A New Beginning: Interview with Rowena Hackwood, Chief Executive of Astrea Academies Trust

For any new CEO joining an organisation there is excitement and anticipation coupled with challenge and consideration for what has gone before. However, joining a front-line educational organisation mid-pandemic is a very different experience to what it might have been and brings with it a much broader range of considerations.

Experienced Multi Academy Trust CEO Rowena Hackwood joined Astrea Academy Trust in July 2020 and has spent the past year with her sleeves rolled up, transitioning the organisation to a new leadership model and establishing a stronger footing for the future. She talks openly about the challenges she has faced and the learnings identified, as well as the successes and opportunities that have arisen. As Astrea looks to the future, Rowena and her team have already set in place a path for transformation and look forward to the chance to move this forward in person.


 

The past 12 months have been like no other in living memory. In these extraordinary times you began your role as Chief Executive of Astrea Academy Trust. Can you share some of your experiences and learnings realised during this time?

Starting at Astrea mid-pandemic opened my eyes to how different it had been from organisation to organisation. A relatively young organisation, Astrea had experienced changes in both executive and non-executive leadership and was much less well placed to respond with confidence and substance than my previous organisation with its well established operational and educational structures.

An interesting post-COVID challenge is that my organisation has got out of the habit of having face-to-face meetings; nearly one year on, we are still addressing the deficits in trust that are quickly cracked when you invest face-to-face time in relationship building. Only last week, we had our first strategic awayday as a Senior Leadership Team and it was something of a shock to realise how little we knew of one another’s preferred working styles, strengths and weaknesses.

I think that any incoming CEO needs to experience their organisation first-hand, speak to staff on the shop floor as well as in the boardroom, look outwards at leading practice as well as inwards, and match up all the documents that you’ve read and research you’ve done prior to joining with what you see in ‘in the flesh’. Finding opportunities to do this has been challenging during this last year and has been hampered further by the difficulties presented by remote working to embedding trust-based accountability structures and collaborative working. This is going to be a major focus for me as I move forward in my role.

What were your key priorities as you came into this role? Have you been able to address these successfully or have you had to adapt in the circumstances?

It was always my intention when I arrived to have a transitional year, as Astrea was entering the last year of an existing strategy. My mandate on appointment was to lay the groundwork in my first year for a common, aspirational approach to both quality of education and efficiency of operational support services and it’s fair to say that whilst much of this thinking and planning has been achieved, due to the pandemic things have gone somewhat slower than I might have liked, particularly in relation to getting some ‘early wins’ in terms of academic outcomes. Most schools across the country have been impacted educationally over this time by long-term pupil absences from face-to-face education, with important performance indicators for multi-academy trusts such as pupil attendance, measurable academic outcomes such as GCSE passes, and Ofsted Inspection judgements being impacted or paused. I do feel though, that I have used this time constructively to do the operational, structural and strategic thinking that this pause provided the space for, and also to create a culture in which we are all pointing in the same direction and feel a sense of collective ownership.

My first priority was to establish a ‘single version of the truth’ – a common narrative to share with trustees and senior leaders that articulated past successes and performance gaps with humility and honesty, and set the groundwork for future changes. I have 27 different schools in my Trust, all at different stages in their development, and most in the habit of measuring their performance against themselves rather than against external benchmarks, which led to a wide range of understanding of performance at each school, with some significantly over-estimating their achievements and some significantly under-shooting. Having this ‘single version of the truth’, underpinned with a shared narrative, has given me the foundations from which to move forwards without constantly revisiting the arguments of the past.

During my first 12 months, I have also pinned down a range of quality standards, or blueprints I prefer to call them – essentially what we are aiming for in terms of curriculum, pupil behaviour, teaching quality, back-office support and a range of other areas, as basis for our emerging strategy. I have also taken the opportunity to test out a range of accountability structures, and now have a monthly organisational ‘drum-beat’ in place to ensure that we are solving problems as we go and delivering what we said we would in a timely and high quality way.

As a Chief Executive you are often looking down into the challenges and opportunities in your organisation, scanning across the horizon and also projecting out your image and brand out into the wider sector. This past year I have spent more time than I would typically like on the first of these, looking inwards organisationally, whilst I have built up my leadership team and got the right people in key roles. I hope that in my second year I can spend a bit less time with my sleeves rolled up and more time on the future shaping and the development of the Trust’s national reputation.

Astrea incorporates 27 schools comprising all age groups based across South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire. How have you managed to create cohesion and collaboration across the Trust during the pandemic?

Perhaps, not surprisingly, this has been really tough but there are a number of approaches that have helped, and which I will continue to use as we emerge from pandemic restrictions.

