Academies Conference 2024: A round up of the event

26th January 2024

Thursday 25 January marked our seventh annual Academies Conference, and what a brilliant day it was. If you attended, you’ll already know all about the buzzing atmosphere, friendly faces, and inspiring speeches. If you didn’t attend, let this be a lesson to never miss out again!

The Academies Conference was designed to reignite passion and share practical strategies to help academy and trust leaders to better understand how policies, practices, and procedures impact their settings. And if you ask us (and many others, to be fair – verbal feedback on the day was very positive!), that’s exactly what the event did.

08:00 – Delegates begin to arrive

At eight o’clock on the dot, delegates started to arrive and the registration area was bustling. The air began vibrating with the hum of passionate conversations, punctuated by laughter and excited murmurs, as the North East education community was reunited once more!

08:15 – Meeting the exhibitors

We were very fortunate to have 31 exhibitors on the day, all of which came prepared with impressive stands and even more impressive chatter. Delegates grabbed a cuppa’ and spent a bit of time weaving through the exhibitors, learning more about who they are, what they do, and how they can help school communities.

08:45 – Welcome speech

And it’s showtime! Chris, Director of Schools North East, welcomed attendees with a warm opening speech that had people smiling and nodding their heads – and even chuckling at one point…

“Your choices change their [pupils’] worlds beyond measure. Something which undoubtedly deserves recognition and gratitude well beyond the walls of this venue.

“So thank you from the Schools North East team and trustees for all of the work you and your staff do and for taking the time to join us today.”

We also heard from Graham Vials, Capital Equity Partner for Ward Hadaway, who were the kind sponsors of Academies Conference 2024. Thanks again, Graham and Ward Hadaway!

09:05 – It’s Great Leaders That Make A Difference delivered by Professor Paul McGee, The SUMO Guy

We were delighted to kick off proceedings with our first keynote speaker: Professor Paul McGee, one of Europe’s leading motivational speakers on the subject of change, workplace relationships, leadership, and resilience.

Listening to him on the day, it wasn’t hard to understand why he’s as successful as he is…

Paul captivated us from the moment he stepped onto the stage and had the audience on their feet within the first ten minutes! It was an engaging and fun session that still enforced Paul’s most serious points.

He certainly helped colleagues understand how “pressing pause” can dramatically improve results; it’s about the E+R=O equation… “event + response = outcome.”

What does this mean? Well, it’s never just about the ‘event’ itself, but rather how you respond to the event. That’s what really determines your outcome, and that’s why you must always take time to process the situation you’re in.

School leaders are under immense pressure sometimes (well, most times) so it was really refreshing to be reminded of exactly why it’s important to give ourselves the time and space to think.

Begin with the end in mind, and remember, hippo time is OK. (If you know, you know).

11:00 – Session round one

We were honoured to have been joined by Anita Bath (Chief Executive of BBCET), Kieran McGrane (CEO of Pele Trust) and Ernest Jenavs (CEO & Co-Founder of Edurio), who each held their own sessions in the three breakout rooms.

Anita’s session (titled ‘A Great Education has the Power to Transform Lives’) explored standardisation vs autonomy, growth philosophy, and beliefs and behaviours.

Kieran discussed planning for growth, picking up on key messages, and approaches to school improvement in his session, which was titled ‘Growing Trust, Growing Trusts’.

And last but not least, Ernest used his time and space to explore ‘School Trust Priorities 2024, CST & Edurio Research Findings’, helping the audience understand the research methodology, key findings, and helpful recommendations.

11:45 – Session round two

From one hub of knowledge to another! Following on from session round one, we were joined by Katherine Cowell (Regional Schools Director), the amazing Prof. Rob Coe (Director of Research and Development, Evidence Based Education), and Paul Harrison (IT Manager for BCCET).

Session round two was just as informative, interesting and invaluable as session round one. Lucky delegates!

Katherine delivered an interesting update from the Department of Education, taking a deep dive into the five key challenges of 2024 which included standards, attendance, inclusion, trust growth and improvement, and area planning.

Rob, in his session titled ‘Nurturing Teachers as Learners: What Does the Evidence Tell Us?’, discussed what makes a great teacher, the most effective way to build expertise, and teacher development cycles, which certainly had the audience scribbling in their notebooks.

And in the third room, Paul was diving into ‘Trust Cyber Strategy: A School Leader’s Perspective’. We gained more insight into the types of cyber incidents, the various layers of security (the ‘security onion’), and how best to prepare for cyber challenges.

