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Chris recently wrote a blog for us about the 6 phases of growth that MATs go through, and the crises that can follow each phase, as well as how MATs can use an ‘operating model approach’ to ensure that they’re laser-focused on delivering their vision. His latest blog for us looks at the four common tensions faced by MATs when centralising operations, and how to avoid them.
As I approach 25 years in the education sector I can’t remember a more demanding environment for reducing costs and increasing accountability. Whilst we all continue to make the case to government for addressing the many challenges this raises, it’s incumbent on education leaders to manage the resources they have wisely, for the benefit of students.
That’s why Academies that come together into Multi Academy Trusts often do so in pursuit of greater efficiency and effectiveness. Many MATs find that Finance and HR are the easiest services to centralise, followed by Estates and IT. On the education side of things, it is common to see school improvement, Family Support, and Special Needs Support Services benefit from this approach. This all sounds straightforward, but there are four common tensions to be aware of. In this blog I explain what these are, and how to avoid them.
Tension 1: “To the person with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail!”
Before you fix on one approach to structuring your central teams, there are five choices to consider:
Tension 2: Balancing ‘build capacity in advance of need’ with keeping overheads low
Case studies of MATs who have grown sustainably point to forward planning, with capacity to provide effective support to new Academies. However, I have also come across MATs who created new central roles in anticipation of growth that didn’t happen, due for example, to delays in approval from the DfE, and were left holding an expensive baby.
To address this, there are two principles you can apply:
(i) The first is ‘often recruiting; occasionally hiring’. You can be scouting for talent before you are in a position to commit, so when you do need to hire you aren’t starting from scratch.
(ii) Secondly, build in agility – can you create additional capacity through partnerships or buying in services, until you know you are ready to make a permanent hire?
Tension 3: “To SLA or not to SLA… that is the question”
As you move from a service which was managed and received by the same leader, i.e. an Academy Principal, to one which is managed by, say, the Director of Finance, there is a risk of getting caught up in a nightmare of “Service Level Agreements” and supplier/customer relationships. Most MATs take the sensible view that, for an internal shared service, the starting point is colleagues working together to the same end, with defined roles and responsibilities, but without SLAs. On the other hand, if you have decided to purchase from an external Shared Service Centre, or to share a service between MATs, you are going to need more formality, and this usually takes the form of SLAs and a Service Catalogue. This sets out what is delivered, to what standards, who it’s delivered to, and any delegation/escalation arrangements. Whether its internal or external, aim to delegate as much as you can to the front line (with appropriate Schemes of Delegation) so that problems can be solved quickly and easily with minimal need for additional layers of decision making.
Tension 4: 1% Inspiration, 99% perspiration
Thomas Edison’s famous quote has some relevance here. Strategy, design and forward planning can be energising, and tend to catch the attention of senior leaders. Important though this is, the really difficult stuff is implementation. Make sure the MAT leadership team is actively involved in leading the change, and that there is Board level sponsorship. You’ll also need a ‘Change Project Team’ to handle planning, resolving difficult problems through negotiation, ensuring that the services to be provided are clear, that they deliver what the users actually need, and that everyone is supported through these changes. You’ll need to think clearly in advance about HR, legal and financial implications of making the change, especially in terms of job roles.
That’s quite a few tensions, and so it’s worth reminding ourselves why it’s important to consider changing the roles of the central team as a MAT grows. In my experience, there are 4 major benefits to be had:
All of this saves time and money to reinvest in improving learning outcomes, and gives the Board a clearer view of what’s going on, therefore reducing risk. This has to be right in today’s challenging times.
Chris Kirk is Director of CJK Associates, an education consultancy. For more information about MAT central teams, operating models and strategy, take a look at his website here.
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