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Jem Jones - 11 October, 2018

Category : Blog

3 reasons your school should avoid running competing IT systems

When you’re picking IT systems for your school or MAT, the options can be overwhelming. As every provider has a USP or ‘unique selling point’ to help them stand out, it’s easy to find different parts of competing systems more appealing. Maybe your business manager likes the features in one payment system, but your catering

When you’re picking IT systems for your school or MAT, the options can be overwhelming. As every provider has a USP or ‘unique selling point’ to help them stand out, it’s easy to find different parts of competing systems more appealing. Maybe your business manager likes the features in one payment system, but your catering team prefers the interface of another. Trying to combine them, and get the best of both worlds, is rarely a solution.

1. It saves money

This is the obvious problem with running systems in parallel. Schools who try to get their money’s worth and use every feature they’re paying for will not only become expert users in their chosen system, but will be able to cut down their unnecessary costs. For the two big software packages used to run your school, a Management Information System (MIS) and a Financial Management System (FMS), you also need to consider the cost of training. You only need one of each, and you should only pay for one of each.

2. It gives your staff back their time

In a recent survey of 11,000 NEU members, 82% of Secondary teachers reported that data collection was not streamlined in their school, and required them to enter data twice. Around 65% of both Primary and Secondary teachers described the amount of data they had to collect as unmanageable. This is indicative of the biggest problem with running disconnected or competing IT systems – they contribute heavily to staff workloads.

Your school systems should interface seamlessly to minimise data entry, using a feature like our secure, open API. This is a great way to reduce data entry between different types of system, and there are some systems which very rarely need to share data anyway, such as your MIS and FMS.

On the other hand, for systems which are designed to do the same thing, data can never be streamlined, as competing businesses preserving their intellectual property will rarely spend resources building integrations for one another. Some level of double entry will always be required.

3. Your data will be safer

Under GDPR, schools are obligated both to protect students and guardians from data breaches, and to keep their information up to date. Choosing secure systems in the first place is important for protecting sensitive information, so you should always check for an internationally recognised certification like ISO 27001 when you buy. However, data breaches don’t only come from attacks and system faults, but from human error. The more times you need to enter data, the more chances human error has to slip in.

Multiple systems, especially systems which aren’t connected through a secure API, are more likely to be inaccurate. Inaccuracy can seem annoying but harmless when it’s a small change, but when you look after hundreds or even thousands of children, little problems quickly get bigger. A wrongly recorded meal choice can mean grumbles from one student, or a severe allergic reaction from another!

By getting the most out of each of your systems, and simplifying your data collection processes, you can save both budgets and workloads from undue burden.

We’re on a mission to transform the way schools operate, and part of that involves reducing unsustainable workloads by bringing as many systems as possible into one place. If you are an Arbor MIS customer, check that your school is using every feature properly to reduce the time you spend plugging data into other systems. 

Our schools love the fact that Arbor brings all of their data into one central system, reducing the number of systems they use and saving staff hours of time manually copying and pasting data from one system to another. If you’re not yet an Arbor MIS customer, you can request a free demo and a chat with your local Partnership Manager anytime through the contact form on our website, or by emailing tellmemore@arbor-education.com or calling 0208 050 1028. 

Arbor - 19 April, 2018

Category : Blog

How and when to scale systems within your MAT

In our blog “The common barriers to scaling a MAT”, we looked at some of the key areas of debate surrounding the biggest challenge to scaling faced by MATs today (this was also the theme of our first MAT conference in London in April this year). One of the biggest challenges MATs face is getting

In our blog “The common barriers to scaling a MAT”, we looked at some of the key areas of debate surrounding the biggest challenge to scaling faced by MATs today (this was also the theme of our first MAT conference in London in April this year).

One of the biggest challenges MATs face is getting the right infrastructure and systems in place to support growth. We invited Dominic Norrish, Group Director of Technology at United Learning, to speak about his experience of deciding how and when to scale systems within a MAT. We’ve summarised his presentation below.

How to decide when to scale systems within your MAT

Dominic talked about how the degree of MAT centralisation vs. school autonomy at your Trust is one of the biggest challenges to deciding how to scale systems. Exactly where your MAT sits on the scale of full autonomy vs. full centralisation, or at least where people perceive your MAT to be, is the product of your values and culture. The problem this sliding scale creates is to do with the locus of control (the perception of where authority to make a decision sits) between schools and the MAT central team. The locus of control will always be in tension, since both sides have limited views of the others’ reasoning and drivers. This is often what makes it hard to decide how to scale.

To help overcome this, Dominic suggested applying the principle of subsidiarity to all decisions about whether or not to centralise a system. The principle of subsidiarity dictates that if a decision can be taken at a local level, it should be. To determine whether this is true, Dominic suggested asking 3 questions when considering whether a system should be scaled across your MAT:

  • Where is the activity/decision most effectively carried out?
  • What is the educational benefit of a single approach?
  • Are there strong operational or financial benefits?

