To gain an insight into the evolution of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) centralisation, I would recommend “A Growing Philosophy” sponsored by IMP Software and published in the Autumn of 2020. This is a comparative review of MATs that have embarked upon a strategy of centralisation.
Judging the performance of a school’s operation too often focuses upon those areas that do not perform well. So, of the many moving parts required to operate a school, it is notable that a strategy of centralisation both requires and enhances many of the hallmarks of great performance.
Strong leadership, a clear set of shared values that are well communicated, understood and accepted, is the heart of any well-run organisation. But particularly so if Academy leaders are to build a consensus from schools that had previously been run autonomously. At the centre of these values must be the trust’s purpose to provide every pupil with the same educational benefits and opportunities which ever participating school they find themselves in.
In practice, each school and each Multi Academy will have started from a different position and this accounts for the fact the across all MATs the degree to which they have centralised differs.
Taking a broad view there are hard and soft issues to manage in developing a centralised strategy. The soft issues are largely about leadership, vision, communication and fairness, and the most challenges will arise from these issues. To succeed here requires that all stakeholders understand the vision, know what point they have reached, know exactly what is required of them and that their feedback is valued. For some MATs there is an ongoing process of change management, for others that started with “a blank slate”, the articulation of a shared vision was established at the outset.
When dealing with the hard issues, gains are more easily attained and measured. Albeit even these will cause friction if their implementation is not handled sensitively; long established relationships may have to change; established budget holders will resist the loss of control. Much of the gains around the hard issues, are about economies of scale, providing common resources and financial improvement; all of which is a necessary part of providing more cash for the classroom.
Thus, for example, if the Trust is to have one supplier and one invoice for one product or service, it will gain on delivery price and processing costs and depending on the supply in question, the savings can be considerable. Procurement for schools entails a wide range of products and services. The current pandemic has put a strain on many established supply chains, which has in turn added to the complexities confronting school business managers. Financial dividends that may have been won when centralised procurement was first implemented, could well have been lost over time as markets change, and or once robust processes are no longer adhered to. Sustainability and visibility must now be key requirements for supply managers. Digital tools are now emerging that go far beyond financial settlement, and provide dashboards to monitor, plan and execute compliant purchasing.
Gains arise from the opportunity to share services and costs across a Trust, which a single school would struggle to justify or obtain on its own. This in turn allows managers to remove duplication of administration and processing systems. The adoption of centralised finance and budget systems will also remove the considerable man-hours required for work-rounds used to get long-standing disparate school systems to talk to each other. Cloud-based services have provided a highly effective way to capture, analyse and access data across a network. Budget forecasting, which for some MATs is a time-consuming exercise of data gathering, validation, and spreadsheet Pivot tables, can now be achieved in a fraction of the time and with greater accuracy with powerful systems such as that offered by IMP Software, the leader in MAT budget forecasting.
Finally, I will touch on, perhaps the most contested area, General Annual Grant (GAG) Pooled Funding. While this topic is often characterised as an excuse by Trusts to wrestle financial control (and surpluses) away from schools, in practice it provides Trust Governors and the leadership team the best opportunity to deliver fairness across all schools. Many MATs are now quite large, operating schools in many different local authorities, with many different funding formulas. Left as discrete operations, this enshrines regional inequalities and would be at complete odds to single centralised educational opportunity.
The prize to be won by moving to GAG Pooled Funding enables stakeholders, teachers and business managers to compare costs on an equal basis. This in turn facilitates the collaborative ethos and the opportunity to share educational assets – human and physical, across the whole Trust.
In conclusion one can see that for Trust centralisation to succeed, it is not “a bolt-on”, or just a financial expediency, it must be a core ethos and a firm belief that every child within the Trust must experience the same opportunity of educational resources.
Article by: Nick Rumble