Category Archives: Directors

Governance matters at Festival of Education Part 2

Photo Credit: Cat Scutt
Left to right: Mark Lehain, Katie Paxton-Dogget, Naureen Khalid, Jo Penn, Will Malard

On Friday 22nd June 2018 I chaired a panel discussion at the Festival of Education at Wellington College. With an ever increasing number of schools joining Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), there is a need to understand how these are governed. This was a well attended session. It was good to see so many people take an interest in governance. What was especially pleasing was that governors and trustees and even a Member of a trust were present.

The session looked at “The Brave New World of MAT Governance“. The experts who took part in the discussion were

  • Jo Penn: Jo has many years of experience as a school governor. She is currently Chair of a Local Authority Primary School Governing Body and on the Board of a Secondary Academy. She has also been a member of a Special School Interim Executive Board and Chair of a Foundation School/converter Academy for four years. Jo is an experienced National Leader of Governance
  • Katie Paxton-Doggett: Katie is the author of ‘How to Run an Academy School’ and ‘Maximise Your Income: A guide for academies and schools’. Dual-qualified as a Solicitor and Chartered Company Secretary, Katie has significant experience in providing specialist governance support to various academies and MATs
  • Will Millard: Will is a Senior Associate at LKMco where he undertakes research into education and youth policy, and works with a range of organisations to help them develop new projects, and assess and enhance their social impact
  • Mark Lehain: Mark has a wealth of educational experience, having founded one of the first free schools (Bedford Free School) in the country. Bedford Free School has thrived and they have created the Advantage Schools MAT. Mark is the Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence. He was appointed Interim Director of New Schools Network in March 2018

The discussion started with the panel being asked to define effective MAT governance and to suggest ways by which we can judge how good or otherwise the trustees are. The panel was in agreement with Jo who said that effective governance is effective governance irrespective of the structure. For governance to be effective we need a clear strategic vision, transparency, accountability, ethical leadership and effective training at all levels. Katie agreed that training should be mandatory. She also made the point that there is no need to re-invent the wheel; we can learn from other sectors. Will referenced the research  published recently by LKMco. It is difficult to answer what is effective MAT governance because research has shown that MATs are different and they change as they expand which brings about changes in the way they are governed. As it’s difficult to define, it’s difficult to design a matrix to judge how effective it is. Mark said that if the outcomes for students are good and the right decisions are being made at the right time we may be able to say that the trustees are doing a good job.

Talking about MAT expansion led the discussion to whether governors are coping with moving from governing one school to governing groups of schools in MATs. Katie was of the opinion that governing MATs requires a massive change of mindset and people need to understand that they need to step away from representing just one school. Jo talked about her own experience. She has been a governor in almost all settings but the biggest challenge was the change from being a trustee in a single academy trust (SAT) to a member of the local governing body (LGB) when the SAT joined a MAT. She explained that when the SAT trustees were discussion joining a MAT, the most challenging discussion was around giving up some autonomy to gain other advantages. Jo also warned that we need to be cautious and careful as we now have a two tier system. We may leave those governors behind who are governing LA schools if we aren’t careful because we are so busy talking about the importance of MAT governance.

Talking about LGBs led us to discussing schemes of delegation (SOD). Mark agreed with Jo that when schools join a MAT they have to give up something to gain something. Mark warned that there is a danger that if we take too much away from the local governors and give it to the centre then people may not want to put themselves forward to serve on LGBs. When Bedford Free School was forming a MAT and was talking to other schools there was a great deal of discussion around the SOD. They put in a lot of thinking around the SOD and have kept it under review. Like everything else, there isn’t a one size fits all SOD, appoint made by Katie who said MATs should look at a SOD and then adapt it to their schools and context. Katie talked about the work she has done with community MATs. The back office services were centralised but the teaching and learning and how students were doing, the “proper governance” stuff happened at the local level. So the SOD is about delegation at the local level and the trustees having an oversight rather than doing it at the board level.

The panel then discussed whether centralisation of some services like finance and delegating monitoring of teaching and learning o the LGB would make serving on the LGB more or less attractive. Jo was the opinion that if the LGB feeds back to the board who then take decisions then the LGB may not feel empowered making it less attractive. Katie pointed out that there are models which empower the LGBs. Jo also made the point that the SOD is not written in stone and the board is legally allowed to change it if it wishes to do so.

