Will it be business as usual at the 'new' SSAT? Tony Parkin and Merlin John report
The work of The Schools Network, the education charitable trust possibly still better known under its previous name of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), will continue despite the announcement that it is going into administration.
A management buy-out ensures that a new company, SSAT (The Schools Network), continues the School Network's work, to be run by many of the remaining staff. But a question mark hangs over the organisation's capacity to sustain its world-class reputation for ICT leadership.
New technology has been one of the key themes of the work of the Schools Network and its predecessors since 1998. It has been home of a number of ICT-related programmes and activities, of which the best known currently are probably the ICT Register, the Data Enabler Toolkit, the Intel 1:1 project and the Student Digital Leaders network (supported by Toshiba) whose members from Stretford High School, Manchester, recently presented at the European e-Skills Week 2012 event in Copenhagen (see photo above). It is not clear how many of these technology-related projects will continue to be operated by the new company.
Chairman of the trustees of the Schools Network Nick Stuart, said: “The decision to put the charity into administration has been difficult for all concerned. A combination of the loss of the DfE [Department for Education] grant, cancellation of government contracts that equated to 50 per cent of our total income and tightening school budgets has meant that the trust was unable to generate sufficient revenue to cover substantial historic overhead costs. In the circumstances the trustees encouraged Sue Williamson and her management team to mount a management buy-out and we are delighted that she has been successful.
"The need for an independent membership organisation that gives school leaders the opportunity to lead the system and influence government policy has never been more important. Under her leadership we believe the new company will be able to preserve the objectives and philosophy of the trust, continuing to maintain and enhance services to member schools.”
For some time it had been widely suspected that the trust was in financial difficulties. Though a membership organisation supported by affiliation fees from its thousands of affiliated schools, it had also been financially dependent on winning a large number of contracts, many of them put out to tender by the DfE. The lack of such contracts since the change of government had presented particular challenges to the Schools Network.
As the funding for the various projects and contracts from the previous administration came to an end the trust has gone through rounds of voluntary and enforced redundancies. The organisation had, however, enjoyed continued success in winning contracts overseas, the most notable being in Abu Dhabi where, as SSAT Abu Dhabi, it has been operating a network of schools and working extensively with the Abu Dhabi Educational Council. It has also been highly active in China and elsewhere in the world under its iNet banner. However as the picture changed, media requests to discuss this loss of UK business and the shift to overseas activity had regularly been refused by the then chief executive Liz Reid.
The sudden resignation of Liz Reid, after a critical board meeting just before the organisation's national conference in December 2011 led to increased speculation that all was not well financially. Long-term director at The Schools Network, Sue Williamson, immediately took over the role of acting chief executive, and then chief executive. She led the national conference as usual, recording the gratitude of the organisation for Liz Reid's many years of leadership. Although this calmed anxieties, it did not entirely dispel the rumours of financial difficulties. These had first surfaced following the earlier resignation of the finance director, Andrew Hewett, amid suggestions that the organisation could not hope to survive financially on its then course.
The organisation has existed under a variety of forms for 25 years. The first entity was linked with the rise of school autonomy in the Thatcher era, and supported by Kenneth Baker within the City Technology Colleges movement. By 2000 it was still a relatively small organisation with a £3 million pound turnover and only around 20 staff. However, under Liz Reid's leadership it grew to around £90 million turnover with more than 450 employees at its peak.
The trust built a reputation as a highly successful delivery organisation, admired for its cost-effectiveness and the quality and popularity of its programmes. It certainly attracted increasing support from the Labour Government, whose ministers, and even prime minister Tony Blair were regular visitors to its events. Its closeness to schools, with its "by schools, for schools" ethos, networking structure, and steering groups of headteachers, were undoubtedly seen as critical elements in that success.
'Ill-fated diploma programme was worth £40 million'
Though commonly seen by many in education as primarily a quasi-agency giving support for the Specialist Schools programme, for many years this was in fact a relatively small contract relative to its other revenue streams. Much of the growth was achieved by successfully tendering for several large government contracts, most notably winning the support contract for the ill-fated diploma programme that was worth £40 million to the organisation at its peak.
