The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Striking the right balance

Since its earliest days, the academy movement has provoked fierce debate on the merits of centralisation. For some schools, a centralised management model signals a loss of autonomy – something that flies in the face of the academy ethos with its promises of greater freedoms.

However, few would deny that collaboration has the potential to deliver cost savings through efficiency and buying power and those savings can be channelled back into teaching and learning.

….few would deny that collaboration has the potential to deliver cost savings through efficiency and buying power and those savings can be channelled back into teaching and learning.

Will Jordan

But does there have to be such a stark polarisation between centralisation and autonomy? Or is there room for a middle way, where the best aspects of centralisation and autonomy are blended to create a new generation of trust?

Fuelling the efficiency drive

The argument for centralisation is strong. Schools across the country are joining forces to work towards a common goal – better outcomes for pupils; and to this end, MATs are continuing to streamline processes and systems into a centralised model.

The need to work more efficiently and make the most of resources is never far from the minds of academy leaders, and centralisation has a key role to play in driving this efficiency for a MAT.

Sarah Appleby, Finance Director of the River Learning Trust illustrates the point. “I think anything that makes our team here more efficient will be welcomed. If centralisation of some key tasks saves us time and money, that time and money can be reinvested into teaching pupils and improving outcomes.”

Likewise, MATs can reap the benefits of centralisation in budgeting, procurement and human resources where joining together gives schools the added clout of a larger organisation. This has certainly been the experience of Daniel Moore, Finance Director of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Multi Academy Trust.

“Before we formally centralised, we had something of a trial run with a couple of large contracts. These contracts went out to tender as a group and we saw the kind of significant savings we were able to make working closer together,” says Daniel.

So there are clear advantages in harnessing collective firepower into one central team. But in an efficiently managed, centralised trust, can there still be room for an element of autonomy at school level?

People-centred trusts

A school’s greatest resource is its staff, so it makes sense to engage the people across your schools and obtain their buy-in to the direction of travel their trust is taking.

In adopting a centralised management structure, trust leaders shouldn’t underestimate the local hubs of knowledge that exist at school level. Experienced school business managers may have a career’s worth of experience that’s worth its weight in gold.

Some trusts are already maximising this expertise, as Sarah Appleby explains. “We blend the local knowledge that the school has, which is invaluable, with the technical and accounting knowledge of the central school business partner.”

Daniel Moore agrees that there are benefits to a blended approach. “You need to find that balance between autonomy for the school and a standardised approach as well. What elements they still have control of – that needs to be as clear as possible.

“It’s about making their job easier,” Daniel explains, “letting them focus on education and school standards – the important elements of their role, rather than being bogged down by finance.”

So, as academisation enters a new phase of maturity, there are signs that MATs are embracing a hybrid model, where local knowledge hubs can feed into a central management team. A new generation of MAT is evolving, which draws on the strengths of its schools while pooling its expertise to secure better outcomes for children and young people.

For more information, read the PS Financials white paper, Checks and Balance, which explores how MATs are finding their own balance between centralisation and autonomy. You can download it here