Cost saving as a Multi-Academy Trust

Let’s take that question of capital costs. Typically, schools and academies provide services to students and staff via hardware-based server systems. Adding, upgrading or replacing servers often requires considerable capital expenditure. By moving to Cloud-based systems, academies can shift that burden to free or low-cost software, and much more friendly revenue models. Added to that, there are sizable savings to be made in electricity costs. It might even be possible to free up the server room as an extra teaching and learning space!

This move to the Cloud is one that’s driven by commercial vendors themselves. Recently, Microsoft and the DfE announced a new ‘Education Cloud Transition Agreement’ to extend the current Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that gives schools and academies substantial discounts on Microsoft licences. Microsoft say this will enable its “UK education customers to transition to the cloud and take advantage of Microsoft free Online Services e.g. Office 365 Education.” There’s a bit of a stick behind this carrot as the current Volume Licensing discounts for existing customers expire after July 20182 . In other words, if you’re a Microsoft customer, move to Office 365 soon or be prepared to pay more.

Pleasingly, this is one of the rare occasions where saving money can also bring benefits; cloud-based systems enable students and staff to access learning materials, documents and means of communication on a wide range of devices – no longer tied to specific devices on internal networks.

Google for Education or Office 365 both provide free suites of tools that, regardless of the device being used, enables all users to get the same experience. Students and staff can work on documents both individually and collaboratively as everything is easily accessible, regardless of the location or device they are using. Using cloud-based services in this way can help to improve the speed and ease of access to materials in the classroom, extend learning beyond the classroom, improve student-engagement, and even support new models of pedagogy – such as ‘flipped learning’. Furthermore, moving to the cloud frees up budget to buy more low-cost mobile devices such as Chromebooks or to develop Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes.

So, from a gloomy start, have we found a pleasing symmetry of reduced costs and improved learning and teaching tools? Possibly. But not without a clear ICT vision and strategy. Your Strategic ICT Plan will provide a clear route to achieving your vision; for example in planning not only for the removal of server technology but also associated costs such as technical support. This latter aspect of ICT spend can be considerable. RM Education’s 2015 research3 suggested that an ‘average’ school, with 693 pupils on roll, spends at least £93,555 per annum on ICT support – that’s £135 per student! Because cloud-based solutions have no local servers to support and repair – there’s an opportunity to save ongoing costs here too.

These opportunities to reduce costs extend beyond the single academy. There are potential benefits from the economies of scale that an academy chain can bring, for example in sharing ICT support across the Trust, volume purchasing and negotiating preferred ICT agreements. RM Education is the preferred ICT provider to The Academies Enterprise Trust (AET). For the past few years, RM has worked closely with the Trust to move some its academies to server-less and cloud-based solutions. The expectation is that, over five years, the Trust will save £900,077 in costs as well as a staggering £7,701,044 in additional benefit savings4.

First published May 2016 at RM Education

Multi-Academy Trusts – Building a Foundation for Sustainable Growth

Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) share many of the same characteristics as other organisations in industry and commerce – sectors that benefit from a wealth of experience, research and management expertise to help understand factors essential for sustainable growth. For industry, there’s certainly no shortage of financial models (e.g. the ‘Higgins Sustainable Growth Model’) to calculate a company’s sustainable or optimal growth rate. However, although there are many points of comparison, there are differences in some of the drivers of organisational development. Commercial businesses, for example, can be driven by short-term profits, dividend-rewarded rapid growth and the need to pursue immediate market opportunities. And, although business partnerships can thrive, commercial organisations are, generally, driven by competition – not collaboration. As not-for-profit educational organisations, MATs find themselves in a distinctive position where models of sustainable growth are formed, not only by financial factors, as with business organisations, but also by wider social, moral and organisational considerations. These can be summarised as follows:

Leadership. In business models, leadership is, perhaps, the most commonly identified characteristic of successful growth. Leadership contributes to, shapes and directs the strategic vision and growth plans of the organisation.  A well-communicated and well-implemented strategic vision enables each academy to contribute to the Trust’s vision and ensures that each supporting strategy is mapped against successful outcomes for young people. Effective leadership also extends the social and moral responsibilities of the Trust through a commitment to and partnership with others in education. For example, in providing support for new or developing MATs.

