspects of the school. And how do you bring that and format with the wider ethos of the rest of the multi academy trust? I think that’s, that’s easier said than it is to do in reality, but I think strong leaders are many leaders in education have demonstrated that that can be done really well. And, you know, we see some absolutely outstanding multi academy trusts across the UK, so clearly is doable. I think, to Nick’s point earlier, going through that change process carefully, and making sure that everyone’s on board, there will undoubtedly be a lot of concern when somebody joins a new organisation, and probably very rightly, in some cases, and how do you understand those firms listen to them, and then trying to lay them through that process. And I think they speak to many people who go through that change curve, the perception of, of how fearsome this could be at the beginning versus actually what it was like when they get to the end, there’s quite a transformation. People think, oh, actually wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. Or actually, there’s a whole bunch of positive outcomes that that maybe I hadn’t thought about that have now manifested themselves. And I think that’s why I said, hearing those stories from others is quite powerful. If you’re about to go into that process. It can be quite powerful to allay some of those fears, but culture that definitely, definitely something that leaderships and trusts are going to have to have to focus on 

Tom Kershaw 23:08   

as a culture, the watchword. And so we’ll be exploring that and more in our in our change management podcast, and Nick and I will also be teaming up to go through a recipe for a strong trust, we’ll delve more into the data side of things. And we will also have podcasts on safeguarding. And also, as I’ve mentioned at the start on the recruitment side of things to go into a little bit more detail, some of the things that we talked about, with regards to an excellent teacher for every child. Okay, so I think that probably brings us to the end of proceedings for today. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed this session. But I think before we go, and any final thoughts from you, Simon, on what we’ve talked about, 

Simon Freeman 23:46   

it’s been really interesting to kind of unpack the white paper in this way, I think, and people will agree or disagree with some of the themes and policy directions. But what’s clear to me and reading the paper, and then having this discussion today is there are some really key building blocks that help help schools academies deliver for the future aspirations of the children that they serve. And those building blocks often hinge around, I think, two of the key topics that came out today culture and data, and making sure that we have the right tools to service that data so that we can use evidence based evidence based decision making and having the right culture that supports every child to achieve their best I think if I sent some of that from the white paper, and I think that’s really powerful. 

Tom Kershaw 24:30   

Thank you, Simon. And Nick, anything from you? 

Nicholas Clarke 24:32   

Yeah, indeed. I think it’s, I appreciate that I’m more of an outside observer to the school system rather than being directly involved in it these days. But I think it’s a really exciting time for education at the moment, with a lot of opportunity. Whatever happens with government in the next few months, so I guess that’s all up for grabs. It’s really clear that schools are going to continue to academized I personally think a categorising is a good thing or can be a good thing, but again, that focus around using data in a good way. And managing your trusts culture in order to retain good staff. I think those are the two key things at the moment for me. Yeah. And 

Tom Kershaw 25:12   

I’d agree, Nick, I think exciting times. They are. I think there is a definite roadmap. So at least there’s some uncertainty there. And there’s the opportunity for trusts to take control of the educational landscape within their within their own areas. So yeah, exciting times ahead. So, thank you, everyone, for listening. And if you found this valuable, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast channel. We’ll be discussing all of these topics in more detail in upcoming podcasts. And you can find us on all social media channels, and I’m saying goodbye from me.