One of the issues that we know is at the forefront of multi academy trust leaders’ minds is that of effectively scaling up: adding new schools and building up central operations. We speak to Chris Kirk, education consultant and MAT expert at CJK Associates about MAT growth and achieving economies of scale.
What is the most common issue that you’ve seen MATs face over the last couple of years?
The issue that comes up the most is ‘growing pains’. MATs are trying to do an incredible amount of different things at once. They are still involved in the schools that have formed the trust, they are trying to make their head office operations as efficient as possible, and they are in discussions with other academies or the DfE about growth. It’s a bit like being asked to be a pilot, saying you will take on the job, and then being asked to actually build the plane while you’re flying it!
The DfE is not too prescriptive about how MATs operate or about their size. There has been some research undertaken about the size and viability of trusts. Do you think there is a minimum viable size for trusts to operate effectively?
Some recent research from BESA has outlined that the size trusts want to be is “a little bit bigger than they are now.'' I've seen trusts get very large and still think that things would be better if they were bigger. I’ve also seen trusts of about 3-5 schools who have really thought about what they are doing and feel very happy at that size, so I think chasing a particular size is not the right thing. You need to think about what you set out to do, how you are going to do it and ultimately how it will benefit the pupils. If you’re experiencing financial or viability issues, getting bigger may not necessarily be the answer.
Clearly there are benefits to growth. You can develop staff by enabling them to work in subject-specific or phase-specific groups across the MAT to share learning, and you may be able to hire staff who are further along their professional journey. But it’s a case of judging viability and scaling up accordingly.
MATs can certainly achieve economies of scale, but do you think there’s going to be a breaking point when this just becomes an issue of education funding?
I do think that there’s an issue with education funding. There is not enough money per pupil going into the system. I’ve been in the sector for long enough to remember times pre the New Labour government of 1997 when we had a lot less funding per pupil than we do now, but crucially we also had local authorities. Now, we don’t have the same local government support and despite the fact that pupil funding has gone up, there have been millions of pounds taken out of local budgets for things such as SEN support, all of which schools are expected to pick up. Local authorities used to be given a fair amount of money to run the schools that were in their local authority and MATs can only have that money by taking it from the schools that they’re running. That said, there are many things that a MAT can do to become more efficient and effective.
Do you have any guidance or examples of what trusts can do to achieve financial sustainability?
Yes, of course. I work with many MATs and we’ve generally found that there are a number of decisions that a trust needs to make. You find that when a trust reaches 3-5 schools, it will hire in a Finance Director. Then, slightly further down the line, it may appoint a HR Director. What trusts don’t do very well at this point is to think about what and who remains in the individual schools and there is often a fair amount of duplication with what’s going on at the centre. For example, you might have your central Finance Director getting in a new finance system but you need to have staff within schools using it effectively in order to make things happen.
The difficult but important question that the trust has to ask itself is: if we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, would we be setting ourselves up like this or might we have a fresh way of thinking about finance or HR? Where we have worked with trusts who thought this through, we found that they probably save themselves about 30% of their expenditure on finance, HR and technology. Those trusts also have a clearer and simpler view of the jobs that they should be fulfilling.
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