The centralisation debate: what role does tech play?

Here, Adele France, CFO of the Minerva Learning Trust, which officially centralised services several years ago; and Debra Briault, CFO at the Circle Trust, which recently decided against the implementation of a central team, share their views on the centralisation debate

Since 2010 and the start of academisation, the topic of ‘centralisation’ has remained contentious, sparking a range of opinions from both teaching and non-teaching staff.

Despite this initial concern, many have now become advocates of shared service teams, viewing them as an effective way of improving standards and increasing efficiencies – providing the right tech systems are in place.

Others remain sceptical, preferring to maintain finance and HR teams within each individual school, relying on cloud-based systems to connect the relevant teams as and when necessary, firmly committed to the belief that this is the best option for pupils and staff.

Here, we discuss the issue with Adele France, chief financial and operations officer at the Minerva Learning Trust, which officially centralised services several years ago; and Debra Briault, chief financial officer at the Circle Trust, which recently decided against the implementation of a central team, despite enjoying a period of rapid expansion.

Q. Why did you decide in favour/against centralising services?

Adele: The Minerva Learning Trust is not alone in facing significant challenges when it comes to balancing budgets, and despite the prospect of additional funding as part of the National Funding Formula, it was absolutely essential that we streamlined our budgets and looked to deliver efficiency savings across the trust.

Like many, we were founded on a partnership of schools coming together while retaining their independence and autonomy, but as more schools joined and we formed a small MAT, it quickly became clear that the existing decentralised model would not deliver the efficiencies needed to have strong financial health and sustainability at the rapid pace required.

Debra: We’re currently going through a period of expansion, having welcomed three new schools to the trust over the past six months. All of our schools are under pressure to meet strict financial targets, while continuing to offer a consistently high standard of education, but we do not believe a shared services team is the best way to achieve this.

In fact, the decision was taken early on that we wanted to preserve the existing management positions, with each school maintaining their own business manager and back office support team, rather than go through a disruptive period of restructuring and redundancies.

This is because we believe in empowering the individual schools to work collaboratively, share good practice and key learnings but ultimately, remain autonomous when it comes to the majority of decision making.

Q. What have you found to be the main benefits of your approach?

Adele: One part of my role is to manage the onboarding process for new schools joining the trust, and there’s a whole range of business operations processes to consider.

It’s imperative that everyone is aligned on the key principles and values of the trust and its standardised approach to operations. That doesn’t necessarily mean we take the one-size-fits-all approach; our schools all have their own unique characteristics and each individual curriculum reflects the needs of that school.

The implementation of Standard Operating Procedures has brought about better ways of working, allowing the central team to easily oversee a number of processes; from financial reporting, estates management, to procurement, HR and even governance.

Like many business models, when a MAT expands, it becomes trickier to ensure that these practices and behaviours are consistently applied, and we believe a higher degree of centralisation improves the chances of all schools following the same approach, ultimately driving better results.

The implementation of the Access Education Finance and Budgeting software has made this process far easier. As new schools join the trust we can quickly and easily give the headteachers and other relevant staff members access to the budgeting or finance system and get them aligned to our standards of working.

Operating cloud-based systems means financial management between schools and the central team is seamless, saving time and making us more efficient.

Debra: We firmly believe that our individual schools know their staff and pupils best, and that the formation of a shared services team could actually be counterproductive, stifling much of the good work already being implemented.

Of course, we do still require a certain level of coordination, and as CFO I have visibility over the trusts purchasing, buildings and maintenance work and overall spend. However, when it comes to curriculum planning and the day-to-day running of the school site, we believe that’s best left to those who know it best.

Without a cloud-based system, it’s unlikely that we could operate cohesively as a trust, with disjointed processes causing over-complication and duplication of tasks. For me, one of the main benefits of the Access software is that each individual school can access their own records and KPI’s whenever necessary, without the hassle of sifting through irrelevant data, helping to maintain a feeling of autonomy.

Q. How has your approach been beneficial to teachers and pupils?

Adele: Far from being restricted to benefitting just the finance, admin and HR teams, we have noticed a significant positive impact on the frontline in teaching and education attainment.

Essentially, the creation of a shared services team has taken the burden of managing the business side of the trust away from teachers, allowing them to fully focus on school improvement and outcomes. My team also regularly meet with the headteachers through structured business meetings.

Perhaps the most important benefit is that centralisation enables MATs to take a trust-wide approach to improving schools. An efficient centralised model is a great way to blend the school-specific knowledge of individual leaders with the technical skill and expertise of a central business management function.

For example, easily accessible financial or performance reports can be used to give senior leaders an insight into the most up-to-date statistics and what this means for pupils across the trust, and ultimately support those leaders in their decision making.

This insight can be pivotal to help monitor and manage the curriculum model, class sizes and staff-to-pupil ratios, as well as creating a clear picture of staffing requirements for each subject by year group, based on the number of periods, group size and support staff needed.

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Debra: Ultimately, The Circle Trust believes in helping each of our schools improve educational outcomes, so we invest significant time in understanding our pupils’ and teachers’ needs. Every school is very different, all facing a different set of challenges – in and outside of the classroom – and we believe that a shared services team might not truly understand the nuances of these issues.

Leaving decision-making to the schools themselves has allowed us to work on fostering a genuine collaborative culture across the trust, with staff feeling comfortable sharing best practices and new learnings, rather than being forced to do so.

Q. How did the implementation of cloud-based systems help facilitate your approach?

Adele: In order to deliver more standardised processes across our schools, it was important to find software products that suited all members of the trust. We knew we wanted a cloud-based systems across finance and HR and cut down on wasted time that comes with paper-based systems.

As part of this, Access Education Finance and Budgeting modules were implemented quickly to prevent inconsistencies in data – something that can be a real nightmare for a shared services team. A year or so later, a significant restructuring took place to centralise all finance and HR functions and the wider business operations – now we’re in a much easier position as we continue to grow.

With specialist software, the team can create three to five year financial plans, easily update details on contracts, and quickly create bespoke reports across the whole trust in a matter of minutes, significantly impacting the quality and accuracy of information produced and reported to the Trust Board and external bodies.

Debra: Despite each school retaining their own business manager, we have a great working relationship and of course, everyone acknowledges that there needs to be some level of coordination. Access People is the perfect middle ground as staff can login and view their own schools metrics, reports and deadlines, while the staff overseeing the trust have a higher level of access, allowing them full visibility.

This ensures that separate teams still generate coordinated and consolidated reports – unlike previous systems we’ve used which made this near impossible.

I can also be far more strategic in collating the information, producing bespoke reports for different stakeholders – from the school improvement team, to the headteachers and even my fellow business support colleagues. The process is easy and takes a matter of minutes.

Ultimately, it’s for each school to decide what’s right for them, and balancing the pros and cons isn’t always easy. Periods of expansion can throw up unforeseen challenges, while budget cuts might also force your hand.

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