One of the key findings of our Growing Philosophy: How are Multi-Academy Trusts developing their operating models through centralisation? report is that there is an increasing approach by MATs to see financial and non-financial centralisation as a “strategic and cultural choice”. When considering the impacts of MAT centralisation many MAT leaders would undoubtedly benefit from a wider perspective.
The challenge is that each Trust has chosen a different path and worked in a different way to achieve things – and therefore the reality is that every single example we see is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, or a blueprint that can be followed to ensure success. However, what is available is the experience of others who have been through, or are in the process of going through, the development of operating models through centralisation.
Talking to peers in the MAT sector about the all-important impacts is arguably a sensible starting point in the MAT centralisation journey. Here we shine a spotlight on four topics which emerged from our discussions with MAT leaders.
Tangible school improvement
“We’ve seen some good school performance and Ofsted data improvements, and in the main freeing up Heads of School to focus on the children has been successful,” said Tim Hooper, Operations Director at the 28-primary school Aspire Academy Trust. “We have joined-up approaches and intelligence sharing, which has fed into academy improvement reporting, and during Covid-19 schools have all benefited from consistent communications and approaches to health and safety they would not have had if they were not accessing core services.”
“Generally, I think centralisation has improved all our schools,” agreed Jason Brown, CFO at the 33-school Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust. “Having finance, HR and other functions managed for them takes away a big worry and if there is any problem people can come to us and we will come up with the solutions. They are not working alone, and that counts for a lot, as it means they can prioritise teaching and learning.”
At L.E.A.D. Academy Trust, which has 25 academies, Deputy CEO Bobby Thandi told us: “Maintaining resource levels for teaching and learning has to be the ultimate goal for us all. Overall, if we can increase the efficiency of the central services we provide then we have the capacity to support more schools in the future.”
MAT centralisation offers better oversight for reporting
“When I reflect on the impact for our Trust, oversight is probably the biggest thing,” revealed Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust CFO Jason Brown. “It is hard to be efficient if you don’t have oversight. A single finance system is really important. It means auditors can easily access our finances, speak to one person only, and keep regulatory visits light touch because they have all the information we need. One budgeting and forecasting system that saves literally weeks of work every year is also a saviour.”
Speaking specifically on GAG pooling as part of the four-school Cornerstone Academy Trust model, CEO Jonathan Bishop said that reporting “gets a little bit easier when you pool”. He explained: “At that top level you are not needing to examine more and more schools depending on the size of your MAT in terms of income and expenditure. We do monitor, in particular, certain services that we are running as one centralised service. So what we are doing is tracking the income and expenditure, and reporting on it, and of course we want to look at that at school level. But when you then report overall it goes into the report as one service as opposed to which one is performing better than the other.”
Greater economies of scale
“We’ve already experienced cost savings through our previous approaches to centralisation, but what I would say is these benefits are not always immediate, and some expect them to be,” said Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust Chief Finance and Operations Officer Susanne Kiff. “Within our new approach to centralisation I would expect more money to be directed back into classrooms: this is the ultimate success measure.”
Aspire Academy Trust Operations Director Tim Hooper added: “We’re starting to see economies of scale and benefits on procurement, especially for estates and IT, and the clarity brought about by centralisation has helped us.” Bath and Wells Multi-Academy Trust CFO Jason Brown concurred: “Ultimately centralisation has enabled us to do things really efficiently and avoid having to recruit more people for manual consolidation work. We have 33 school business or school office managers, so the more things we do means they have more time and opportunity to support other areas within school.”
Cornerstone Academy Trust CEO Jonathan Bishop also pointed to the additional buying power: “Pooling resources is where we are starting to see those real benefits. And behind that is ‘big’ procurement – IT, or any service you run – if you are going to procure you want to procure those services Trust-wide once, not ten times over.”
“Our main focus is on the low-hanging fruit where we feel we can provide greater efficiencies across the Trust and, most importantly, reduce workload for our schools,” explained Katherine Alexander, COO at the 60-primary school REAch2 Academy Trust. “Recent changes to our organisational structure have helped make this focus more deliverable. We’ve now moved from four regions to a cluster model and will synthesise roles when opportunities arise to take a more strategic and joined-up approach. Our model provides more localisation at school level, and we’ve already seen schools sharing resources.”
Peter Wilson, CFO at the 22-school Academy Transformation Trust CFO, pinpointed the direct impact on senior leaders. “Previously, for example, we were finding that Principals were setting up educational software for themselves without being aware of the Trust-wide position. It means they no longer have to worry about those elements where they have a lack of or little expertise. I would not teach a lesson, so why should a Principal be buying software just for them or look after the premises cost? It doesn’t make sense. There is also a requirement from Trustees to have clear and unambiguous lines of accountability, and actually moving to a model where we have education and operations spend centrally has achieved that.”
In summary, there is definitive evidence of the impact of financial (and wider) approaches to MAT centralisation as many Trusts evolve or grow. Here’s how our MAT software can help Trusts develop their wider approaches to MAT financial management, MAT forecasting and MAT reporting:
Will Jordan is Co-Founder of IMP Software