We’ve got six years, that’s all we’ve got

This is a bit of a long and, I suppose, self-indulgent post. My aim is to try and crystallise some of my thinking around how the school system might evolve over the next few years by looking at the options for schools that are currently single entities. Though much of what I write could equally apply to small MATs.

The language i have used is blunt. This is not because I am unfeeling as to the effect of some of the words but because the post was already over-long. Sanitising the language uses words. My apologies in advance, but there is no intention to offend, nor a desire to pick fights. But please do disagree with the analysis where you feel it is wrong.

So, the main purpose is to look at the range of options open to schools now.

If you are a converter academy then there are a range of options with regards to moving from where you are now, as a Single-Academy Trust (SAT) to where you might be in 2022. This might seem a little far to be looking. However, in school terms it is a reasonable time horizon – for example, current year 7 will leave your school that year (if you have a sixth form).

To do this I’m going to consider what the current DfE plan for Local Authorities, Schools and Academies are, such as we know it, look at the rationale for creating a MAT, then set out what option there are, and look at how MATs set out their schemes of governance and the impact that has on how they are managed.

A quick recap

The white paper (as amended) has as its intention that all schools will be academies by 2022. There will be no ‘forcing’ but various levers will be pulled to encourage this to happen, namely LAs will be converted in their entirety if they are underperforming. All schools in a LA will be converted if it is deemed that the LA education provision is sustainable (this will be driven by schools converting and leaving the LA with an unsustainable rump of financially needier schools). These levers are dependent on new legislation, which has yet to be passed and may, as a result of recent events, be reconsidered. The DfE says that as far as the white paper is concerned it is “business as usual”.

Single Academy Trusts continue to exist in all the DfE and NSC discussions but they will need to be outstanding and sustainable.

The plan for a National Fair Funding Formula have been put back a year to 2018/19, with the second consultation on the detail still not forthcoming. The chair of the Education Select Committee has been seeking reassurances from the DfE that it will go ahead but we are still awaiting confirmation of dates for the consulation.

It is also important to re-iterate a number of points from previous posts:

  • Entering a MAT is a one-way trip. To all intents and purposes a school ceases to exist as a separate entity. For complete clarity, a school cannot request that it leaves the MAT. It has no power to do that.
  • Should a MAT fail the schools within it will be re-brokered out to other MATs. They will go where the RSC decides.
  • In a MAT, all funding for the schools in the MAT flows through the MAT which holds a master funding agreement with the EFA. Legally the MAT has a single set of reserves.
  • Typically a top-slice of funds is taken from each school to pay for the running of the MAT and its central services. Some MAT will also charge individual schools for additional services outside the core.
  • Within a degree of EFA oversight, the MAT decides the funding received by each school.

The DfE have slightly blurred this picture with their Green Paper but word is from them that the EEE White Paper intentions for full academisation still exist.

What is the current plan for academies?

The nearest thing to a plan is that outlined by Sir David Carter on his road show. The desire is to build a self-sustaining system of around 1,800-2000 MATs.

There are around 14,000 schools not currently academised. Essentially he is suggesting that if each of the existing 900(-sh) takes on an other 10 schools each on average then the system will require around another 900 new MATs each taking on an average of 5 schools. This would create a system of 1,800 MATs. Along the way the intention would be that the bulk of the 2,000 or so existing SATs would end up in a MAT. The government want to be at this point by 2022.

Carter divides MATs into four types of trust:

Starter Established Regional System
·    1-5 schools

·    Up to 1000-1200 students

·    Within single LA and Region

 

·    5-15 schools

·    Up to 5000 students

·    More than one LA and likely to be single region

 

·    15-30 schools

·    Approx 10000-12000 students

·    Likely to be in more than one region

·    30+ schools

·    12K students and beyond

·    Working across the system in 3 or more RSC regions

 

Clearly the intent is that these would eventually grow into three types, with Starter Trusts disappearing (or being few in number). Carter is developing a framework that will look at whether a trust of a given size is ready to move to the next level based around his “9 Characteristics of Effective MATs” document. There would be a review to ‘pass’ to enable movement to a different level. The DfE have also created some support materials and a (currently) internal “Healthcheck” for MATs. We don’t have visibility of this so its difficult to see how helpful it is, though based on the other materials produced we would expect it need some further work.

