Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget announcement of a four percent (£2 billion) rise in the core schools’ budget in each of the next two years, was a welcome surprise for school leaders.
Just how far that extra money goes remains to be seen. With so many pressures on school funding, many standalone academies, smaller academy trusts and LA maintained schools will be contemplating joining established MATs as a way of making existing budgets go further.
Government policy has been urging schools to do just that since the 2022 schools White Paper, but academy trust expansion can’t happen if leaders are not ready for the complex challenges that come with more schools and more employees.
Strictly Education carried out a MAT Leaders’ Survey, and discussed the findings with a panel of leaders from several major academy trusts during a special online event. Their comments and insights provide food for thought for MAT and school leaders who may be considering their next steps.
Acquiring new schools
Our survey said: 27% commented that the process of acquiring and converting a new school for their academy trust was difficult or very difficult. Just 17% found it easy or very easy.
Due diligence is important during the process of welcoming a new school or trust into your MAT. A memorandum of understanding is a good starting point. “It gives both parties the time to agree that you want to work together,” said one of our panellists. “Then it’s about taking your time over due diligence, making sure you’re not missing anything. If you’re rushing and you’re not looking deeply into the financial background of the school or trust then this can have serious implications.”
Working out which schools are the right fit is a key question for both the expanding trust and the school interested in joining.
“We have a moral imperative to work with schools that need the support, but it also has to fit with your trust board as well, because they’re the people that are making the ultimate decision about whether you can take these schools on,” said one contributor.
Another highlighted the concerns of smaller MATs that might feel compelled to merge with larger neighbours. “Smaller MATs fear losing their independence, and having to comply with different operational models,” she said. “Getting the right cultural fit is vitally important. If you’re taking on a trust or a school that doesn’t really want to align with your values, and teaching and learning vision, then you will have problems from day one.”
Capacity to expand
Our survey said: While 65% said they were not worried about their academy trust’s capacity and resources needed to add new schools, 35% said they did have concerns.
Capacity to manage the onboarding of new schools was a key concern raised during our discussion. One MAT leader said he currently had little capacity to do the day job, let alone begin a time-consuming due diligence process.
“Making sure that you’ve got the capacity there is vital,” said another. “As you grow it gets easier because you’re able to pull in more staff who can take responsibility for one element of the process. When we were a smaller trust, it was very much me doing almost the whole of the due diligence, but as we’ve got bigger – we’re 20 schools now – we’re able to have staff who specialise in different areas rather than one person doing everything.”
Our survey said: HR, financial planning, admin and budget management and compliance were the three areas most likely to take up the majority of our respondents’ time.
Scaling up back-office systems to deal with areas such as HR, pensions and salaries is easier for larger MATs because of economies of scale. “Adding one more academy to the 20 already in your trust isn’t as debilitating as going from four to five as you’ve already got those systems in place,” said the panelist.
Budget setting was a particularly time-consuming area that expands as the MAT increases, we were told. “It’s important to be aware that the reports get more complicated as you grow,” said one contributor. “There’s more compliance on areas such as the gender pay gap and sustainability, for example, and financial returns are more complex.”
Stress of the job
Our survey said: 88% of respondents felt stressed at work. Staff workload and stress, education funding and staff recruitment were the biggest non-academic management challenges facing schools.
Mitigating the impact of stress on your workforce should be part and parcel of your preparations for expansion, our panel agreed. “As we came out of pandemic, some of our senior leaders hadn’t had a proper break in three years and their level of stress was absolutely massive,” said one panellist. “We have got a wellbeing charter with strategies and structures in place so that is certainly helping.”
Our survey said: Almost a third said that the Opportunity for All White Paper had changed their academy trust’s strategic aims. 31% said that it had had no impact and 36% were unsure.
Strategic planning is a challenge in an ever-changing policy context for MAT leaders. “Keeping abreast of the policy changes and changes in legislation creates stress as well,” said one. “The pooling of pensions and the contributions into a single funding pool is also a major issue for us, along with staff mobility. We have 20 academies which are based across eight local authorities. The movement of staff across the trust for their development is another layer of complexity because of the need to respect national level agreements and gradings and also take into account geographical issues.”
Strictly Education carried out a survey of MAT leaders earlier this year to assess the readiness of trusts to expand in response to the government’s MAT targets, articulated in the 2022 white paper.
- Just over a fifth (22%) of the respondents were school business leaders, with 21% describing themselves as school administrators. 16% were CFOs and 14% CEOs.
- While 65% said they had no concerns about their academy trust’s capacity and resources needed to add new schools, 35% said they did have concerns.
- 27% said the process of acquiring and converting a new school for their academy trust was difficult or very difficult. Just 17% found it easy or very easy.
- 87% said that their personal burden of administrative duties had increased in the past 12 months.
- The three statutory reports most likely to be regarded as time consuming to complete were workforce census, chart of accounts and the pupil census.
- Time, resources and funding were the three areas most commonly cited as affecting our respondents’ ability to remain compliant with education legislation, regulations and requirements.
- Almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) were unable to take external CPD in the last 12 months.
- 88% of respondents said they felt stressed at work.
- Staff workload and stress, education funding and staff recruitment were the biggest non-academic management challenges facing schools in the future.
- 15% of respondents said they did not plan to stay working in the education sector, with 29% saying that they were undecided.
Barry Smith is head of business development at Strictly Education, which provides professional support to more than 2,000 schools, 900 academies and 180 MATs across the country.