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.
Disconnect between Schools and Central Trust
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.
Finances and Governance
On top of this, 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.
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. To do this, there are 5 few 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 – 1) What is our core purpose and 2) 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.
COVID 19 – The Challenges of Leading a MAT in times of Uncertainty
Even at the best of times, MATs face a number of issues as they seek to raise and maintain standards across their family of schools.
In my experience, challenges typically centre around relationships, people management and harnessing experience and skills within their team for the collective good.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak has presented MAT CEO’s with an unprecedented array of challenges. The implications of which are far-reaching and will have transformed most aspects of academy life.
Consequently, for many, this period of intense transition and uncertainty has been characterised by feelings of anxiety, doubt and worry. The impact of which is still very much in evidence across all levels of our school communities.
Whilst staff navigate new ways of working and indeed new relationships with one another, attention still needs to be given to new systems, roles, policies and practices that will shape the ‘new normal’.
Amidst all of this, what mustn’t be forgotten is that Executive Leadership in these times has been traumatic for many. Many a CEO has had to had to carry a huge emotional weight and work extended hours to ensure that no stone had been left unturned. It has not been easy.
Time to properly process, unpick and formulate a strategic response to the wide range of issues that have arisen has been in short supply.
Executive Leaders need time to consider the impact this crisis has had across their communities, so they can reflect in depth on the foundations that need to be put in place to support their leaders, staff and pupils alike when they return in September.
It is for this reason, we are now offering free 30 minute 1:1 MAT Executive Leadership Sessions.
These sessions are designed to provide MAT CEOs with a strategic planning space where executive leaders can:
– Develop a deeper insight into the impact and key learnings from the last few months, personally and professionally
– Find solutions to fit your current context and challenges faced
– Consider new ways of working and internal system change that will be needed to accommodate life in the ‘new normal’
– Build a greater understanding of your support and well-being needs of both themselves and their school community
– Identify the best strategies for strengthening relationships with colleagues and the wider community