Back in September, Education Technology ran a really compelling ‘for and against’ article on the issue of centralisation within Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) and, for those who are advocates of shared service teams, the importance of having “the right tech systems in place”.
I have personally worked within the MAT sector since 2010, at which point centralisation was quite a controversial subject, particularly as academisation (convertor academies) was portrayed as ‘breaking from the shackles’ of local authority control. There were a handful of Trusts back then that had gone down the centralised route, and most of these were MATs that were formed as a sponsor to support failing schools and often had a commercial CFO designing the blueprint for the Trust operating model.
Centralisation, as a topic, absolutely fascinates me and is still where most conversations that I have with MAT CFOs lead, with many of the same questions cropping up time and time again. So, we commissioned research with MAT leaders in autumn 2020 to explore – in-depth – how Trusts have developed their operating models in light of academy freedoms. We asked them about the operating model they had chosen to take (and the strategic drivers behind it), their views and experiences of implementation (what has worked especially well and they would repeat, as well as what has worked less well and what they would do differently if they did it all again), and the benefits and impact on their systems and the Trust as a whole.
‘A strategic choice’
I half expected the discussion to focus on operations and to add fuel to the fire, the importance of software and systems as a driver for centralisation. What we found, however, in A Growing Philosophy: How are Multi-Academy Trusts developing their operating models through centralisation? is the critical importance of centralisation as a strategic choice, linked to the ethos and culture of any one MAT, and that it should be viewed as part of a bigger discussion than one simply about technology.
Yes, practices and procedures stood out in a number of the interviews and, as a systems provider ourselves, we would of course suggest that systems are a key component of the journey – but systems cannot be used in isolation, and systems should not lead the strategy. With all of the interviews that referenced systems, these were clearly used to help implement the vision, which was already established and communicated to all stakeholders – not the other way round. Therefore, a MAT’s systems strategy needs to ensure that core technologies are able to evolve with it throughout the Trust’s journey to support the implementation. If systems can’t cope with the transition or the end goal, a systems review becomes very much part of the process after the vision has been set.
As Trusts grow they often look at centralising the finance function first – but as Confederation of School Trusts CEO, Leora Cruddas, says in the report, centralisation more widely remains less developed in the sector: “Strategic HR is rarely used to drive conversations at Board level about talent management and building professional pathways but this is particularly important as the Trust grows. Even less likely is centralisation of educational approaches. It is less common for Trusts to have one approach to the curriculum. However, the philosophy underlying the curriculum and pedagogy, is core”.
Centralisation? Schools generally approve
What I take from this is the gap – and opportunity – around the discussion of education at a much earlier stage within the initial ‘to centralise or not to centralise’ debate. Whilst centralisation can still be a controversial topic, schools within the Trusts interviewed for our report appear to be generally supportive of the process. This is due to their involvement from the beginning and their belief in the wider purpose of the strategy, which is further supported by the benefits being felt at school level as they are pushed back to the frontline to support teaching and learning (with supporting resources).
Whilst much of the debate around centralisation in the past 10 years has focused on finance and operations, it seems that education will soon play a more prominent role in the discussion. For edtech providers, and indeed wider software providers like ourselves, whose systems support more effective MAT and school budgeting, our research suggests that there is a merit in starting the conversation from the point of how we can support any ‘core philosophy’.