13:20 – Ofsted Update delivered by Lee Owston, National Schools Director at Ofsted

After a fantastic lunch break which allowed us to refuel (those chicken wings? Chef’s kiss) and meet more exhibitors, we welcomed Ofsted’s Lee Owston to the stage.

All eyes and ears were on Lee as he discussed the measures Ofsted have put in place – and the measures they will put in place – to prevent any more tragic events among Head Teachers and school leaders.

Ofsted is a hot, hot topic across academies and trusts right now (when is it not?) so it was really interesting to hear what he had to say about safeguarding updates, minor improvements, early monitoring inspections, and transparency.

Lee also discussed Ofsted’s new campaign: “The Big Listen”. The education watchdog has vowed to make more of an effort to listen to school leaders to understand exactly what changes they need to make to their framework, as well as the way in which they carry out their inspections.

14:05 – Panel: What Choices Should be Made to Improve the System for our Great North Trusts?

Following Lee, we were treated to an in-depth panel conversation with Gareth Edmunds, Rob Coe, Louise Spellman, and Anita Bath, with John Roberts (Deputy News Editor for Tes) chairing the discussion.

It was really helpful to gain expert insight and opinions on topics such as common challenges among the sector, the level of support available for trusts, and changes to Ofsted.

Anita said that she’d love to see specific funding for trusts to properly support central teams, and Louise followed on to say she quite likes that the system ‘does it for itself’, local autonomy – and agreed funding would be beneficial.

When we broached the topic of staff shortages and recruitment challenges, John said schools lack the ability to offer flexible working arrangements, which is a factor that could contribute to the recruitment crisis.

When asked if there’s anything about the sector that makes them feel optimistic for the future, Gareth mentioned the positive outcomes of our region’s school’s Ofsted inspections, levels of attainment at 5+, and the fact that we have the unique Schools North East community to lean on!

14:45 – Session round three

At 14:45, we all moved back into the separate suites to absorb further insight from more fantastic leaders.

We heard from Jennifer Duncan, Tracy Hanger, and Allyson Eden from Tees Valley Education, who each contributed to the discussion of “Leading SEND provision across a Multi-Academy Trust”.

In the neighbouring room, we explored “Working Towards a Trust Dividend” with Andy Brown OBE and Sue Lister, CEO and COO respectively of Ad Astra Academy Trust. It was fascinating to understand more about the inflection point of seeking a trust dividend, and ‘the curiosity approach’.

And lastly, Gareth Edmunds (Chief Operating & Financial Officer of Northern Education Trust) walked us through the subject of “COFO to CEO”. The audience listened intently as he discussed trust visions and values, personal accountability and responsibility; and professional development.

15:30 – Shadow Schools Minister’s Address Catherine McKinnell MP

The day was drawing to a close… but we had one more knowledge bomb to drop! At 15:30, the main room watched as Catherine McKinnell MP – Shadow Schools Minister – walked on stage to address the audience.

In her speech, she highlighted that the number of pupils who are persistently absent has doubled in the past five years, and stressed that a long-term plan is needed in order to rebuild the trust between schools and families. However, she said she recognises that this can’t happen until we first rebuild the trust between schools and the government.

On the topic of Ofsted, Catherine reiterated that Labour plans to reform the education watchdog by scrapping Ofsted’s current grading system and replacing it with a new “report card” for schools. This part certainly got a few heads nodding.

It was fantastic to be joined by someone with such authority and influence in the sector, and to get the chance to remind her of all the reasons why the North East education sector is so unique.

16:00 – Close

At 16:00, the event came to a close and the crowd began filtering out the venue – but not before exchanging business cards and heartfelt farewells.

We caught up with a few delegates throughout the event and the feedback was fantastic.

Martyn Tweddle, Executive Head Teacher at The Oaks Secondary School, said: “It’s been really informative and I loved the motivational speaker … I’d definitely come again and recommend it to anyone who hasn’t been before.”

Similarly, Lorna McLean, Principal at King Edwin School, said: ”It’s been a brilliant morning. I’ve seen The SUMO Guy, who I really liked … I thought he was really inspirational … Katherine Cowell’s session was really interesting and absolutely packed to the rafters … Lunch was lovely, plenty of coffee. Thanks very much!”

All in all, the Academies Conference 2024 was a great success. It’s difficult not to have a positive outcome whenever seasoned educators and fresh minds collide; this type of collaboration always fosters positive results, and as such, we should see our region’s trusts and academies continue to grow in strength.

Huge ‘thank you’ to all delegates, speakers, and sponsors. As you should know by now, we really can’t do this without you, so please give yourselves a huge pat on the back!

Now, let’s get ready to activate weekend mode…