I overcommunicate constantly, sending a weekly newsletter without fail to all schools and Chairs of Governors. Fairly informal in style, it is an update on priorities, new initiatives, resources and approaches. I am always looking for feedback and insight, it is a good way of keeping in touch and giving them a chance to join with initiatives or activity as appropriate.
Being visible in our schools has also been important, when restrictions have allowed, and I have visited every Trust school at least once, and my more critical schools several times. In addition, I also hold a CEO virtual conference time each term at which anyone can ask any question, in person or anonymously, ‘Question Time’ style; this allows me to hear how people on the ground are feeling about things, what is troubling them and what is on their mind, as well as giving colleagues the opportunity to put me on the spot, show that I am open to questions and input from all, and articulate my vision and expectations clearly.

As a result of these sessions, I have been challenged to put a far greater emphasis on mental health and wellbeing for staff, for instance. I have also been able to gauge whether messaging is cascading to all staff or if it is ‘getting stuck’ anywhere. It helps me see if I need to adjust my communication and to think differently about how I engage with all staff, and not just those who are leaders. Particularly during this period of remote working, there is a real risk that your message is mediated through the opinion of someone else and it can break down during the communication chain. These meetings have really allowed me to get to the nub of how messages are being filtered and that is a really important perspective for an incoming CEO to have.

How has Astrea adapted its use of technology in the past year and what impacts has this had for staff, pupils, parents and wider communities?

It is absolutely fair to say that without technology, my start at Astrea during the pandemic would have been much, much harder!

The need to respond quickly to initiatives such as on-line learning has forced much greater collaboration than in the past in order to manage workload and avoid unnecessary duplication, and the technology has really enabled this. We have really valued expertise and learnt from our experts to share knowledge, such as risk assessments, take short-cuts, for instance in the development of on-line assessment.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, I have been surprised by how technology has enabled us to work better together share strategic ideas, seek feedback and manage our day-to-day business in a more ‘business like’ way. I have observed that staff focus well in on-line meetings, agendas are better managed, voices are more clearly heard (e.g. through better setting of ground-rules and the use of the ‘hands up’ function, or through judicious use of the chat function), and interactive sessions are often better planned. For example, at our remote conference in October, staff did not waste time driving for several hours to a venue, speakers attended remotely and could be recorded to share with staff who were unable to attend, and focused breakout groups from across our 27 schools introduced peers had never met each other before, in spite of having worked for the organisation for several years!

I would also observe that through the use of technology and remote working, CEOs and senior leaders have been humanised and de-mystified for staff – I’m sure I’m not the only one whose meetings have been punctuated by delivery drivers, dogs and children! I think this generates a greater sense of personal connection and authenticity and staff and pupils have been much happier to say hello to me when I have been on site. The traditional focus in many sectors has been on leaders’ competence at the expense of the personal attributes that make a leader likeable. I think that working from home has exposed the human side of leaders, enabling them to be trustworthy as well as competent, the two ingredients which Harvard Business School research show significantly enhance leadership impact.

You have a strong track record in the Academy Trust space, but your career did not begin in Education. How has your combined experience shaped your approach – particularly as you navigate Astrea through the pandemic and into the future? 

My mantra has always been to focus on leveraging the ‘best of public and best of private’ thinking, drawing on my experience from both. Astrea is essentially a 27-site education ‘business’ which happens to be publicly funded, so my experiences of working in other sectors map across directly. I do think that it’s east to become limited in our perspectives if we have a single sector view; sometimes things that feel complex to one sector are a well-worn path in another. For instance, the education sector is wrestling with Trust mergers and the acquisition of new schools at present – a well-trodden path in the private sector.

How important has your relationship been with the Board of Trustees and how has it evolved during this time?

My Board’s primary role is to act as the guardians of the Trust’s strategy, money and risk, which has obviously been a challenge over the last year. Alongside the strategic challenges that we discussed before, risk oversight has been critical in the last 12 months. Convening an additional Trustee oversight committee alongside our statutory boards really enabled us to manage risk more effectively than we did pre-pandemic, as well as improving our ability to share information and gain support and challenge from the board members in a flexible and fast-moving way. The idea that every area of risk must now be assessed is quite new in this sector. We are good at risk assessing a trip or a site, but risk assessment during COVID has taken on a whole new nature that we aren’t used to. Reopening schools, even with all measures in place, has been a challenge and the ultimate responsibility lies with me and the Trustees if something goes wrong. It has been critical to ensure Trustees understand how we are managing risk on an individual and site level and how we are managing personal safety and health and wellbeing across our communities.