The panel also discussed how performance of MATs could be judged. Mark was of the opinion that at the minute we have no one who has enough experience of running MATs to be able to judge performance of other MATs. There is also the fact that MATs are very different. For example Harris, ARK, Tauhedul, Inspiration, Reach2 are all very different from each other. Mark’s worry is that by trying to judge MATs we may end up trying to standardise the way they are run. Mark admitted that there have been failures in the way MATs are run but there have been examples of poor governance in the maintained sector too. What we should do is try and learn from these failures. Will said that the research had not shown a clear relationship between SOD and MAT performance and he reiterated Mark’s point that there is no clear one good way to judge MAT performance. According to Katie, the success/failure is not about structures but about the people, about what they are doing and how they are using the structures. With MATs we are at a stage where we can still shape things.

We talked a little about the executive function in MATs. Mark said that in theory there should be a difference between the executive leaders of single schools and those of MATs but in practice people are still finding their way. The role of a MAT CEO is very different to that of a head of a single school

I then asked the panel to give me a short answer to the following question before we took questions from the floor.

What is the one thing you would change to make MAT governance effective?

Jo: Mandatory training for everyone involved in governance. Accredited pre-appointment training same way as it’s done for magistrates. People join boards without a real understanding of the role. It takes a while to get to grips with the role.

Will: Agree with Jo.

Katie: Not sure the MAT structure actually works. Take a step back and see how schools fit together in the legal structure.

Mark: Training of company secretaries. The role of the clerk in a maintained school is an important role but a completely different one to that of a Company ecretary in a MAT. We sometimes use clerk and Company Secretary as interchangeable terms but they are different roles. How many clerks know their Articles of Association inside out and understand the law around that?

Questions from the floor:

Is there a tangible way for businesses to support governance in schools?

Jo: Businesses should encourage their staff to become governors and give them the time and space to do it.

Katie: Businesses should understand that their employees will be getting board level experience which they can bring back to their companies.

Are the challenges in recruiting to MAT boards different to recruiting to boards of single schools?

Naureen: People may find it more attractive to govern in their local school, in a school in their community as they feel connected to it than joining a MAT board which may sit in a different city. People may ask themselves if they have the skills or the time to govern 20 schools.

Katie: The more specific I have been about the skills I want, the more successful I have been in recruiting. This is true for parent governors too. Even in small schools if you are very specific about the skills you want then weirdly it brings more people forward. So rather than sending out a general letter, be very specific about the skills you are looking for and people reading the letter will go “Ooh that’s me”. It appeals to their sense of worth

Jo: Don’t think with MAT boards we’ve reached a point where the boards are massively recruiting.

Will: Don’t think the people in general realise how complex the system is. There is a PR challenge in actually setting out that this is what is and this is what you are stepping into.

Question form Katie to the Trust Member: How connected do you feel to your MAT and what do you think you are contributing to the organisation?

I have recently become a Member. I realise that the role is different to that of the trustees as Members have fewer duties than trustees. I see the role as one of holding the trustees to account. It is a brave new world. This is why it is good to come to groups like this and learn from each other.

Mark: We have a come a long way since 2010 when  people did not have a clear understanding about the difference between Members, trustees, directors and governors. People now understand that Members really need to appoint good trustees. We are in a much stronger position now. It may not be quite right but we are much closer to a really effective system now.

And on that positive note, the session came to an end. I’m very grateful to Jo, Katie, Mark and Will for their valuable contributions and to everyone else who attended the session. Like the gentleman said the value of these sessions is in the learning which takes place when we talk and discuss issues with each other. I’m already thinking ahead to the 2019 Festival of Education and hope to see many of you there.

Schools Week covered our session in the Festival of Education coverage (Note: The piece mentions Gillian Allcroft from NGA whereas it was Katie who was part of the panel).

I have previusly blogged about other sessions which I attended and which were aroud goverance.

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Talking up governance matters

The other day my daughter showed me her Year Book. Under “Where will you be in 10 years?” she had written “Chair of Governors of the school.” Obviously, that made me very happy but later it got me thinking.

I am a very committed governor and I really enjoy my work. I talk about it at home, telling my family about what’s involved in being a governor of a school. They see me prepare for and attend meetings, attend conferences and discuss governance on twitter and with friends. They know not to disturb me on Sunday nights between 8:45-9:15pm when I’m on twitter taking part in #ukgovchat. We’ve had discussions about what are operational matters and hence not my remit. They know that if I contact the school as a mother I start by saying I’m doing so as X’s mother and not as a governor and why that’s important.

