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New chief executive of Norfolk’s biggest academy chain sets out vision

PUBLISHED: 08:00 14 November 2017 | UPDATED: 14:06 14 November 2017

Mary Jane Edwards, the new chief executive of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust (DNEAT). Picture: DNEAT

Mary Jane Edwards, the new chief executive of the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust (DNEAT). Picture: DNEAT

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It is the biggest academy trust in Norfolk, having grown to 30 schools in its four years. Lauren Cope talks to the outgoing and new chief executives at the Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust (DNEAT), as it turns a new page.

Director of education for the Diocese of Norwich Paul Dunning. Picture: Antony Kelly Director of education for the Diocese of Norwich Paul Dunning. Picture: Antony Kelly

The turn of the school year has marked something of a new chapter for DNEAT.

It waved farewell to former chief executive Paul Dunning, who oversaw much of its growth from the end of 2014, and welcomed a new face at the lead.

Taking the reins is Mary Jane Edwards, who hopes to use her experience as a former teacher, education officer at Norfolk County Council and 12-year career as an Ofsted inspector to drive forward improvement.

She takes over at a busy time for the trust - which began with Moorlands Primary in Belton in 2013 - amid plans to take on a clutch of new schools and a sister trust in the pipeline.

“I’ve spent a long time looking at schools across the country - I’ve seen standards which have been excellent and others where children are being let down,” she said.

“We know at DNEAT that we have improvement rates faster than elsewhere locally and nationally, we know we have an improvement approach that works in Norfolk and we want Norfolk to succeed.”

Moorlands Primary Academy in Belton. 

Picture: James Bass Moorlands Primary Academy in Belton. Picture: James Bass

It’s a confident message which has come after a year of consolidation - Mr Dunning, who has become the Diocese of Norwich’s director of education, said two years of rapid growth saw the trust take last year to sit back and take stock.

Now, though, Mrs Edwards said the focus would be split - while investing in the workforce and pushing up more Ofsted results were at the top of the priorities pile, expansion is also on the cards.

“We will have five new primary schools joining this academic year,” Mrs Edwards said, “who are already federated with DNEAT schools so those links are already there.

“Then we’ll pay very close attention to what happens next.”

Noticeably, among DNEAT’s collection of primaries remains Open Academy, its only secondary school.

Though Mrs Edwards said there weren’t plans to recruit other secondaries, she said it was key the trust worked with nearby headteachers.

Archbishop Sancroft High School, Harleston Archbishop Sancroft High School, Harleston

“It is important to make sure Open doesn’t feel like it’s own,” she said. “We work closely with other secondary schools around the city because we don’t want there to be a business of isolation.”

It is likely, though, that a high school could join a second trust being set up by the Diocese, designed to act as a sister trust to help DNEAT contain its growth.

Former regional schools commissioner for the east Tim Coulson had been clear he didn’t want the trust to grow too big, and believed a second trust could offer flexibility.

Though little detail - including a name - has been announced, it would initially be based in south Norfolk, and would focus on schools already in a strong position.

In summer, Archbishop Sancroft High School, in Harleston, and nearby Harleston Primary consulted with parents on founding the trust, with a decision expected during this school term.

Mrs Edwards said the model would enable the trusts to work closely, while keeping their own identities, and said cooperation was key in a fragmented and “dynamic” education picture.

“The world of accountability has changed,” she said. “Norfolk as a local authority has been clear they don’t run schools anymore - governing bodies and academy trusts do and that offers much more clarity.

“The growth of the academy programme has grown exponentially - it’s a much more dynamic picture, but it’s really important that everyone works together. If we want to solve problems for children - particularly in very rural areas, which bring their own challenges - it’s vital for multi-academy trusts to work together.”

It will see her work alongside Mr Dunning, who, in his new role, will oversee the Diocese’s 110 schools - a quarter of all schools in Norfolk and, he said, a “vital” part of the landscape. He replaces Andy Mash, who spent 13 years in the role.

“Andy did an excellent job,” Mr Dunning said, “and has put us in a really strong position, which I’m looking forward to taking forward. Being a Norfolk boy, one of my drivers is to help Norfolk get a good rap.

“Education is a springboard for so much else in life and it needs to be the best it can for every pupil.”

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