How to build MAT central teams and services

This blog has been written for us by Chris Kirk, Ex-Partner for Education at PwC and formerly at GEMS/DfE.

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:

  • A MAT shared service: An obvious option is to scoop up the roles (and, sometimes, parts of roles) involved in the same activity across the Academies, and then redesign a new shared service.  This will mean changing some roles, and moving the reporting lines for operations staff from local Academies to your central/ functional team. I’ve helped MATs significantly reduce the cost of Academy-level finance and other operations activities through this approach
  • A shared service with other MATs: If the business case for a shared service within the MAT is not strong due to lack of scale, consider whether you can create a service with other MATs.  This is particularly useful for high cost/low incident services such as aspects of SEN; for specialist activity, e.g. MATs sharing a Maths or Science programme; or for MATs who see benefit in sharing operations, but don’t want to merge fully
  • Purchase: It might be that rather than sharing a service, you just need to centralise the purchase of something – e.g. insurance, energy, catering.  This can give some rapid success compared to the restructuring options above
  • Professional management: Sometimes it is enough to give guidance and some systems at the centre, and leave delivery local.  This is a good option for activities that are hard to standardise, but the downside is adding central team cost without reducing local activity
  • Improve culture or skills rather than structure: Are the problems/opportunities actually the result of structure at all, or are there some cultural or capability improvements you need to make first?

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:

  • Share hard-to-find and expensive expertise to make the biggest impact
  • Centralise onto single systems, therefore improving speed and efficiency of service
  • Economy of scale by pooling requirements and resources
  • Reducing costs, by fitting the right expertise to the right task, rather than having routine tasks carried out by expensive people

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

Recommended reading:
Hugh Greenway, The Elliot Foundation: my guide to running a successful MAT (part I)
How and when to scale systems within your MAT
The common barriers to scaling a MAT