On 1st September 2020, Barnsole Primary Trust joined Maritime Academy Trust, attracted by the alignment of vision and values for staff and pupils and, given the Trusts’ geographical proximity, the opportunity to create a natural collaboration hub. The merged Trust, whose vision and mindset is built around the collaborative school improvement model, now has 13 schools across Greenwich, Bexley, Kent and Medway.
MAT mergers, whilst complex and challenging, are predicted to be a key vehicle for the growth which is being encouraged by the government. In March 2021, the Department for Education stated that “by 2025, we want to see far more schools residing in strong families than we do today, and we’re actively looking at how we can make that happen”, pledging £17 million into the 2021 Trust Capacity Fund to support this mission.
Leanda Arnold was Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Barnsole Primary Trust for three-and-a-half years before taking on the same role at Maritime Academy Trust following the merger. For Leanda, the differences between the merging Trusts data and how this was balanced to provide a joined-up single view of the MAT, was a major hurdle to overcome. “The merger was highly reliant on financial software that provided an accurate budget and forecast – at Barnsole we had software, but Maritime were using spreadsheets and Google sheets, which as live documents were at risk of overwriting,” she said. “I needed to find the right piece of software to work across the 13 schools going forward and I took to the Twitter community to see what was out there and what was best. Through this I became aware of IMP Software, and they have played a huge part in supporting the merger.”
Maritime Academy Trust began discussion with IMP Software in September 2020 and its MAT financial management system, IMP Planner, was implemented from November. “We opted for IMP because it comes from a MAT perspective,” Leanda explained. “If there is a major change in the education sector we only have to apply that change in one place, and not for every school, which is important because the more schools you have the more onerous that could become. IMP has brought clarity on budgets, visibility to question the budgets, and now we have the actual budgets built in we can incorporate these for forecasting which takes us to another level. We can now start looking at potential budgets for next year. The Heads were not used to that before, but conversation is much more fluid between them and school finance leads when they know and can see the actual budgets.”
Leanda revealed that IMP’s on-boarding function and the support they gave her and colleagues to make sure they could ingest all budget management data and be in a position to rapidly move to MAT forecasting was “fantastic”. She said: “The IMP team asked us to send them the information we had, in whatever format, however scrappy, and they came back to us with a system fully loaded with budgets that the Board had authorised. They also identified areas of focus for revising too, based on what had come out of inputting the data. Whilst the merger took place throughout lockdown, IMP has enabled us to have clarity on where we are going, and for us to work together as a team. A system which merged data held on spreadsheets and pdfs, and training that was worth every penny at a time when our focus was trying to build a team, took all the headaches away.”
Not only has IMP Planner taken away those “headaches”, it has had an immediate impact on the MAT itself. “Heads have been able to recruit early with confidence of what finances are looking like for next year,” Leanda revealed. “We have also been able to work with a school which was projected to be in deficit, but monthly meetings with the finance team drawing on the IMP system have meant the school is now going to break even or better this year. We have achieved this because we have visibility and clarity on numbers through IMP. We are also starting to use IMP for reporting, and in our management accounts. We can do this more easily as all the information, including pupil numbers and staffing numbers, is in one place now. In fact, with our management accounts, personally I do not go into the accounting system now as everything I need is on IMP Planner.”
The objective for Leanda, and Maritime Academy Trust, is to continue to maintain financial reserves whilst managing growth. “MATs are all about centralisation and standardisation but by having clarity in the numbers we have, we can then identify areas to improve and, in turn, release more money for areas of innovation and creativity,” Leanda said. “We have data from different places – four local authorities with different funding formulas, pension schemes, and a primary-based special school – and by pulling all this together in one place you can see at a glance what is going on across the Trust and can make informed decisions. IMP Planner provokes more discussion, and pushes out knowledge. Some Heads have requested read-only log-ins to IMP as they want to understand. From my perspective, it is great to be working with Heads who are interested in the finances.”
Having been through the merger process, Leanda has three key tips for other CFOs who are about to embark on the process. “Firstly, we made the decision that as MAT budgets were set, it was more important to look forward and see where we are going this year,” she said. “It was a waste of time to go back and review the budgets that we inherited, so it was all about focusing on the in-year forecast. This, in turn, has helped shape the budget for future years. Secondly, through Covid, and working primarily remotely during the merger, we found that IMP Planner brought us together as a team. That it was new to finance managers coming from both Barnsole and Maritime was key. Related to this is we now have visibility on budgets to dip in and dip out of across all schools. We are all working to the same methods, and the same concepts, so we can help each other across schools if anyone is away or busy. And, finally, it has reinforced that Heads just want to know where they are, the financial position now, for end of year, and what they can do for the next year.”
Leanda added: “I would absolutely recommend IMP Software, and IMP Planner, to any other MAT. It is a one-stop-shop for us – not just for budgeting and forecasting, but also salary reconciliation. Importantly it brings in information from the accounting system too, which is visible to the finance team and to the Heads. It has been a common learning process, and it helped us to demonstrate how we all fit together.”