If the decision is not most effectively carried out by a central team or if there is no benefit to all schools in your MAT adopting the same approach, and if there are no operational benefits, the decision can be local. By contrast, United Learning decided to roll out a single assessment system (Hegarty Maths) across all its schools in 2016 because there was an educational benefit to using the same approach across all schools. Similarly, Dominic said that this principle would suggest that core operational systems, such as Finance, MIS & HR, should be scaled centrally.

When to scale systems within your MAT

When you decide to scale systems comes down to the size and age of your MAT. As the number of schools in your MAT increases, it goes through 4 stages: The Honeymoon Period, The Rubicon of Regret, The Difficult Middle Years, and Converging Needs & Attitudes.

The Honeymoon Period

This is the stage where your MAT has c.2-15+ schools. At this point, appetite for centralisation is high, and the cost/complexity of centralising is relatively low. This is what makes “The Honeymoon Period” a good time to centralise:

  • Your Identity Management solution (e.g. Microsoft 365, Google)
  • Your Management Information System
  • Standards for the classification, collection & storage of pupil data
  • Affordable yet scalable Finance & HR solutions

These are the fundamental systems that should be in place for any young MAT as it grows since the cost of changing them at any point in a MAT’s life is disproportionately high (which is why MATs often put off these changes until it’s too late). Making these requirements clear to schools considering joining the MAT.

The Rubicon of Regret

This is the stage where your MAT has 20-30 schools. “The Rubicon of Regret” as the point at which your MAT has not centralised many (or any!) systems, and now regrets that decision since the cost & complexity of centralisation at this stage is high (but not impossible). This in turn makes the appetite for centralisation low.

Before “crossing the Rubicon”, MATs should centralise:

  • Whole-Trust educational systems (e.g. assessment), because people tend to be really invested in current choices
  • Common solutions for IT hygiene factors, such as firewalls and Anti-Virus software
  • Procurement basics – your MAT should have a leasing partner and preferred suppliers
  • Back office processes – GDPR, SCR, school information

At any time in your MAT’s growth

From 30 schools upwards, the cost and complexity of centralising systems only continues to rise, but so too does the appetite for centralisation as MAT central teams see the value of doing so after the “Difficult Middle Years.”

However at any time in the life of your MAT there should be a really high barrier for prescribing the systems teachers use to teach. United Learning, for instance, have stopped doing this altogether. This is because the likelihood of consensus forming around a single product/approach is extremely low, whilst the cost of changing current products and practice rarely delivers ROI (rolling out the same smart whiteboards as an example – does it matter whether all your schools use the same one?). In this case, it would be far better to support schools in driving their own digital strategies.

Click here to see Dominic’s presentation in full

We’ve now added all the presentations from our conference on scaling culture, strategy, processes, procurement, and governance to the blog. Why not have a read here?

 

James Weatherill - 19 October, 2017

Category : Blog

7 staffing measures your MAT or school could be tracking

We’ve been gathering feedback from the dozens of different MATs we work with on what core measures they’ve been tracking to monitor success. Measuring staffing is clearly vital, as it typically accounts for 70%-80% of a school’s budget, but we find that the measures MATs and schools are currently using vary wildly. Some opt for financial measures that

We’ve been gathering feedback from the dozens of different MATs we work with on what core measures they’ve been tracking to monitor success. Measuring staffing is clearly vital, as it typically accounts for 70%-80% of a school’s budget, but we find that the measures MATs and schools are currently using vary wildly. Some opt for financial measures that focus on efficiency and cost, others look at Net Promoter Scores that focus on satisfaction, all depending on the culture of the MAT or school, which we’ve analysed in previous posts. Below are some that we’ve seen with their benefits and drawbacks:

1) Staff cost per pupil: split by % child facing vs. % non child-facing, % SLT vs % teachers (supply vs. FTE) vs. % back-office
A basic indicator but one that can reveal a lot if benchmarked and analysed correctly. Looking at the splits of % child-facing vs. non-child facing can reveal heavy management layers or inefficient back office process taking resource away from front-line teaching. The split between SLT, teachers (supply & FTE) and back office can help to drill down and identify where schools might be over or underspending.

2) Cost per subject
Used by MATs such as Outwood Grange in their dashboard, this can help schools rationalise subjects to make efficiency gains (such as a vocational subject taken by 6 students year on year). The exact calculations can be tough to produce without the right systems able to combine academic and financial data.

3) % staff receiving performance-related pay increase
A contentious measure, as there is no right or wrong answer, but worth correlating to pupil attainment and progress measures. This can also be further broken down by Key Stage and subject.

4) Net Promoter Score (NPS)/satisfaction + staff comments
Most schools agree staff satisfaction is a key measure of long term health, and even though satisfaction may not always be high it’s worth knowing when it takes a dip so you can intervene to reduce turnover. Some schools and MATs such as Elliot Foundation are starting to use Net Promoter Score to measure this. Arbor uses a tool called Ask.nicely to monitor the health of all our schools, which automatically sends out 100 emails a day to different school stakeholders, allowing us to segment responses by role (email us to find out more). Note that the comments provided as feedback are perhaps more useful than the data in helping management understand school strengths and areas to improve.