I’d be very happy if she (or the others) did volunteer as governors when older and I’d feel that that was partly due to the fact that I talked with them about governance. How many of you do the same? Some more questions for you to ponder on.

  • Do you think most people are aware of the role governors play? If not, how can we change that?
  • Do you sit around the dinner table and discuss governance (obviously taking care to respect confidentiality etc) as you discuss your day jobs?
  • Do your wider family members know of the important work you do?
  • Do you talk to your work colleagues about the importance of volunteering as a governor?
  • If you meet people socially do you tell them what you do for your day job as well as your work as a governor?
  • Have you been able to encourage someone to find out more about governance?
  • Has someone joined a governing body after chatting with you?
  • Think of the people you meet frequently; do they all know you are a school governor?
  • Do your children tell their friends that you are a governor?
  • How do people react when you tell them you are a governor?
  • What is the most common question people ask you when you tell them you are a governor?
  • How many of your family/friends are governors?
  • Has anyone ever said to you that they don’t think they have the requisite skills to become a governor? If yes, what did you say in reply?

Governance is hugely important and plays a crucial role in school improvement. I think it’s important to let people know you are a governor and what is that you do and why. It’s not a case of blowing your own trumpet but ensuring that governance gets its due recognition. By doing this you may even help recruit people where there is a shortage of people volunteering to fulfil this hugely rewarding role.

Governance matters at #BrewEdLeicester Part 2

On 14th April 2018 I attended #BrewEdLeicester. If you are unaware of what BrewEd is, then this will give you some idea. The Leicester BrewEd was organised by the fantastic team of Mr_P_Hillips,Teacherglitter, Muggle Teacher and Matt Payne They put on a great show and everyone who came or followed on twitter had a wonderful time. In this blog I’ll write a bit about the presentations but mainly concentrate on what I, as a governor, took away from them.

The day started with Ed Finch telling us how BrewEd started. He told us that the whole point of BrewEd was to get people together to talk about education and in the process have a laugh and get to know each other. These events are organised by volunteers and are free from corporate sponsorships. The ticket prices are kept as low as possible. Those of you who read my blog or follow me on Twitter will know that I try to attend as many educational events as I can. I think it’s important for governors to go along to educational events. The events which are based around governance will obviously be directly useful to us but even those events where the emphasis isn’t governance will give us pause for thought. They are also a good way to engage with educators and find out what are the issues facing people teaching our children in schools we govern.

The first presentation was by JL Dutaut. He and Lucy Rycroft-Smith have edited a book called Flip the System UK.He told us that both Lucy and he had suffered burnout and asked the audience if they know people who had. A large majority of hands went up (about 95%). As governors we need to be aware of how our heads and staff are feeling. Do we look after the wellbeing of our heads and staff? JL made the point that there is a culture of blame in our education system. He quoted David Weston who has written a chapter in the book. David wants us to be data smart. He says that by the time the data has been aggregated and passed up to senior leaders, not only is there a time lag, the data has lost nuance and context. As governors we need to be very aware of this.

  • We should think carefully of the data we ask the head and their team to provide us.
  • Are we adding to workload?
  • Are we asking for/aware of the context and the narrative behind the data?
  • Is the reason we ask for data is to see if we are better than other schools or are we actually trying to see if our education for our students is getting better?

JL then asked us to read an extract from the book. This made me think whether governors read around the subject. When is the last time you read a book/article/blog about governance which wasn’t directly related to an issue faced by your board/school?

JL also told us that there are quarter of a million qualified teachers who are not currently teaching. As governors, teacher turnover is one something we should be monitoring in our schools.

  • Are you aware of the number of teachers who leave your school?
  • How does that number compare with other schools/national figures?
  • Does your school conduct exit interviews?
  • Do you get the results of these interviews and do you discuss any issues highlighted by these interviews?

During the question/answer session which followed JL’s session a point was made that autonomy and teacher agency can add to workload. For example while its very gratifying to design your own curriculum it will add to teacher workload. As governors, when your senior leaders bring a proposal to you do you ask about the effects that will have to teacher workload?

