While major change often feels daunting, Jane Gibson, product manager for Access Group’s Education Division, looks at how to make the transition as seamless as possible.
Academy status has brought unprecedented financial freedom to thousands of schools across the UK, but headteachers, governors, and other decision makers will be acutely aware of the responsibilities that come with it.
Managing government funding, securing sponsorship and maintaining the infrastructure of school buildings, means academies need to be run like businesses, with investment in marketing, HR, procurement and finance. Although a dedicated professional could take on these roles, some of these responsibility could fall to the office manager or headteacher.
Such is the scale and complexity of school budgets and operations, that joining forces with a MAT certainly seems sensible. Centralised business functions help improve efficiency and reduce costs, ensuring policies are aligned to deliver positive pupil and staff outcomes across the trust.
With performance so dependent on teacher morale and training, alongside the quality of equipment and facilities, being part of a MAT allows academies to achieve economies of scale. This can, in turn, free up funding for activities and resources that offer the most educational value.
Merging with any organisation, whether in the public or the private sector, brings its own challenges – including how to bring together back-office functions. In the early stages of MAT formation, you might find a disparate mix of spreadsheets and paper records, alongside new and legacy software. Inconsistencies in process will quickly become apparent when single academies join MATs.
Academies need to be run like businesses, with investment in marketing, HR, procurement and finance.
Leaving aside their associated security risks, it is clear that manual systems and outdated software are unsuitable for comprehensive budget planning and managing a large workforce.
While education, in contrast to other sectors, has broadly standard paygrades and holiday times, it can still be difficult to do things like recruit (both internally and externally) effectively, accurately report on sickness absence, and monitor training and performance, if you don’t have the right tools.
A study by the National Foundation of Educational Research highlighted how teacher churn is a perennial problem in the profession. This can cause disruption leading to potentially worse pupil outcomes and disruption amongst staff. If the team have poor reporting tools and inconsistent metrics, they may not be aware of staffing issues or that they are relying too heavily on supply staff.
A growing number of single academies and MATs are now using education-specific software like Access Education to deliver budgets and spot potential problems (like over-spending) before they escalate. Providing full visibility over finance and HR processes, the technology supports curriculum-led financial planning rapidly modelling the impact of different options.
If the team have poor reporting tools and inconsistent metrics, they may not be aware of staffing issues or that they are relying too heavily on supply staff.
From an operational point of view, education management tools enable staff on different sites to log onto the same system and view dashboards with accurate data relevant to their role. Developed to be intuitive and responsive, they are a world away from time-consuming spreadsheets that must be updated, backed up and can lead to a time lag, as well as inaccuracies in reporting.
Super-size MATs may attract a great deal of media attention, but it is important to remember that complex financial planning applies to smaller trusts too. One of our customers is a MAT comprising of five academies, catering for just over 250 pupils. Since four out of the five academies are pupil referral units for children outside mainstream education, the finance team had to also maximise higher needs funding. This led to them replacing spreadsheets and numerous chequebooks with a single accounting platform which has made processes much simpler, more efficient and, importantly, accessible from any location.
Whatever the size, MATs are under growing pressure to drive efficiencies without compromising performance. At the end of last year, Lord Agnew controversially laid down the gauntlet betting a bottle of champagne that he could still uncover wastage in schools.
The fact that the latest DfE figures show academies incurred a deficit of more than £6bn, and even top-performing academies are not immune to funding cuts, only underlines the importance of using the right platform to align processes and get the most from every penny spent.
To discover how Access Education can help you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of financial management in your school or trust, please visit www.theaccessgroup.com/education and book your free online demo.