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The move to academy status has been a core strand of education policy for many years now, and the momentum to convert shows no sign of abating.
In fact, with the establishment of the Regional Schools Commissioners, and headteacher boards approving academy conversions, we can only expect this huge structural change to become the new norm.
As with any new way of doing things, shifts and developments will take place as models become established. The financial pressures that all schools face, the current emphasis on school to school improvement models, and the focus on partnership working are all factors that impact on the emerging models and are further fuelling the drive to establish Multi Academy Trusts.
Standalone academy trusts often find they work in much the same way as they did when they were maintained schools. Yes, there are increased financial responsibilities and the governors will also become Company Directors and Charitable Trustees, but in the main the central functions have undergone little in the way of change. However, some larger MATs have started looking at different structure models to accommodate their needs and priorities.
Working in collaboration as a MAT means staff can work across the trust, while specialisms and resources can be pooled. This doesn’t just apply to teaching staff. A corporate team supporting all academies in the trust can save money, add specialist expertise, and become an effective resource that enables the more efficient functioning of the whole organisation. Therefore, having a strong corporate function in a MAT is a key factor in the success of MATs.
Developing an identity for the Trust
Creating the identity of the Trust is a vital part of establishing the organisation and facilitating a strong corporate function. As Trusts are set up that cross local authority boundaries there can be a melting pot of terms and conditions, established norms and ways of working with a multitude of policies and processes. There is a temptation to defer to old ways of working rather than ones that reflect the new reality
The Trust Board will have a key role in the setting of terms and conditions of employment and determining how the organisation will work. The delegation of authority to make decisions on key areas is a very real governance issue that needs to be addressed.
Standardising processes across the trust is laborious but pays dividends. Staff perform better if they know where they stand, and outcomes are better reached if duplicate and wasteful elements are cut from the schools’ processes. Some form of internal audit will be required during the transition process and/or on a regular basis as per Academies Financial Handbook, however it can serve a wider purpose by mapping the MATS processes, which in turn will reassure staff and save time and money.
Structures to deliver a strong corporate function
The results of the internal audit are only useful if a way of implementing them is found. The corporate team and the way it is structured is where the answer to this lies.
Getting the structure right and finding the right balance between administrative support and specialist knowledge is important. While there is undoubtedly much administrative work in a Trust’s corporate team, there is also the need for functional expertise. Any financial saving in the corporate area is a plus for other areas. One way of making savings is for Trusts to employ appropriately graded administrative staff and then buy in expertise for more complex matters and to provide oversight to the administrative team via the ‘spot checking’ of work and provision of procedures.
The decision of whether to centralise the back-office functions is fraught with difficulties. The choice of finance system can be a major factor when determining the staff structure required to operate effectively across the trust. However, the efficiencies to be gained – a smaller team of staff, a time efficient finance package, less paper and ones set of processes, usually outweighs the problems (redundancy costs, moral damage, training costs, poor uptake of training, and tasks not being done properly) in the long run.
Changing to a new finance software package can be one of the biggest headaches for converting schools or those joining an existing MAT. It can cost significantly more than the previous package, Even if you stay with FMS, it is twice the cost to purchase through Capita directly, plus the tool to integrate multiple FMS systems together is expensive. PS Financials has a different cost structure which involves paying much more of the fee upfront. Sage 200 is more expensive than both FMS and PSF in terms of set up and customisation, whilst Sage for Education is roughly in the middle. On top of this internal staff may be resistant to a change. From an IT perspective, you must understand how the system works e.g. is the package an app that can work in the cloud or is software that must reside on your server? Look at how easy is it to extract data into different formats as this may help with any data manipulation. You should also consider what are the specifications needed to run the software e.g. what processor is needed, what platform will it run on, if in the cloud what is the minimum bandwidth required? Traditionally training can be provided by the software company at an additional cost however it is more cost effective for external schools’ finance experts to provide this training as they are more in touch with the problems and scenarios faced by school staff. There are more and more players entering the market for academies accounts packages and it can be hard to know which one to choose. Taking advice on the package, and making sure that there is external expertise available to support those who will be using the system on a day to day basis will help ensure the right choices are made.
Multi Academy Trusts have the potential to act as a real catalyst for the development of new and varied approaches to the delivery of education. Getting the corporate function right is axiomatic to success, and the blended approach of internal support with trusted external partners is one we know can deliver. Developing your academy’s identity from the very outset, clearly defining and streamlining processes and building a strong core will ensure that your academy is strong internally and will pave the way for your future successes. With their corporate functions established, CEOs are free to focus on the interventions that will make a difference to children and young people, secure in the knowledge that they have the expertise they need to implement the changes they want to make.