Next up was Jenny Holder who talked about developing an ethos for reading for pleasure. As governors are you aware of what the school’s approach/ethos is as far as reading for pleasure is concerned? When asking questions regarding this we will have to be careful that we don’t step over the strategic/operational divide.

The next presentation was by Dan Edwards who spoke about the need for closer relationships/collaboration/conversations between the primary and secondary phases. He feels that the collaboration isn’t as good as it can be because we don’t know enough about each other.

My questions for governor colleagues:

  • Do governors have a part to play in this?
  • Should we play a part in this?
  • Do we know what happens to our students when they leave our primary school and go to the secondary school?
  • Is the above something boards should be asking school leaders about?

Hannah Boydon talked about her school’s experience with making links with international schools. This is a good way to broaden your children’s experiences and expose them to different cultures. Again, this is something a board would not necessarily ask the head to do but if the head were to bring a proposal to the board then it’s worth considering. Hannah made the point that the eTwinning her school takes part in has helped with teacher retention in her school.

Then it was my turn to talk governance. I have published my slides on my blog if you want to see what I talked about. I’m aware that governance is a bit of a mystery for many people.

I hope I was able to demystify governance a bit. The most satisfying thing was the conversations which were sparked by the presentation.

  • We talked about the difference between working strategically and the operational work of running the school by the head and their teams
  • We discussed how to ensure that school monitoring visits did not result in putting teachers under stress.
  • We also discussed how the head and governors should work together to ensure that these monitoring visits yielded results which the governors could use but were not seen by staff as almost like an inspection visit.

At the start of my talk I had asked for a show of hands from people who were governors and was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few hands go up. At the end of my talk I asked if people who weren’t already governors would think of becoming one in the future and was again very happy to see many people saying they would.

During the panel discussion at the end Dan made the point that if governors were visible and known to the staff then the fear about what they do will reduce. The panel members were asked if they had a magic wand which could change on thing what that would be. It will come as no surprise that my answer was to make training, at the very least induction training, mandatory for governors.

The theme which emerged was collaboration; collaboration between teachers, between phases, between school leaders and governors. I’m really grateful to the organisers for inviting me to talk governance. If you get a chance to attend a BrewEd event or for that matter any educational event, do go. These events give us a chance to tell our teachers what we do. At the end of the day we all want the same thing; a good education for all our children and if we get to know and appreciate the work done by everyone involved in education that task becomes that much easier. And you may even inspire someone to become a governor!

If you want to read a bit more about the sessions then I have collated the tweets using Wakelet which will give you a flovour of the day.

Once again, thank you to the organisers for having me and for organising such a great event.

Governance matters at #BrewEDLeicester Part 1 My Slides

On 14th April 2018, I attended and presented at #BrewEdLeicester. My slides and brief explanatory notes of the slides are as below.

Slide 2:

I started my governance life as a parent governor in a secondary school. The school then converted to become an academy and I became a trustee and director in the SAT. The school then joined a MAT so that meant that I became a member of the Local Governing Body. I am also a trustee in a MAT of primary schools. I am a blogger and blog on governance and other stuff. I tweet, a lot!  I’m the co-founder (along with @JaPenn56) of @UKGovChat which some of you know is a twitter forum for governors. Since my link to education now is through governance that is what I will be talking about today.

Slide 3:

So, first, let me tell you a bit about the people who govern our schools. Governors are the largest volunteer force in England. There are about 250-300, 000 governors in England.

Slide 4:

According to the 2017 NGA and TES survey 53% of respondents were 40-59 years old. We obviously need more young people to join governing bodies.

Slide 5:

The same survey also looked at the ethnicity of governors.  A greater proportion of older governors are white. If we look at the younger governors then we see more people from different ethnic backgrounds joining governing bodies which is a good thing but more needs to be done to increase diversity of governing bodies.

Slide 6:

As far as gender is concerned then the survey showed that there are more female governors than male ones in primary, secondary and special schools.

Slide 7:

So, what do these 250,000 people actually do (besides sit on the stage at school events)? One of our core functions is to ensure the clarity of vision and ethos. The GB appoints the head and this is perhaps the most important thing that governors will do. We appoint someone who we feel will help us deliver our vision. Yes, it is a partnership; it has to be for it to work well but ultimately it’s the governors who will determine the vision, culture and the ethos of the school.

Slide 8:

It’s the governing body which sets the strategic direction of the school and decides where it wants to school to be in 5, 10 years’ time.

