The beginning of March this year saw the Government announce that by 2025 they want to see far more schools residing in “strong families”, therefore effectively supporting the accelerated growth of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs).
They went on to pledge £17m to the 2021 Trust Capacity Fund. The UK has over 1,200 MATs, ranging in size from two to 76 schools. The last four years has seen significant growth to reach these figures, with MATs emerging, merging and growing. This has been the result of an initial drive in 2017 when the Education Committee reported MAT growth to be a key concern.
Judging by recent announcements this growth has not been swift enough and possibly failed to meet expectations. Of course, there have been mitigating factors which have deflected focus and attention, such as Covid-19 and three lockdowns.
Couple this with the Government’s Brexit drive and it becomes clear why growth has been modest. There are, however, other factors within our control which need addressing to further facilitate the speed of MAT growth. One key factor is the availability of valuable information and guidance for MAT and school leaders to deliver sustainable growth.
The key word here is sustainable Immediate MAT growth can be relatively straightforward, however, if not thoroughly planned with proper due diligence, it will be short lived, and may even have a detrimental and potentially diminishing impact on the trust.
It is not unusual for any merger of two significant organisations to require a thorough risk assessment, ensuring both parties are entering into an agreement with “eyes wide open” and all risks are identified, registered, and considered. There are many elements to a MAT growth due diligence process, which will be explored later in this article.
During due diligence it is important that the process is undertaken not just by the MAT on the school, but also on the MAT by the school itself. The process is to review compatibility, not suitability.
Therefore, it is recommended each party perform their own due diligence. I would go further and suggest they consider appointing an independent body, thus ensuring complete impartiality.
Many areas of due diligence which the MAT would undertake on a school potentially joining them are obvious, such as financial records past and present, along with future financial projections. Naturally, the projections need to be scrutinised for accuracy.
They should encompass accurate pupil projections and associated staffing structures to accommodate the pupil roll. When reviewing the finances, it is wise to interrogate existing contractual agreements for outsourced services. Carefully study contractual commitments that may prove to be costly, especially if they overlap a provision the MAT can supply itself.
There are other obvious due diligence items such as assets, land, disputes, and ongoing legal wrangling. Believe it or not, I have heard of an academisation process being delayed by over a year owing to a land dispute with a local farmer regarding land at the entrance of the school site. There are three other not so obvious areas of due diligence which warrant a mention. These are often overlooked but can prove very costly:
1. Health and Safety. A fit and proper Health and Safety audit will cover things such as site security, electrical and physical safety, identify trip and slip hazards, water management, work equipment, fire precautions, asbestos management and vehicle facilitation. Failure to identify and address such risks could potentially result in costly legal fees.
2. The IT infrastructure of the school. If not properly managed and regularly reviewed, IT networks can become quickly outdated and vulnerable to the ever-growing threat of cyber-attacks. An IT infrastructure review should cover network hardware, security controls, device auditing, device management, a software review and of course digital safeguarding controls. It is likely that the acquiring MAT would promote their own standard infrastructure in time, regardless, the cost and associated risks will need to be addressed at some point. By identifying these priorities, associated costs can be planned, allowing for resources to be allocated elsewhere initially.
3. Finally, the MAT needs to evaluate their own capacity. They need to identify the task ahead and ask themselves if they have the resources and expertise to assign to this project. They need to be fully committed with as few doubts as possible. This should be treated as any other properly managed project with a fully documented plan, a team and lead assigned, stakeholders identified, risks and associated mitigations registered, and milestones documented.
As mentioned earlier, the due diligence process is designed to look at compatibility, not suitability. There are several factors which both the MAT and school should consider before progressing. Any of these could be a determinative factor in achieving sustainability and therefore a successful future relationship:
• Values: Both parties should share similar values and teaching ethos. They need to be aligned in their thinking of curriculum delivery. Other factors such as religion should also be factored in. This is certainly not intended to promote division, more to accept it and focus on what will bring greater harmony and a better atmosphere for staff and students to flourish
• Leadership and Governance: It is essential that the appropriate open-minded people are in place and involved in all discussions. Egos need to be left at the door. Will SLT be able to work alongside one another productively? If not, what are the alternatives and what impact will these have on both parties?
• Community engagement: Understand the feeling of the local community, especially parents of existing and future pupils. Whilst doing so, study schools in the surrounding area. Any merger must be promoted positively. If this is likely to sit badly it could lead to parents choosing to send their children to surrounding schools and therefore the pupil roll and associated funding to drop.
• How do the staff feel about becoming part of a MAT? Like with any business you cannot lead by democracy, however at the same time you want your best staff on board and ready for a new challenge. You not only wish to retain them, but you also want them to continue performing at a high level. This is not just your teachers, this includes teaching assistants, finance and admin staff, IT technicians and premises teams.
• History: The school should look at the MAT’s history of performance over time in terms of student grades, checking that they are on an upward trajectory, and understand any troughs. They should look at the performance of other similar schools before and after they joined the MAT. This will be a good indicator of the impact it may have on them.
During this short article I have covered off only a handful of thoughts and suggestions relating to MAT growth and the due diligence process. The process is complex and intensive because it is so important. The thing to keep in mind through all of this, which is so often forgotten: Will the merger of MAT and school benefit children’s education?
FIVE CONSIDERATIONS FOR MAT GROWTH
1 Sustainability: Consider the long-term implications for both parties when considering a MAT – School merger. Failure to do so could have a detrimental impact rather than a positive one.
2 Due diligence: To achieve full impartiality, seek an independent, experienced body. This should be conducted by both parties.
3 Compatibility rather than suitability: MAT growth is not a one-way decision-making exercise. It is not just about whether the MAT wants to ‘take on’ a school. The MAT might not be right for the school.
4 Look beyond the obvious: Study unsuccessful mergers to see where there has been potential oversight in the past. Learn from these and include checks in your due diligence process.
5 Does it benefit the children: the most obvious, but often the most overlooked! Which should be the key question through all of this!
Richard Page, School Business Services operations manager, specialising in service enhancements and systems implementation