5) Complaints
Number of complaints by role or school, as well as the verbatim complaint itself combine with Net Promotor Score as a useful indicator. Again the comments in the complaints themselves are often the most useful.

6) Retention/Vacancies
Staff turnover is often 20%-30% in some schools and MATs, far higher than the 15% national average. Retention is a vital measure to at least know, even if it’s not monitored as frequently as satisfaction or NPS. Vacancies by number and type of role is also useful to understand retention and where issues lie, and it can be obtained relatively easily through the census submission, although it’s a lagging indicator (by the time a vacancy arises it’s too late to intervene).

7) CPD cost as % staff pay
Not investing in staff can lead to high turnover, but many schools and MATs are guilty of underinvesting in staff who then stay and don’t progress. Monitoring overall CPD as a % staff pay allows benchmarking between different schools and MATs to see if you’re developing your staff. Clearly just monitoring the cost won’t tell you if the CPD has been effective. This should be assessed in appraisals.

Ultimately the measures you choose depend on the culture your MAT or school wants to foster. Purely financial measures with no balance will focus on efficiency, whilst focusing entirely on staff satisfaction can lead to lax financial management. Having the systems to automatically report on staffing measures is key to reduce excel sheets flying around. Arbor’s MAT and School MIS can centrally report on all staff and student measures, giving SLT the reports and dashboards they need in one click to monitor performance. Get in touch to find out more.

James Weatherill - 24 May, 2017

Category : Blog

The 4 MAT personality types

In this presentation about scaling your Trust and my last blog, I highlighted how the central team need to decide on the right balance between a MAT’s desire for alignment and a school’s desire for autonomy, as this will define their systems, processes and, ultimately, culture. Looking at the diagram below, you can see the 4 different

In this presentation about scaling your Trust and my last blog, I highlighted how the central team need to decide on the right balance between a MAT’s desire for alignment and a school’s desire for autonomy, as this will define their systems, processes and, ultimately, culture.

Looking at the diagram below, you can see the 4 different personality types I suggest, and the culture that each one generally has as a result.

How Alignment and Autonomy Influence Culture

MAT matrix.png

Authoritative MAT

Often seen in MATs with a high proportion of turnaround schools who have weak operational processes that need replacing. These MATs have a large central team to help ensure a high degree of alignment with the MAT, and deploy a largely non-negotiable, tried-and-tested set of systems and processes within each school, leaving little variation.

  • Advantages: highly centralised process is cost effective, goals are clearly defined & measurable, MAT has the capacity to intervene where necessary and takeover the school
  • Disadvantages: morale of school staff can suffer due to lack of autonomy; allows for little variation in process even when a school ‘earns’ their autonomy

Assistant MAT

Often seen in MATs with high performing schools and strong headteachers/leadership teams. These MATs have defined, clear goals agreed with their teams and a certain set of core non-negotiable systems and data that they have aligned schools around, leaving peripheral systems and processes at individual schools’ discretion. The central team is relatively small and nimble, able to respond in a timely manner and help schools where they need extra capacity or assistance

  • Advantages: the MAT can scale sustainably, whilst ensuring that this isn’t at the expense of school autonomy and morale. Standardisation is around core data, process and systems, with autonomy given to people in how they use these systems
  • Disadvantages: Where the boundaries of alignment are vague or poorly defined it can lead to ambiguity and confusion between the MAT and schools. This needs constant discussion as dialogue changes. Often not suitable for turnaround schools who can require systemic change led from the top

Entrepreneurial MAT

Often seen in local, start-up MATs with high performing schools and leadership; people know and trust each other. There is typically only a small topslice, so the central team are small, usually having a dual-role split between an individual academy and the MAT central team. Systems and processes are non-standardised, and schools have wide discretion over how they manage themselves. Data collection is manual and light, often using excel, meaning little central oversight.

  • Advantages: keeps things nimble whilst the MAT is growing, with the minimum viable process and procedure. Gives room for experimentation as the MAT finds out what works and what doesn’t
  • Disadvantages: hard to scale this model beyond a small MAT, as once you reach ~5 schools the central team is overstretched, and managing diverse systems, processes and data means the MAT has poor oversight

Micromanaging MAT

This sounds bad, but it’s sometimes necessary. In challenging start-up MATs taking on turnaround schools there is no budget or large central team to roll-out a set of tried and tested systems and processes. The MAT has to take a hands-on approach, often with staff seconded from the lead school into the poorer performing schools. It can feel quite full-on for the schools, but here the entrepreneurial approach may not be viable!

  • Advantages: the MAT is very close to the source of the problems in the school, and can fix them quickly
  • Disadvantages: stressful for both the MAT team and the schools. Processes are very manual, often staff require a lot of chasing. Not sustainable as a strategy to onboard or maintain more than a handful of schools

I should say that the framework above is intentionally simplistic – you can’t easily define culture or put schools and MATs in a box. MATs often behave differently with different schools, and there are many more dimensions to culture. But frameworks are useful as they stimulate debate, so where do you sit and how do you plan to scale? My next blog provides some more detail on this. Watch this space…