Slide 9:

It’s our job to hold the school leaders to account for the performance of the pupils and the school and the performance management of staff. We ask questions, do monitoring visits and triangulate data to get a true picture of how the pupils and school is doing.

Slide 10:

We are custodians of public money so another of our core functions is to look after the financial performance of the school and ensure that money is well spent.

Slide 11:

Talking about what governors do leads very nicely to a very important point; the difference between operational and strategic. Imagine that your neighbour placed these colourful eggs by the fence and it wasn’t Easter. You can chat to them over the fence and ask them why they’ve got eggs by the fence but you wouldn’t jump over the fence and rearrange or remove the eggs, put them in a basket and store them in the shed. In the same way, as governors we ask the school leaders to explain to us what they’ve done and why but we don’t try and do it for them. We need to remain strategic and leave the operational day to day running of the school to them.

Slide 12:

Now that we know what role governors play in schools let’s talk about why people should join a governing body.

Slide 13:

There are various reasons why people join governing bodies.

  • Schools are an important part of the community and governance allows you to give something back to your community
  • You get to learn to work strategically and do long term planning
  • You learn about financial planning and management of organisations
  • If you are an academy governor you learn about charity and company law
  • You get to meet governors from other fields such as business, law etc and this helps you look at things from different perspectives.

Slide 14:

When governors were asked about what motivated them to become governors then these were the reasons given by them. As you can see improve/support school is right at the top.

Slide 15:

You may be asking yourself why am I talking to you about becoming a governor. You may be thinking that you work in a school and volunteering as a governor of a school is a bit like a busman’s holiday! Trust me! There’s a lot to be gained by you and by others.

Slide 16:

A big advantage of volunteering as a governor is that it’s very useful, free CPD.

Slide 17:

  • You get to work at a strategic level.
  • You get an opportunity to shape the strategic direction of the school.
  • You learn to see things from a different perspective.
  • You can even get some leadership experience by chairing a committee or a working party.
  • You learn about governance which for many is something of a mystery!
  • You see firsthand how heads and governors work together which is good training for you if you decide to go for headship one day.

Slide 18:

But there are challenges too if you decide to become a staff governor in your school.

Slide 19:

  • You are a representative staff member
  • You are not a staff representative, not a union rep. There a difference between being a representative staff member and a being staff representative which you and others will need to understand.
  • There may be an expectation from staff to report back after GB meetings. That’s not your job, unless specifically asked to do so by the GB.
  • Governance is about asking questions and this may mean you have to challenge your boss.
  • Conflicts of interest have to be managed. There will be times you can’t participate in governing body business, for example pay committee.

But despite these challenges, the rewards are great!

Slide 20:

As Mel, a teacher, says, it’s a very good way of finding out how the governing body works

Slide 21:

And as Philip, a trainee teacher,  says it’s a very good way of finding out how schools work, especially the behind the scenes work that goes on.

Slide 22:

One thing which I haven’t mentioned is that we don’t get paid; in fact many times we spend our own money on governance. We are volunteers working to make schools better and trying to ensure that all our children receive the best possible education. So love’s got everything to do with governance! All we ask for in return is some appreciation of what we do and an occasional slice of cake!

Slide 23 and 24:

Some examples to show the difference between strategic and operational.

Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 3

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the first blog of the series. To read the original please click here.

MATs – could do better on school improvement

The ability of MATs to raise pupil performance is ‘limited and varied’. That was the blunt conclusion of a report in February 2017 by the Education Committee of The House of Commons.

There are MATs that have a strong track record on improving schools and raising attainment – even in areas where failure had become entrenched. But taken as a whole the picture is not so rosy. The 2016 exam results showed that two thirds of MATs had Progress 8 scores that were below average across the secondary schools in their trust. MATs did better at Key Stage 2 with over half achieving above average progress in writing and maths. They were, though, below average on reading. MAT performance for disadvantaged pupils has also been limited as annual reports from the Sutton Trust have highlighted.

Variation is an issue because progress within MATs and between MATs serving similar types of pupils differs quite markedly. There is also variation over time – it is not yet consistently the case, for example, that the longer a school is part of a MAT the more certain it is to improve.

Several factors have contributed to this situation. Some MATs have been overambitious about the number of academies they could improve at any one time. Quite often MATs have assumed responsibility for schools that are amongst the hardest to improve and, they might argue, they have not had long enough to make their full impact. But the fact remains that the MAT system still has to prove itself and a lack of focus on how to undertake school improvement at scale across a group of schools hasn’t helped.