On a broader strategic canvas, I have invested a lot of time during the last 12 months on aligning accountability structures for the executive and non-executive, to ensure that we are speaking the same language and prioritising and measuring the same things. Our boards are much more focused and coherent now, because strategic direction is understood and we have focused in on those things that really matter to us in terms of delivering our transitional strategy.

And, from a finance perspective, it has been important that I worked closely with my Finance Committee to deal with spending decisions that weren’t part of our initial budget planning. For example we have spent several thousand pounds on the requisite technology for staff and pupils to enable teaching, learning and the provision of support services from home. The ability and need to engage quickly and positively with Trustees to make those substantial decisions has been vital.

How has the education system more broadly in England evolved as a result of the pandemic? 

While it has been challenging, no one will deny that there have been some very positive outcomes. A big win has been the massive increase in inter-Trust collaboration and between non-Trust and Trust schools. I have seen a huge increase in the sharing of information and approaches, as well as early warning systems where something hasn’t worked in a school and where issues can be addressed and mitigated in other environments.

I feel fortunate as a CEO of a larger Trust when compared to my colleagues in smaller organisations that I have teams of experts that I can rely upon. The pressure on smaller trusts has been very much greater than it has been on me and I felt it was incumbent on me to find ways to support them and share what I had to help shortcut the level of work they had to do.
This whole period has thrown a spotlight on the resilience of the larger structures and has raised important national policy considerations about how the larger and smaller school structures work together.
There has also been a huge increase in peer- to-peer connections during this period. I love my network and will always make time for people to share ideas, and now mentor four leaders in the sector. On-line working has made these connections easier and ‘lower stakes’, with less imposition on time or travel removing barriers that might have existed in the past.

What do you consider the impact to be on young people and what is your view in how this should be addressed?

I truly believe we must not catastrophise the impact too much. In my view there has been too much noise about lost learning, children missing out and academic failure to the detriment of those young people who risk being stigmatised in the longer timer by the narratives that we choose.

There is no denying that some schools and Trusts have fared better than others and I have observed that the gulf between the learning experience at independent schools versus the state sector widened very markedly in the early days of the pandemic. I know that many independent schools literally handed out laptops to every child and on the Monday morning children were ready to go with a full online timetable. That was quite different from how many state schools were able to respond, given their financial constraints and lack of experience in the on-line learning sphere, although having said that, the creativity of many teachers in ensuring that children accessed inspiring learning in their own homes has brought out the best in the teaching profession and is worth of admiration and praise.

As the dust settles and we emerge from the pandemic period, we are nonetheless starting to see the academic impact of the last 12 months. Not surprisingly when you think about it, have observed that it is our youngest children, those who were least able to access learning on-line, who have lost out most. In our primaries, we are prioritising early reading so that children are really able to access a wide and rich curriculum. Whilst in our secondaries, we are doing work on accelerated reading and corrective maths, but we would have done that anyway: we are just putting more emphasis on it during school time.

Is the Education sector doing enough to encourage diversity, in its many forms, amongst its current and future leadership cohort?

Leadership in education is not yet sufficiently diverse, and I am a regular advocate of change in this regard. I am a member of a group of CEOs from the 40 largest Multi Academy Trusts in the country; at the last count only nine of that group are women.

I passionately believe that not only must we leave the ladder out for the next generation of women, but we should be reaching a hand down to help them. That is why I do so much work on mentoring new and future leaders, for example working with educational training programme the Ambition Institute on its CEO programme. I do as much as I can to support and encourage leaders in the support of Multi Academy Trusts also.

I think my outside-the-sector perspective perceives fewer barriers than those from inside the sector, but the modelling of leadership in education is not always very diverse. Historically it has been a male dominated approach to leadership, and now my peers and I have a responsibility to model it differently and break down the barriers.


BIOGRAPHY

Rowena became Chief Executive Officer at Astrea in July 2020. She has significant experience in leading high profile organisations across the public, not-for-profit and private sectors. Before joining Astrea, Rowena was CEO at David Ross Education Trust (DRET) where from 2017, she embedded performance improvements and led the Trust in providing inspirational opportunities and educational excellence.

As well as having been CEO of two major academy trusts, Rowena has served as a trustee of one of the largest trust in the country, and also been a director of Education Support Services.

Through her previous role as Chief Executive of a not-for-profit start-up in the regeneration sector, Rowena set up and ran a £60 million regeneration project of national importance on behalf of a City Philanthropist, under the auspices of the Auckland Castle Trust.

A strong believer in bringing the best of the public and private sector together, Rowena provides strong and visionary leadership to those she works with. She drives energetic change so that organisations become the best they can be. She is also a passionate advocate of the need for the education sector to become more diverse, and she mentors new and future leaders, including through the Ambition Institute.

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