The Academy Transformation Trust: Developing Efficiency, Generating Income, and Ensuring Financial Sustainability
Over the past five years, the Academy Transformation Trust (ATT) has undergone significant changes. After experiencing financial difficulties, the trust has placed an emphasis on finding ways to save money and generate income, in order to ensure long term financial sustainability. In this article, Claire Pritchard, the Chief Operating Officer of ATT, explains some of the key strategies that the trust has undertaken in order to achieve financial sustainability. ATT has 22 academies, made up of both primary and secondary schools, working across 10 local authorities. Claire’s role within the trust involves supporting these academies in ensuring that they manage their human resources and estates effectively, and actively operate group policies and procedures to ensure the best educational outcomes for pupils across the trust. Through this role she has been able to implement a multitude of different initiatives across the trust’s academies to bring down financial costs and drive efficiency throughout the trust.
“Being able to introduce cross-academy initiatives and contracts, and enabling our academies to work in partnership with one another, has opened up some fantastic opportunities for us as a trust, in terms of structuring effective staff models, utilising staff expertise, driving efficiency, and generating income”, says Claire.
One of the first things that Claire did to improve financial sustainability across the trust was to look at how staffing structures could be made more consistent across the academies, and how support services could be delivered more efficiently and consistently across the model. “In 2016 we began the huge task of bringing all of the support services together, starting with HR, estates, and finance. The premise of starting with those three was the need to abide by statutory regulations, and also a need to demonstrate equality across the staffing model throughout the trust”, says Claire. “Our main focus, in terms of role, was that of the business manager in each academy. So often the school business manager becomes Jack-of-all-trades, becoming responsible for everything ‘non-teaching’. We stripped that role right back to the managers’ real areas of expertise.”
“We then went out to consultation, splitting our academies into four separate regions, and within each region we appointed a regional finance manager, a regional estates manager and an HR business partner. All of the regional staff are accountable to the central function, therefore enabling us to provide quality and consistent data to our trustees to inform future decision making. At an individual school level, we made sure that each school had finance and HR administrators and site supervisors.” This staffing model allowed the ATT as an organisation not only to provide their academies with regional expertise from appropriately qualified individuals, but has also saved the organisation approximately £675,000 per annum.
Also, as a by-product of this staffing model, the trust now has a matrix management system that enables the Principals of each of the trust’s academies to retain their day-to-day management responsibilities, without having to take on additional roles and responsibilities which reach beyond their own job role.
Joining the dots – bringing contracts together to drive efficiencies
Claire says: “Our new staffing model, and integrated finance system provided us, centrally, with useful data, which informed us of how much we were currently spending in each area. We benchmark school costs both against others in the trust and external schools, and we were able to devise a procurement strategy based on that information. We were then able to procure the best possible contracts centrally for catering, insurance, audit and payroll.” As a result of centralising these contracts, the ATT was able to save around £750,000. The trust is currently looking into further central procurement opportunities providing services for all of its academies in different areas, including ICT, and also cleaning; hopefully coming into place in the near future.
As a result of networking opportunities with other trusts, such as Forum Strategy’s MAT Leaders Network, ATT has recognised commonality with other trust’s regarding certain issues. It has therefore been able to work beyond its own trust, and with other trusts, to drive efficiency further. This has included creating a procurement framework, to provide a direct reward route for contractors. ATT are able to use this framework, and as a result can achieve an optimum level of service and value, without having to procure every contract as an individual trust. A great example of increased efficiency for ATT, as a result of partnership with other trusts in procuring services, is in the area of waste collection, where five trusts (a total of 87 academies) signed up to a service together. This resulted in significant savings for waste collection services for all of the schools and trusts involved.
“In a Multi Academy Trust that is geographically disparate, we can never have the local knowledge that local schools have, so in this area we rely heavily on staff within each of our academies, and within each of the local regions, to procure opportunities” says Claire. An example that Claire shares is of a school in Essex with a large Polish community. “An opportunity was recognised to let out the school’s facilities at weekends, so that they could be used to host English classes for the local Polish community. As a result, eight classrooms are rented out each weekend, allowing the school to make a profit of around £30,000 per annum. There are also wider benefits, as the classes are extremely useful for the local Polish community, including the school’s own pupils for whom English is an additional language.”