However, things are changing rapidly. A number of programmes have bubbled up that are supporting MATs to be better school improvers. The government is also in the process of commissioning research on effective practice, but here are my five top tips on what all MATs should be doing.

  1. Know your schools well. Ofsted’s annual report for 2016/17 contained the disappointing conclusion that in the MATs where it carried out focused inspections leaders did not know their schools well enough: they were not ‘challenging or monitoring their schools rigorously enough’. As a result they were slow to pick up on issues and provide support. MATs should understand the needs and challenges facing each of their schools, the performance and progress of different groups of pupils, the appropriateness of the curriculum, the quality of the teaching, the standards of behaviour, the rigour of the assessment process and the effectiveness of the leadership. Peer review, learning walks, book reviews and feedback from pupils and parents can supplement the information that should come from being able to interrogate smart and timely data systems.
  2. Know how to support your schools. Schools need different forms of support at different stages in their improvement journey. Does a MAT, for example, know how to do school turn-around? Just because a MAT is built around the performance of a high-performing school does not mean that it will necessarily have the understanding or skills to support schools in very different contexts with different problems. Conversely some MATs are very good at doing the basics and moving schools from ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’ to ‘good’ but struggle with how to step up a gear and embed excellence across the MAT. Or they find themselves stuck in making progress with certain subjects or groups of pupils. Another challenge lies in getting the right balance between maximising internal expertise, and knowing when to draw on external help and challenge both from individual and schools outside the MAT.
  3. Develop and deploy leaders and expertise. The quality of school leaders is essential in driving school improvement. So it makes sense for MATs to be strategic about identifying their best leaders and practitioners and deploying that expertise across the trust. Of course, MATs should ensure that schools ‘losing’ a leader or specialist teacher for part or all of the week have proper arrangements in place to backfill the role. But by linking strategic deployments within and across schools to development programmes for emerging, middle and senior leaders MATs can achieve a win-win. Their best leaders can help accelerate improvement across the trust and they build up a strong pool of talent for the future.
  4. Invest in joint staff development. Support for teachers to improve their practice is a key factor in improving teaching and learning and pupil progress. At the very least MATs should be organising joint inset and twilight sessions to address gaps or weaknesses in subject knowledge or pedagogical practice. They should be empowering subject and faculty leaders to jointly plan and swap schemes of work and share effective practice. However, the big gain from being part of a MAT will come the more trusts enable classroom staff to work together in their clusters through joint lesson planning, modelling expert practice, observing each other, sharing and moderating approaches to assessment, using common models to coach improved practice and undertaking inquiry-led learning.
  5. Monitor progress and track impact.  Too many school partnerships – and MATs are not exempt from this – don’t know the value they are adding. They initiate well-intentioned programmes but are not rigorous enough in terms of looking at their impact. Adopting common assessment and data collection systems, working to a standard assessment calendar across all schools in a trust and having dashboards that enable senior and boards to easily spot outliers in performance, are the basic tools for monitoring progress. But the impact of MAT-initiated improvement services, support and interventions can also be assessed in other ways. MATs can be specific about success measures, use Hattie-style methods and feedback loops to track progress in real time, commission external reviews, build in review points and share findings across openly across the trust. Learning from what does not work – or only works on a limited basis -can be as useful as knowing what works well.

MATs have tremendous potential as agents of school improvement. They could be the means of fully realising the power and effectiveness of school-to-school collaboration. But for this to happen MATs will need to be disciplined and diligent in their approach and review and refine their improvement model as they find out what works.

Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 2

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the second blog of the series. To read the original please click here. 

Making the sums add up: financial challenges facing academy trusts

The financial outlook for many schools is tough. In July 2017 the Department for Education re-allocated part of its budget and increased school funding by £1.3 billion for two years starting in April 2018. The additional money will help ease the introduction of the national funding formula (NFF) – though some schools will still lose out as the NFF kicks in. Overall, however, while spending per pupil is now being maintained in real terms between 2017 and 2019, if you take the whole of the spending review period from 2015 to 2019 then, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies, the impact of inflation and increasing pupil numbers, means that there will have been a real-terms cut of nearly five per cent.

