Supporting Heads; supporting schools: collectively weathering the storm

Saxton Bampfylde was delighted to hear from Julian Drinkall, CEO at Academies Enterprise Trust, as he considers the impact of the pandemic on his own schools including the support they have needed and the strength they have shown.

Julian Says:

From 1 June onwards, 32 Primary Headteachers in AET re-opened their schools to children in Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

Of course, it is a fallacy to say that schools had been closed – they have in fact been open the whole time, providing education in school for the children of key workers and those who are considered to be vulnerable.

Nonetheless, our Heads have been facing the toughest challenge of their careers. But it is a challenge that they are more than a match for.

Schools, local authorities, and academy trusts across the country are facing the same challenges – how to physically organise a safe return for all children and for staff; how to juggle the educational needs of those who are attending school with those who are not yet back; how to minimise risks of infection; and how to shore up parental confidence and reassure them that the right thing to do is for their child to come back to school.

And all of this hard on the heels of weeks of running virtual school for the majority of their pupils after the sudden announcement that schools would close for most children back in March.

It is at times such as these, that our Heads can feel the value of being part of a large and inclusive multi academy trust.

Whilst they are right on the frontline, our arms are wrapped around them.

We have worked hard to support our heads in all sorts of ways: providing live online lessons for the first two-weeks of lockdown giving schools some breathing space to establish their own virtual rhythm; providing trust-wide templates for parental communication; funding free school meals for children over the Easter holidays; and investing £2m in tablets, devices and wifi dongles so that all children on free school meals were able to continue with their learning at home, and not fall further behind.

And this level of support has freed them to be able to focus on the challenges of the day to day, and to be the leaders they need to be for their own staff in school.

Right now, we are in real-time crisis mode. But our approach and our support are in many ways just an extension of how the AET family operates in more normal times.

When I joined AET in 2017, our Heads had been neglected – if not abandoned – for far too long. There was no sense of shared purpose, or collective vision. There were no structures to support leaders, and there was a complete absence of any accountability.

Fast-forward three years, and our Heads operate in a radically different environment. Academies who have faced challenges join our Key Academies of Concern Programme and Heads are provided with specialist support and expertise to improve that position.

All heads now engage with system leaders across our trust – experienced Heads who have a track record of turnaround, who can provide real advice and support for the challenges they are facing.

And perhaps most radically, the local governing bodies have been completely reconstituted. Simply put, there was no real governance at AET back in 2017. And in that first summer, I gave notice to every single one of the Chairs of Governors.

They were replaced with professional, paid chairs – experienced educators who knew what questions to ask, and how to play a supportive, but challenging role.

The other major innovation was to introduce the concept of Peer Principals. This model sees each Local Governing Body have two other AET headteachers on it – one from each phase of education. This has proved to be a hugely beneficial approach, with major positives for both the head of the school itself, but also the head Governors.

We are some way from any reckoning on how schools have fared throughout Covid-19. But I am convinced that the structural changes and support that we put in place three years ago have put us in a position where organisationally we are more resilient and that our team is able to bear the pressure of the current crisis. And most importantly, they mean that collectively we will weather this storm together.


Julian Drinkall is Chief Executive of Academies Enterprise Trust. Previously, he was Chief Executive of the Alpha Plus Group, one of the largest groups of independent schools in the UK and the largest in London, and which has built a strong reputation for its high educational standards.

In addition to this Julian brings over a decade of experience in education: as President and CEO of Cengage Learning, EMEA and India, as well as three years as CEO of Macmillan Education, besides further roles in media and international education companies including IPC Media. Prior to this, his early career was in strategy consulting and corporate finance, becoming Head of the BBC’s Financial and Commercial Strategy in 1998.

Educated at Eton and Oxford where he graduated in PPE, Julian also has an MBA from Harvard and a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard’s JFK School of Government, where he holds a Littauer Fellowship.