When it comes to applications and bids for funding, the ATT are very pro-active in using any expertise across their academies to the benefit of other schools within the trust. Any schools within the trust that are successful in bidding for funding, at a local or national level, are also encouraged to support other schools in bidding for funding. An example of where this has worked really well is in bidding for National Lottery funding for outdoor equipment. “When one of our regional estate managers in the trust managed to get an application for funding accepted by the National Lottery, for the provision of outdoor equipment in one of our trust’s schools, we then took that application model to another school in the trust. They were able to use the successful application as a template, adjusting accordingly to their own school context” says Claire, “and with support from the regional estate manager, they formulated their own application bid, and were also accepted. The regional estate manager then went on to work with principals in several more of our schools, to help them to formulate their own bids, and altogether that has brought in £70,000 across five schools in our trust, for outdoor play equipment and areas.”
To encourage staff at individual schools throughout the trust to put forward ideas and opportunities for letting out school premises outside of working hours, the ATT are running a pilot, which involves rewarding staff with a bonus payment for any idea which is ultimately successful. “School buildings and facilities across the trust could potentially be hired out for a multitude of different events, including shows, conventions, event parking, and even as wedding venues. The local knowledge and contacts which staff may have at an individual school level increases the likelihood of finding uses for the school buildings and facilities which we might never know about at a central level”, says Claire, “so it makes sense for us to offer an incentive for staff to consider those potential uses.”
Making use of skills across the trust
“We are very keen to develop our staff, and to make the most of our staff talent across the trust” says Claire, “so to help us with this, we have generated a trust-wide Talent and Capacity Register.” The aim of the Talent and Capacity Register is to enable the ATT to take a collaborative approach to professional development across its academies, utilising staff expertise, and therefore minimising the need to spend money on external CPD experts, sessions, and workshops. “The trust runs strategy and development forums on a regular basis, each of which focuses on a key area of practice, e.g. learning environments. Around six of these forums are hosted, by different academy Principals within the trust, throughout the year” says Claire. The trust also runs regular Network Groups which are all about sharing best practice; Network Groups bring together staff who can learn from one another, for example, bringing together all of the maths leads from across ATT.
Other examples of collaborative CPD within the ATT include bringing together staff with expertise in a particular area from across the trust’s schools, e.g. SEN co-ordinators, to deliver training on key topics. “We arranged an event where Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators from across the trust came together to run an SEN training session for other staff within the trust, to highlight and share best practice in supporting SEN pupils”, says Claire. “Training like this encourages a more standardised approach across all of the schools in the trust, whilst also allowing staff the flexibility to adapt what they learn to their own school setting”, explains Claire. “We try to call upon experts within the trust whenever we can to deliver CPD. Across all 22 schools in the ATT, there is usually someone who we can call upon who is an expert in a particular area, and it makes financial sense to make full use of our own in-house expertise before paying for external consultants.” This model also works for professional development within the support services across the trust, where well-qualified regional support staff are able to deliver training to staff at individual schools in many areas of expertise, such as, for example, managing absence, managing difficult conversations, or financial planning.
At the highest level, the most successful Principals within the trust are also sharing their expertise across other schools within the trust. These Principals take a leadership role across two or three of the trust’s schools, working alongside the Headteachers to support the schools in enacting strategic school improvement. This is another great example of the ATT developing expertise from within.
Claire concludes, “at Academy Transformation Trust, we have managed to build a robust, financially sustainable model of operation. I am particularly proud of our model of estates management, and our regionalisation model of support services, which I believe provide exemplary examples for other Multi Academy Trusts to follow. I am very happy to discuss these models with other trusts, at events, or at a one-to-one level. I believe there is huge benefit in sharing our good practice with other trusts, as it so often becomes reciprocal, and we all have so much that we can learn from one another.”
- Staffing structures – Consider the structure of support staff across your Multi Academy Trust: how could the structure be made more efficient and consistent across the trust, in order to maximise expertise and output?
- Enter into service contracts collaboratively – Consider procuring services, such as catering, cleaning or waste collection, and entering into contracts at a trust-wide level. Your MAT could even enter into contracts in partnership with other trusts for certain services. This could potentially result in significant savings.
- Income generation – Consider hiring out your school building/facilities outside of working hours to bring in extra income. Encourage staff to share ideas and opportunities regarding how the school building could be used, especially if your MAT is geographically disparate, as the local knowledge of staff will be particularly useful in this area. Share successful bid applications between schools in the trust to work as ‘templates’, and enable schools that successfully receive funding grants to support others in the trust to acquire grants too.
- Utilise staff expertise – Save money on CPD experts, sessions, and workshops by tapping into the talent and expertise of the staff already within your trust. Consider creating a trust-wide Talent Capacity Register, so information regarding the expertise within your trust can be more easily accessed and utilised.