Coaching & Leadership Development
May 7, 2019

What are the Hidden Challenges of being a MAT CEO?

What are the Hidden Challenges of being a MAT CEO?

This blog comes from the Chief Executive Officer of Folio Education Trust, Jonathan Wilden


For a number of years schools have operated in traditional ways where the establishment was essentially run by Headteachers.


Then came about the introduction of school business managers to help look at the way school funding was used. Then following the academisation of many schools this has developed into a more suitable role for chartered accountants who report a more accountable income statement and balance sheet to the Board.


Now we see a third evolution as academies join together either by choice or by persuasion from the DfE to benefit from the advantages of collaborative school improvement and shared services. These new structures drive economies of scale and generate additional savings.  These can then be driven back into the core purpose of schools, which is to support Teaching and Learning and help every child to reach their personal best.


This step change through the evolution of schools has meant that a gap is growing. The gap is between those who work on the front line, who are dealing with sometimes resource heavy teaching and learning experiences and those who are charged with the financial management and strategic direction of the Multi Academy Trust.


This gap is amplified by the variance in skill set, where a classroom teacher is trained to support young people and the CEO and CFO are becoming removed from classrooms and playgrounds and operating as managers of people and finances.


Some CEOs even, have never taught a lesson, which is a point of debate but can be overcome as long as their management style does not lead to a disconnect between teachers on the ground and those working in the central Trust.


This potential disconnect is the source of much conflict generated mainly by a lack of understanding. Those in the classroom don’t understand why the school needs to incur so much cost in the middle to help them save money. Those in the middle can forget the difficulties faced by those on the frontline when resources are being cut by an knock on effect of the Treasury, the DfE, the LA and then the Trust itself receiving less funding for schools.


Unfortunately, too many Trusts find themselves in a situation where the connect between the local school and the central Trust has been lost. Neither side understands the finer details of the other and so it creates a feeling of distrust. In the best Trusts there is an open, transparent relationship between those involved in running schools which includes central Trust staff (CEOs, CFOs and COOs), Headteachers, Senior Staff and Staff working directly with children.


Like many relationships two key features of running a healthy Multi Academy Trust are essential to its smooth running. These two things are finances and governance. These two mechanisms ensure that there are clear lines of accountability, clear lines of delegation and clarity of how things are done around here. They should be robust enough to stand up to scrutiny by external auditors and internal governance functions.


So therefore the hidden challenges of being a successful CEO lie within ensuring that the MAT model is well communicated and well executed. When done well, this reduces the disconnect between local schools and central Trust staff, ensuring that there is a clear message evidenced in facts and figures that what you are attempting to achieve is in the best interest of children.


There doesn’t have to be any fancy logos or values driven mission statements from the MAT just a good honest message that what we do in the middle is in the best interest of the families and communities that we serve.


What can CEO’s do to overcome these challenges?


CEOs are ambassadors of this model who essentially are charged in providing a service for schools. They are there to serve and support and make decisions in the best interest of others which must be well communicated.


Corporate Financial Management and Corporate Governance are two essential drivers which must not be underestimated as these are a new and sometimes foreign language for many working in schools.


For this reason, CEOs must translate what these drivers mean in reality and how they benefit children. If a CEO can evidence the value of their position which includes others such as the CFO and the COO then the model works.


If the school cannot articulate how they benefit as part of their Trust then it is not working. The disconnect must be closed because the fundamental thinking behind MATs is right. It does generate savings. It does increase accountability and improved school improvement collaboration. It does send more funding towards the core purpose of providing a better experience for young people and the staff who work with them.


CEO’s just need to be better equipped and supported to carry out their key duties, roles and responsibilities.


5 things that CEO’s can do to increase levels of effectiveness


1. Read the DfE Handbooks for Finance and Governance


The DfE fully recognise that the key drivers to an effective MAT are good governance and good financial management which is why they have published two key documents which must act as core texts for the role of CEO. Also consider how the DfE handbooks translate into the reality of running your schools. Consider, what does financial management and corporate governance mean to the staff working in schools?


  2. Reflect on the core purpose of your MAT


Answer these two key questions – What is our core purpose and why do we exist? If you can’t answer this question and can’t include the word children in the answer then rethink or give up.

3. Communicate your Purpose


Take the core purpose of the MAT and ensure it is well communicated to all staff and students within the Trust without overshadowing the distinct identity of any one school. Let local schools have their own ‘earned autonomy’ but make sure there is a clear and transparent message that the MAT is there to help deliver improved outcomes for children.


4. Develop Transparency


Ensure your MAT develops an open and transparent culture of financial decision making through a collaborative governance model. While financial management is best placed in the middle this does not mean that decisions should be taken without the agreement of local schools.


The strategy can be centrally coordinated and designed but before implementation there needs to be a clear understanding of why things are being done, how budgets are set and why any reductions, increases or pooling in funding are being suggested.


5. Improve your Knowledge


Seek out opportunities to improve knowledge in the areas of corporate finance and governance. I myself started life, much to the amusement of friends and relatives, as someone who crawled around in the dirt and coloured in maps for a living. I was a proud geography teacher who has now almost 25 years later become a CEO.


I need to reflect on my original training and consider how can I lead an organisation without any formal training in financial management. For this reason I am currently studying for an MBA. It is giving me the confidence and the understanding that the business I am now running will not make decisions without my understanding and my ability to translate and communicate this back to those working on the front line.


I must never forget my roots and remember what life is like for those on the shop floor who are doing the most challenging job in teaching – changing young people’s lives.


Meeting the needs of MAT CEO’s


Our school leaders and teachers are involved in creating new and emboldened futures for our children and young people. However, we believe, with the ever-increasing pace of change in our schools, true and sustained educational excellence can only be achieved when the need to provide a first-class education for our young is accompanied by the need to meet the emotional, mental and vocational wellbeing of those who teach them.


Our children deserve nothing less than the best, but this can only be achieved when the hearts and minds of our school leaders and teachers are also nurtured and cared for.


We know that there are many Academy Trusts across the country who believe this too. That’s why we work with MAT CEOs to help them overcome the inherent challenges of building and leading in a MAT, so that they can create a family of schools that are characterised by…


– Open, constructive and honest communication

– High levels of emotional resilience and capacity for overcoming challenges

– Humanity, compassion and a deep commitment to the MAT’s vision and values

– A true love for learning in which personal transformation is possible

– Strong, supportive and nurturing relationships


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