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BLOG: Trusts must be ‘investors’ rather than ‘bean counters’ to thrive through austerity

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The financial challenges currently being experienced by trusts and schools need no introduction. The pressure is unlikely to go away soon. As I said at our national MAT leaders network conference in Sheffield earlier this year, “the financial crash of 2008 changed everything. A growing aging population changes everything. Growing demands on public services changes everything. Brexit changes everything. The tighter public funding budgets will not go away.”

Three months and a few little extras later, I stand by my case. The sector needs to find better ways of generating and maximising resources, not simply to cut across the board or live in hope of politicians handing out more cash later. Indeed, this is a defining challenge for this generation of school leaders. That’s why the focus of Forum Strategy’s most recent MAT leaders roundtable, the report of which is published today (MAT Leaders Roundtable Report 3), focused on ‘achieving sustainability through austerity’.

“A growing aging population changes everything. Growing demands on public services changes everything. Brexit changes everything. The tighter public funding budgets will not go away.”

It may come as a surprise that, despite the clear frustrations around funding, this was a meeting of optimism and ‘can do’ mindsets. So, what did we learn, and what suggestions did the group have for other trusts and for government?

New ways of doing things

It is clear some MATs are responding by developing new, more sustainable ‘in house’ services, avoiding duplication of roles across schools, such as multiple business managers, where this support could be provided by a smaller team of people centrally. This also extends to sharing senior leaders – such as school improvement leads – between MATs, avoiding ‘top heavy’ leadership teams and opening the avenues for sharing practice across trusts. Some MATs are also more focused on the wide range of sources of funding out there both within and, crucially, beyond the sector. From commissioning bid writers on a no win, no fee basis to accessing the tens of thousands of pounds worth of grants that crop up each month to setting up alumni schemes reflecting those in higher education.

Whilst based on a desire to retain money in the sector, more fundamentally, the key motivator in all these cases was to provide a higher quality service to schools and pupils.

Colleagues also spoke of delivering services to other schools and MATs, including ICT support, catering services, careers services, professional development for leaders, and even waste collection! Meanwhile, one group of school leaders is currently launching a not-for-profit staff absence mutual, to provide a more bespoke service to schools around staff cover and to mitigate the costs of rising insurance premiums. Whilst based on a desire to retain money in the sector, more fundamentally, the key motivator in all these cases was to provide a higher quality service to schools and pupils.

Access to the right skills

There was a strong view that sustainability depends on an ‘investor’ rather than a ‘bean counter’ mindset. Whilst cutting costs and achieving economies is crucial, this is clearly limited. It was felt that better and more viable services would only be achieved in some cases by investing in new people and delivery models. Many MATs are lacking some of the operational delivery skills required to achieve these new models because they have opted for a Chief Financial Officer rather than a Chief Operating Officer (not least as the appointment of CFOs has been so strongly encouraged by the DfE). This – some feel – has led to an emphasis on audit and compliance, rather than values-driven entrepreneurial leadership in the sector.

Many MATs are lacking some of the operational delivery skills required to achieve these new models because they have opted for a Chief Financial Officer rather than a Chief Operating Officer

Many MATs miss someone who can integrate a wide range of disciplines – such as finance, HR, ICT, site management and fundraising, to realise some of the benefits of collaboration and scale. Accountancy and procurement skills are just one element – and can often be covered by a senior manager reporting to a COO. Senior leaders that can design and develop sustainable delivery models that generate income and improvements are at a premium.

More help for MATs?

Whilst many of the sustainable models shared have been developed in spite of government, it is clear that MATs have taken some calculated risks in developing shared and income generating services. What government could do is speculate to accumulate – giving MATs a helping hand in building upon their specific areas of expertise and talents to provide sustainable services to other schools and trusts across their locality.

MATs would need to demonstrate how the services would be of a higher quality than those currently available, how they would provide a more cost-effective solution to local schools

This could come in the form of a ‘seed fund’ from government, so that MATs can feel more confident in investing in themselves and their people to roll out more cost effective and higher quality services. MATs would need to demonstrate how the services would be of a higher quality than those currently available, how they would provide a more cost-effective solution to local schools, and that there was sufficient demand amongst local schools to ensure a return on those services and their ongoing viability.

Entrepreneurial leadership as a moral imperative

I think it is time that we begin to recognise the huge potential that already exists within our trusts and schools to create more cost efficient and higher quality services. I am confident that the ‘can do’ mindset and the emerging examples we are already seeing within and across some innovative trusts will not only mitigate the funding challenge and retain more money in the sector, but achieve even better, school-led, services. Entrepreneurial leadership is no longer the ‘dirty phrase’ it may once have been in education, it is a moral imperative if we are to maximise resources to the benefit of all pupils.

Michael Pain is CEO of Forum Strategy

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