It’s widely recognised that the majority of schools demonstrate a range of improvements after joining a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT), however, for school finance and admin teams – who may previously have operated using outdated systems or different processes – the transition to a central services team can present a number of challenges.
Looking for more autonomy around school budgeting and services, Perry Hall Primary School converted to an academy in 2013. Now six schools strong, Perry Hall Multi-Academy Trust enjoys the benefits of a centralised support team including a CEO, a facilities and estates manager, and a strategic head of finance and business administration.
Prior to the introduction of a shared services team, endless time would be spent chasing different invoicing and administrative processes with a range of other barriers also in place. The front office teams also spent a significant part of their day handling enquiries from parents. It quickly became obvious that the finance and business team needed to sit remotely with everybody using one single system to ensure efficiency – in their case, opting for online software designed for use by schools from The Access Group.
Sharing the load
Alongside the increased time spent on governance and accountability, schools take on a number of additional HR responsibilities when converting to an academy or joining a trust. A central support, or ‘shared services’ team, is designed to absorb the additional workload and reduce the pressure on individual schools.
The introduction of a shared services team alleviated a number of administrative strains being placed on front office staff. This was important, as we wanted to ensure front office teams were able to focus on their primary role – the curriculum, teacher development and of course, pupil wellbeing, driving an overall improvement in results.
Ultimately, a headteacher should be allowed the necessary time to focus on improved learning, assessment structures and overall pupil and staff development – the reason they entered the profession, while the shared services team oversee the administrative side of this.
If a member of staff is taken ill unexpectedly or on maternity leave, for example, we can deal with the administrative and financial aspect of the proceedings. This leaves the headteacher free to focus on supporting the individual in their day-to-day work, ensuring a consistently high educational offering for students.
We are especially proud of the improvements made to our absence reporting and management process over recent years, something that became a major focus after one school reported feeling let down by their local authority with regards to absence monitoring. In order to improve, the shared services team introduced a new process, implementing absence trigger meetings and return to work interviews, resulting in a reduction in staff absence rates – a great example of how our work can make a real difference across the trust.
As in any walk of life, tracking good performance and identifying areas of improvement is key, helping to inform future decision making and planning.For central support teams overseeing a number of schools, a KPI sheet can help highlight areas in need of development, as well as examples of good practice. Having this information stored on a live database gives a single, easy to understand view and ensures the figures are both accurate and accessible for every school across the trust.
Such a high level of insight can also allow the individual schools to remain flexible, maintaining a level of autonomy around decision making and performance management. For example, what works for one school might not work for another for a whole range of complex reasons, and any key decision should always be made with the school, its pupils and staff in mind.
Dealing with different local authorities
Following the trust’s expansion across a broad geographical area, we found ourselves working closely with three different local authorities, which created some challenges. A maintained school will only ever deal with one local authority, meaning administrative and financial processes rarely change.
In our case, the trust has to manage variations in paperwork processes, as well as understanding the discrepancies in the requirements of each local authority. Luckily, the shared services team is able to absorb much of this additional work, enabling a far more streamlined way of working.
It makes a lot of sense for a business support department to include a finance team, to take the pressure away from individual schools and take on the vast majority of back office, financial tasks. An experienced team will easily and efficiently cope with complex invoicing and order processes, alongside dealing with and managing accounts.
This also helps avoid any problems that may arise when distributed managers dictate decision making without full visibility of the entire trust’s financial performance or targets.
Our individual schools generate any required changes around payroll, such as additional hours claims, but the actual task and day-to-day management is dealt with by shared services – improving efficiency across the trust.
At Perry Hall Multi-Academy Trust, the collaborative working relationship between the shared services team and those working across each site is key to our success, and despite some nervousness around the centralisation of many formerly distributed functions, over time, this has proved itself an efficient way to manage our schools, helping staff fulfil the philosophy whereby pupils are dealt with locally and staff are dealt with centrally.
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