MAT centralisation: when should the journey start?

Last month we published our A Growing Philosophy: How are Multi-Academy Trusts developing their operating models through centralisation? report. This research identified, most significantly, the importance of centralisation as a strategic choice linked to the overarching ethos and culture of any one MAT.

However, one of the main practical learnings that emerged was the need to start the MAT centralisation process as early as possible. For some Trust leaders interviewed for this report, centralisation was decided from the outset or at an early stage in the MAT’s journey; for others, it has become a change management programme as the Trust has grown and evolved. What is clear is that those which centralised from the start are now reaping the rewards from that – and those which did not now acknowledge it is less easy to implement further down the line and once existing systems have been established.

Let’s take a look at the MAT examples in the report.

Aspire Academy Trust
Having started with one standalone academy in 2010 before forming a three-school MAT in 2013, to now having 28 primaries, Aspire was an early adopter of centralisation. “From the outset, the Heads of School have been empowered through the Trust ethos to focus on teaching and learning and our core services team (spanning Finance, HR and Wellbeing, Governance and Academy Improvement Group, Academy Administration, IT and Communications, Premises, Health and Safety, and Catering) have provided background operations, led by our core services managers,” explained Operations Director Tim Hooper. “We are very clear that Heads of School have responsibility for teaching and learning and our core services teams work closely with all of them to ensure they benefit and meet the needs of their school within available resources.”

Academy Transformation Trust
A major driver of centralisation here was the arrival of a new finance lead who inherited a £4.1 million deficit and is currently working through a recovery plan, which has included the implementation of GAG pooling. “We had already changed our budgeting models, with academy principals given oversight of education spend only and operational spend sitting under operational directors, but the decision to centrally collect funding and allocate according to need in 2019-20 was a further milestone for the Trust,” CFO Peter Wilson told us. “We felt this was required because our academies operate under 10 local authorities, with different funding levels for primary and secondary schools. Some academies were really struggling, others were doing better financially, so GAG pooling gives everybody that even keel.”

Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust
“When we first started the MAT we discussed what we wanted to do with our central team – which was essentially to provide key strategic resources to the Heads as one – and what to keep at individual school level,” said CFO Jason Brown. “A Diocesan Trust is a little different, purely as it is not born out of a particular school, so we had a blank sheet of paper. We had no pre-conceptions or being wedded to particular software, we looked at our operations and structure, and decided upon the most rational and efficient way to do them.” Now with 33 schools, Jason added: “It is much harder to make changes later in the cycle when you have 20-30 schools – you are looking at a year-long project.”

Cornerstone Academy Trust
CEO Jonathan Bishop outlined the strategic rationale for centralisation in his four-school MAT which he has championed from the start. “I have often said that my model is very simple because we are actually one school and four campuses,” he revealed. “In my view, it is about looking at the services you want to offer, and targeting them appropriately to where they are needed in the Trust. We have shared responsibility. It makes absolute sense to share everything, to pool everything, and there is nothing that says ‘we built this up over years, this is ours’. You cannot be part of the family and then say, for this matter, you do not want to be part of it – you are either in it or you are not.”

Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust
This Trust took a collaborative approach from the outset upon formation in 2018 – and a recent independent review of this MAT recommended that they now centralise even more. “We held the view that whilst it would be painful we should centralise as much as possible so it would become less of an issue in the future,” explained Chief Finance and Operations Officer Susanne Kiff. “Fully centralised finance, and partially centralised HR and estates, teams have provided an excellent service and this has highlighted things for us to question strategically and look at spending within our schools. We have already focused specifically on procurement and MAT-wide contracts, which generally bring savings. My advice to anyone starting this process now is to centralise from the outset.”

L.E.A.D Academy Trust
For this Trust, which has 25 academies, centralisation is ongoing. “What we have done is centralise and standardise our business support functions, assessment, capital, systems, licensing and procurement, which were quite significant in terms of impact early on during our phased growth journey,” reflected Deputy CEO Bobby Thandi. “Consolidating our contracts alone led to significant savings in the early days, and has continued to generate on average 1.5% of financial efficiencies. My advice to others starting out on centralisation – and it does depend on the size and vision for the Trust – is to map and activate a set of core functions as soon as you can at the beginning because it is much and more complicated and harder to do further down the road.”

REAch2 Academy Trust
At this 60-primary school Trust, a degree of centralisation has been developed under COO Katherine Alexander. “When considering the systems and structures, it was clear to me that centralisation early on would assist in generating economies of scale and cost benefits,” she said. “Within REAch2 having common systems in every school is possible; however, a fully centralised model is challenging and not the direction of travel we are moving towards at this point. We recognise the need to bring people on the journey with us, so effective stakeholder consultation and communication is vital to ensure our schools are on board early on, and selling the benefits to peers has been an important approach.”

On that last point, whilst centralisation can still be a sensitive topic (particularly in those early discussions), schools within the featured Trusts appear generally supportive of the process. This was due to their involvement from the beginning and their belief in the wider purpose of the strategy, which is further supported by the benefits of centralisation being felt at school level as resources are pushed back to the frontline.

Will Jordan is Co-Founder of IMP Software

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