While the exact nature and structure of the organisation going forward has yet to emerge, it is clear that there will have to be some significant differences. Following the resignations of leading members, the remainder of the business development team that had been crucial to winning many of the large multi-million pound contracts has been disbanded.. Also gone is the conference team responsible for the many events that the SSAT ran in its heyday. But the SSAT still has an extensive series of events, conferences, resources, training and services planned for the coming year, including its national conference in Liverpool (December 4-5). It is understood that the management team is keen for SSAT to get back to its roots as a "by schools for schools" networking organisation.
Of the several teams previously operating ICT-related activities in the various directorates, few staff still remain. Glyn Barritt, who has managed the ICT Register since its inception, and more recently has also been operating the Student Digital Leaders network, is still at the new company, as is Colin Logan who, as head of data, has been operating the popular Data Enabler programme. However there has been relatively little activity of late under a number of the ICT-related projects still listed on the School Network's website.
SSAT chief executive Sue Williamson said this week: “Schools know only too well how vital it is for organisations to adapt and change in this fast-moving educational environment. SSAT is no exception and, as we enter this new era, we look forward to building on our relationships with schools, bringing even greater value and sharing the expertise and experience that members have developed over the last 25 years.
"The need for an independent membership organisation is stronger than ever. Our new structure gives us the opportunity and flexibility to work even more closely with schools to improve outcomes for children, enhance teacher quality, develop students as independent learners, introduce innovative approaches to curriculum content and design, and showcase best and next practice from around the world.“
SSAT now facing competition
The SSAT certainly needs to be competitive as its 'monopoly' on representing academies came to an end with the creation and growth of the Independent Academies Association (IAA). and the organisation set up with government support, the News Schools Network. However, the trust continues to enjoy goodwill.
Stephen Munday, headteacher of Comberton Village College and chair of the trust's Leading Edge Steering Group commented: "I am delighted that SSAT is to take forward such an important and significant national network of schools. We need this network, especially in the new educational world. It provides a crucial means by which all of us working in schools can seek to share ideas and practice and move forward together."
Dr Neil Hopkin, headteacher of Rosendale Primary School and chair of the Primary Schools Steering Group said: “SSAT is a great supporter of all phases of education and school leadership. The recognition that early years settings, primary and secondary schools must all work together to realise our world class ambitions for the nation's children underpins everything that SSAT does.”
David Gregory, executive headteacher of Fosse Way School commented: “Special schools have long been inspired by the pioneering spirit of the SSAT which lives and breathes in today’s announcement. SSAT understands how schools tick and has played a central role in spreading innovative practice throughout special and mainstream schools. I look forward to continuing to work with them in future.”
The big question for observers working in the area of learning with ICT is whether the 'new' SSAT, will have the capacity for leadership of ICT where it has always had a formidable reputation. The last serious contribution of the then schools network to national debate was "The importance of technology", the white paper it drafted with Naace as a response to the deafening silence, and disappointing performance, of the Coalition Government on on this subject.
'We need to adopt an approach that uses the tools used in industry now' – Bill How
Bill How, then head of learning technologies (he has since left), commented at the time: “If we are serious about building a knowledge economy, and we are serious about equipping our learners with the skills and abilities to compete in that economy and to become the entrepreneurs of the future, then we need to adopt an approach that uses the tools used in industry now. And we need to consider the knowledge-based skills that our students need and support them through the education system.
“The traits that industry need are no great secret; you can find them in the Kozma report on building knowledge economies. Sadly, we often refer to them in our education system as soft skills but they are far from a soft option – they are essential skills.
“All the examples we are given of great education systems, like the Nordic states and Asian Tiger states need to be looked at in the full context. They are trying to develop knowledge based economies and you can’t achieve that without clever engagement with ICT. So you will see that the examples of Singapore, Finland and Norway, have made considerable investments in ICT and are placed accordingly in the World Economic Forum’s rankings. You cannot discount technology.
“Schools on the UK have been doing well at deepening knowledge, the first part of the process identified by Kozma, but the Nordic and Asian states are moving on to the next stage – creating knowledge. And while some of our schools (in particular the primary sector) are engaging well with this, the Nordic Asian states are climbing ahead.”
Whether the SSAT can continue to make national contributions of this quality and at this level is a moot point. The financial bloodletting and restructuring has been carried out and now the big challenge facing the organisation is credibility and trust, along with its capacity to continue to support and develop the valued ICT projects within its domain.