Schools and academies also face the issue of how they are going to fund a pay increase for staff if there is a settlement of more than one per cent – the level assumed when the funding settlement was fixed. Single academy trusts will find it hard to navigate these financial pressures on their own, but multi-academy trusts (MATs) also have some big challenges to confront.

The challenge for MATs

The first is whether to allow each academy in a MAT to receive its total General Annual Grant (GAG) or whether to pool GAG funding between schools and for the trust board to allocate it according to the needs of particular academies. At the moment only a small minority of MATs are using the provisions for pooling set out in the academies financial handbook. But the DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017 reports that over half of MATs are planning to do this. However, the advent of the NFF may well push policy on pooling in the other direction. Academy leaders and local governing bodies are likely to argue that the NFF means they are entitled to the formula allocation for their school – if a MAT starts to reallocate funding between schools then it could be argued they are acting like a local authority under the funding system that is being replaced and that this undermines the whole point of the NFF.

The second big strategic issue for MATs to wrestle with is how to manage reserves. There is a strong case for saying that as a MAT board legally holds the risk for all schools in the trust, it should set the rate and pool and manage reserves centrally. The fact that capital and condition improvement funding is allocated to a MAT, rather than an individual academy, reinforces this approach. However, when schools join a MAT they are either in deficit or have reserves. If it is the latter they might well argue that they have been putting money aside for a particular project and would want a guarantee that they could access ‘their’ balance when they were ready to spend it. These are tricky waters to navigate but some MATs have worked through the issues and come up with a comprehensive reserves policy.

Efficient management of academies and MATs finances

More generally my five top tips for developing sound financial management of both standalone academies and MATs would be:

  1. Plan your budget over a three-year time horizon – the advent of the NFF should help to do this and trusts can also project forward pupil numbers for each school to provide an estimate or potential scenarios of their likely income. Boards are under an obligation to set a balanced budget for their trust. They should avoid approving a deficit budget for any particular academy unless there are exceptional one-off costs, there is a clear and swift path to balancing the budget and reserves and cash-flow are sufficient to cover the shortfall and sustain smooth and timely financial transactions across the trust.
  2. Authorise your director of finance (trusts are required to appoint an appropriately qualified chief financial officer) to integrate financial management systems, reporting and personnel as early as possible in the life of the trust. This will support better internal assurance and understanding of each academy’s finances. Also ensure that the scheme of delegation and, if the trust has one, governance handbook make crystal clear the respective responsibilities of the trust board, finance committee and local governing bodies for drawing up, approving and monitoring budgets.
  3. Optimise the use of procurement frameworks. The DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017 revealed that only 55 per cent of trusts were using a procurement framework. Both standalone academies and small MATs that do not have purchasing muscle in their own right, can draw on established procurement frameworks to start benefiting from economies of scale.
  4. Benchmark your costs and use this information to highlight areas where there could be the greatest scope for efficiencies. The Education and Skill Funding Agency’s benchmarking tool provides a starting point for doing this. The chart below shows where academy trusts say they are currently making savings. Some trusts are using activity cost budgeting (ACB) to take a more fundamental look at the finances of individual schools. ACB involves analysing and comparting how much it costs to teach a course, subject or group, for a given number of pupils, and then analysing how and why some schools are able to achieve comparable or better outcomes for less cost than others.
  5. Use clusters to help realise economies of scale. A report by the Education Policy Institute has found that MATs that are more geographically dispersed tend to spend more per pupil on back office costs. Clusters also provide the basis for sharing leadership posts and specialist teaching roles. Obviously this point applies primarily to MATs, but standalone academies should increasingly be thinking about sharing functions or using local consortia for their back-office and support functions.
Where Academy Trusts are making savings

Pictured above: where academy trusts are making savings.

Source: DfE Academy Trust Survey 2017; Base: 159 MATs with two or academies and 257 standalone academy

Robert Hill’s views on various matters to do with MATs; Part 1

Robert Hill, Visiting Professor at UCL Institute of Education, policy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other Cabinet ministers, senior research manager for the Audit Commission, management consultant and social policy researcher,  has written three guest blogs on the topic of MATs for Capita Sims. These blogs are bing posted here with Capita Simms kind permission. Below is the first blog of the series. To read the original please click here.

As a MAT leader, how can you support successful growth?

The number of multi-academy trusts (MATs) is continuing to grow, and along with this many MATs are expanding too in order to reap the benefits associated with size. It’s clear that in order to be viable, as both economic units AND as agents of school improvement, small MATs need to grow.