Previously Carter has also set out some idea of what MATs of different sizes can be expected to do. Each of the models anticipates a 5% top slice of school funding to fund the MAT and the services it delivers.

< 5 Schools 5 – 10 Schools >10 Schools
Exec Head, FD and HR manager

Just about covers the essentials

Most of the non essentials are still bought and paid for by the schools including school to school support

 

Key roles covered plus services adding value to the schools

School to school support

ICT

Estates and maintenance

 

Full range of roles and services are covered

Leadership includes CEO and Exec Head over clusters

Finance and HR teams grow to reflect size of staffing and turnover

Trust provides school to school support, ICT network support, estates services, marketing and PR

 

Looking at the two tables together it is clear that it is only once the MAT gets to the Established stage that it becomes truly viable and self-sustaining, able to provide key services across the group. Any new MAT would need to have a plan to get to that stage as soon as possible.

The consequence of this is that RSCs will be going to be actively looking to increase the number of MATs in their region. This presents an opportunity for SATs in the region to convert to MATs and for MATs to grow and move fairly qucikly to the establish stage. Of course, the contrary view is also true – this presents a threat to those schools not currently in a position to either academise themselves, or become a MAT. For those schools this is a potentially worrying time.

Why Create a MAT?

There are many reasons for this but this paper concentrates on two, the financial and the moral.

Firstly the financial

As financial constraints tighten (on top of pension and NI changes we now have the National Living Wage to consider and for most secondaries the cost of the apprenticeship levy) it will become harder to continue to maintain as a SAT all the existing things you do. As a SAT there is the risk that the school will cease to be financially viable. If that occurs the school will be placed into an existing MAT with no guarentees regarding the continuity of the ethos the school has built over the years. For many schools the ony financial salvation likely over the coming years will be either through changes to the FFF or through expansion.

Economies of scale are important here. An example. If each school is paying £10,000 for internet connectivity, across say 15 schools that is £150,000. Achieving a 10% discount across that many schools is an acheivable aim, freeing up £15,000 or £1,000 per school. If this is repeated across a number of commodity/service purchases then considerable saving will be made.

Then there are staffing considerations. Saving can be made here in a number of ways:

  • By centralising as many common functions as possible there is scope for FTE savings in back office staff (HR, Finance, IT, Estate management). To be clear, centralising does not necessarily mean that all staff are in the same place, but as many as possible would be placed under the same management.
  • On the education side the opportunities for FTE savings are more limited but there are possibilities for saving costs. For example, a number of MATs do not have Heads of Department in each school, instead having a cross-trust subject lead, with what is effectively a second-in-department in each school.
  • The larger the organisation the more likely it is to be able to make saving by using technology. The automation of back-office processes will, in the medium term, render considerable savings.

Any plan for forming a MAT would have to consider what was the eventual steady state (after say 3 to 5 years) in terms of structure and have a detailed plan about how to work towards it.

A warning. The less centralised the control, the lower the opportunities for financial savings are. For example, if there are 10 schools in a trust and they are each advertising for their own staff then the costs of doing this are higher than if recruitment is done centrally. If there are 10 different payroll contracts this is more expensive than running one payroll. And so on.

But the purpose of creating a MAT cannot only be financial, otherwise the simplest thing to do would be to join an existing grouping of schools. The primary purpose has to be about protecting the ethos of the school, and then sharing it with others.

Now, school transformation is not easy. But there is a moral imperative to look to see how can already excellent schools help other children get the education that their children already get. This can occur as it has in the past, with the school supporting other schools on request. This has worked previously, but has often been a hit and miss affair. In a fully-MAT system this will be less possible, with MATs preferring to use their own resources to effect transformation. This will be finance driven and is a weakness of the MAT approach. There is the possiblilty that there will continue to exist a small number of outstanding stand-alone schools that MATs would call upon to help with issue they had, but we have to consider that to be very unlikely. This tends to suggest that slightly larger MATs will be better placed to meet this need internally, both in terms of available capacity, but also due to the MAT having more control over both the recipient and the provider of the support.

Options for moving forward

There are (perhaps) five options, each of which have their own risks and opportunities:

  Opportunities Risks
Do nothing (wait) Continue with existing plans as a SAT Finance

Viability as SAT in a MAT system

Potentially lose control of the decision

Apply to become a MAT/Sponsor and, over time, take on suggested schools Reduce financial risk

Improved HR pipeline

 

Reputation

Over-reach of capacity

Take eye off local ball

Join together with one or more other schools to form a steady-state MAT Share some services

Provide local all-thru service

 

Don’t make enough saving to offset the costs of collaboration
Join together with one or more other schools to form a MAT with a view to expansion Share some services, increasing over time

 

Lack of plan to integrate initial schools quickly

Lack of effective expansion plan;

Lack of due diligence brings ‘toxic’ school into the MAT

Join an existing MAT Share risks Lose control of own distinct identity and school ethos

Another route that we are seeing develop is through those “arms-length” organisations set up by local authorities to provide services which were previously provided by the LA. Some of these organisations are now looking to create MATs. This is a quick win for the RSC, the schools and the provider. Personally I don’t see a great benefit for the schools in this approach and have my doubts that such structures will prove to be viable in the long term.

Whatever the preference is as to the way forward this would have to be agreed with the local Regional Schools Commissioner. There are a number of things to consider with this.

  • The intention is to build a self-sustaining system. This inevitably means that MATs that consist entirely of Outstanding schools are unlikely to be approved. There is no benefit to the system in this. RSCs will want MATs that can transform underperforming schools into sustainable Good schools. They will not want MATs formed that only contain Outstanding schools.
  • There is a timing issue. At the moment your school may be financially solvent. In a couple of years time this may not be the case. At that point it is unlikely that you would be allowed to convert to a MAT and indeed may, because of the financial situation be required to join an existing MAT.
  • The above is also the case for any school that may join a MAT. In a couple of years time their finances may well be in crisis, which would not be a good time to take them on. This uncertainty has been exacerbated by the delay to the fair funding formula.
  • The longer into the process of moving to an all MAT system the lower the “quality” of the schools remaining to be to academised will be. This is clearly an unpleasant statement, but it is true none the less.

These issues point towards the need to make a decision sooner rather than later.

Governance and Schemes of Delegation

How these things would work will be determined by how the MAT is structured and the scheme of delegation (SoD) it adopts. The SoD determines the governance of the MAT, who is responsible for what. The possibilities here are as numerous as the number of ways you can write a SoD but essentially fall into three main categories.

  • The federated solution – a MAT exists but the SoD is such that the Local Governing Body (LGB) has a similar level of responsibility to a SAT. This is one step up from an umbrella trust with the MAT taking a minimal top-slice. There are a considerable number of primary-based MATs that fit this model. They were created when the DfE offered £100k to groups of 5-8 schools to convert as a MAT. This is a superficially attradctive model. It does however reduce the options for delivering financial benefits to the MAT.
  • The Tesco solution – All major services are centralised. Staff employment and (more importantly) deployment may be determined centrally. This means recruitment is centralised and staff are allocated to schools by a central HR Function. Curriculum is also highly centralised along with supporting resources – everyone uses the same texts and software. In this context Tesco is not used as a pejorative but as a descriptor. Nationally known MATs such as ARK and Harris are closer to this model.
  • The third solution is the one that sits somewhere between the other two. Some of the larger groups (eg AET and E-Act) fit this model. These grew too quickly in the early days of academisation. They are currently working to move towards a semi-federated regional “Tesco” solution. They are also having schools taken off them, an indication that rapid, unplanned growth is a very bad model.

We need to see from the DfE a lot more about these models and what they see working in different circumstances.

 

None of the above is a manifesto, it’s just the present situation as I see. Each school needs to go through its own process to decide what it wants to be and how it wants to do it. I hope the above provides some help with that.

My gut feel is that by 2022 we will likely have a close to completely academised system. I also think that for the great majority of schools this will happen faster than many (including myself) have considered likely.

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