Of the 2,723 academy trusts, over 1,700 comprise just one academy (either a free-standing converter or a MAT with just one school waiting, or trying, to acquire more). Over 700 MATs have five or fewer academies and just 350 are responsible for six or more schools. However, the number of academies in a MAT doesn’t tell you everything – the number of pupils is also relevant. Modelling undertaken by the National Schools Commissioner suggests that:

  • when MATs have around 1,250 pupils (or three middle-sized primary schools) a topslice of five per cent will typically enable them to fund an executive head, finance director and HR manager. Beyond these posts, schools will still need to buy-in or employ other expertise they need – including for school improvement.
  • as MATs grow towards having between 2,500 to 3,000 pupils (or one secondary school and four primaries) they can additionally pay for extra functions to be provided centrally such as ICT strategy, management and procurement, school improvement support and estates and maintenance.
  • when MATs double in size again and have 5,000+ pupils (or two secondaries and eight primary schools) their topslice could also buy executive heads for their clusters, estates, finance and HR teams, ICT network support, a range of school improvement support, marketing and PR.

However, MATs face three big challenges in trying to grow to a viable size. First it is often hard to find the right schools that fit with their vision and expertise. There is no easy answer to this, though the more MATs establish a clear strategic view of the sort of trust they want to develop and the geography they want to serve, the more this will provide the basis for a focused conversation with local authorities and the Regional School Commissioner’s office about suitable opportunities for growth.

Second, MATs are now aware that there is a risk of biting off more than they can chew in terms of making commitments to bring about school improvement. A later blog in this series will discuss this.

Third, how do MATs build the infrastructure they need to support a larger number of schools in advance of additional schools joining the trust – and having the extra income they will bring? Again there is no off-the-shelf answer but here are my five top tips.

Five top tips for building the infrastructure needed to support growth

1. Develop a plan for managing the increased scale of the MAT. An executive head or a CEO can oversee three – or if they are geographically concentrated and not too big – four or even five schools. But at some point the MAT will become too large and unwieldy to sustain this model. Learnings from both the corporate sector and existing larger MATs suggest that geographical clusters provide the appropriate scale to share resources, leaders and learning – and to exercise oversight. So MATs need to work out which functions might best be carried out at school, cluster and MAT level and how they can complement each other.

2. Set a realistic level of topslice to fund the development of the MAT’s infrastructure. Resist the temptation to reduce the amount charged to schools in order to try and make it more attractive to join your MAT. The average topslice among MATs with two or more academies is 4.6 per cent.

3. Sort out your approach on autonomy and standardisation. Some MATs aim to cede as much autonomy to their schools as possible – it’s seen as a ‘reward’ for a school making improvement. Other MATs operate fairly tight centralised models. But autonomy and standardisation should not be seen as polar opposites. It may well be right for some systems and procedures to apply to all schools – whether because of legal necessity (in areas such as HR and safeguarding); financial or operational efficiency (ICT, procurement, performance and financial management) or because it aids the development of a common language about learning and school improvement. In these cases MATs will either immediately or over time be wise to adopt systems that automatically collect and enable data to be analysed in multiple ways – i.e. at pupil group, subject, school or MAT level.

But if everything is standardised then the opportunity to learn from difference or for a school to express its identity is limited. Deciding what goes in which column is, therefore, important. And so is the process for agreeing this. MATs should be aiming to align their practice by co-constructing with their school leaders and local governing bodies the answers to these issues.

4. Review arrangements for leadership and governance. Arrangements for MATs to involve and consult with school leaders and local governing bodies in a small trust may be relatively informal. CEOs and boards should think ahead to how they will operate when their MAT is double its existing size. MATs might need to consider restructuring their board, reviewing the local governance model, establishing a forum for liaising with chairs of governors, holding more structured executive team meetings with school principals, formalising how middle leaders across the trust work with each other, and using intranets, websites and apps to communicate with pupils, parents and staff.

5. Appoint a chief operating officer (COO), or director of finance with a broad remit, as early as possible in the life of the MAT to lead the work on developing the MAT’s infrastructure. Funding may be an issue but the expectation should be that a COO will rapidly earn back their salary from the savings they make in rationalising the operations of the trust. The next blog in this series will look at financial management across academies and MATs.