Governance. At the organisational level, another key foundation stone for sustainable growth is a model of governance with clear and agreed distinctions at Trust and local governing body level. Clear delegation and direction of responsibilities provide the necessary framework for ownership, transparency and accountabilities. Louise Thomson, Head of Policy at ‘ICSA: The Governance Institute’, has blogged in detail on this topic, “Sound subsidiary governance is essential to ensure that … arrangements are appropriate for the size and complexity of the organisation. For a multi-academy trust, the board needs to be sure that each of its academies is operating in a manner consistent with the direction and leadership set by the board, while being suitably flexible to deal with local cultures and situations.”1

Effective organisational governance helps to entrench the social and moral responsibilities of the Trust as it grows by translating mission and vision statements into best practice.

Best Practice. Organisationally, existing good practice provides one of the foundation stones for future growth; for example in taking best practice from one academy and replicating this across all academies in the Trust. To give a specific example, Quality Assurance (QA) systems embedded successfully in one academy provide an opportunity for these to be extended across the Trust.

Extending best practice helps provide consistency and well-understood processes to enable the MAT as a whole to grow.

If social, moral and organisational factors determine the success of a MATs growth, it is the financial element that enables or constrains the Trust’s ability to achieve and sustain this. At its simplest, economies of scale only begin to operate above a certain threshold. Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner, recently provided some insight into this.2   By calculating, at the Trust level, total student population, pupil income, and a 5% contribution to running the central team and support structure, he models the impact on MATs of different scale. The conclusion seems to be that 1200 students in a MAT is the smallest viable number. This has inevitable implications, particularly for primary-focused and smaller MATs.

MATs have social and moral commitments different to those of commercial organisations. Finance, as David Carter has shown, is indeed a critical factor, but the growth of a Trust should not be measured solely by its economic size. The real measure is in the scope and ability of the Trust to enable all its academies to contribute richly to its communities; enhance the experiential quality of life in its academies; develop the talents and capabilities of staff; and, crucially, extend the life opportunities of its young people.

1 https://www.academyambassadors.org/news/question-balance-subsidiary-governance-multi-academy-trusts

2 Sir David Carter “United We Stand. An Insight into Multi-Academy Trusts”, March 2016. Available from http://www.ascl.org.uk/utilities/document-summary.html?id=9E3709F8-4535-4972-84C920275C52EBBA

First published April 2016 at RM Education

Implementing school improvement through innovation in multi-academy trusts

Put simply, the argument for autonomy is that previous and well-established models for running schools have led to underachievement, underperformance and coasting. As Minister of State for Education, Nick Gibb, described it recently, “The only way to challenge such schools is innovation through autonomy.”

That linking of autonomy and innovation, that freedom to do things differently, is both liberating and potentially dangerous. The risk is that innovation becomes confused with novelty; that the potential for greater educational achievement gets lost in the quest for originality. To avoid such risks, innovation needs to be (i) visionary and (ii) informed.

1. Visionary

The importance of vision is recognised in many studies of successful innovation in business; for example, in one study reported in the Harvard Business Review1 the ability of business leaders to “Display excellent strategic vision” rated as the top of ten key characteristics: “The most effective innovation leaders could vividly describe their vision of the future.”

To return to Nick Gibb, he has also characterised the best MATs as having “…a clear vision and a distinct model of teaching. I would encourage all new academy chains not to see themselves only in terms of being effective administrators, or competent managers. They should also be bound by a philosophical and pedagogical vision.”

Although it is likely that they will share similarities, the distinctive nature of that philosophical and pedagogical vision will differ from MAT to MAT. Perhaps in one it is driven by a focus on inquiry-based learning; perhaps in another the focus is on empowering middle leaders. These differences emerge because the implementation of that vision is itself part of the vision – knowing how to get there is as important as knowing where to go.

To get there, successful and truly innovative MATs will adapt the pace and direction of change to the context of the academy and/or MAT. This isn’t just about the management of deficiencies but also about the ability of the Trust to adapt to change and to maintain and share momentum across the MAT as a whole. It’s something Sir David Carter, National Schools Commissioner, identifies as a characteristic of successful and leading MATs; that they can improve the majority of their “schools to the point at which those that were once weak now have capacity and strength to support new schools joining the MAT or schools beyond the Trust. They can also peer review with confidence other schools in the trust.”

2. Informed

Successful innovation responds to feedback from a variety of sources. This starts with the use of a range of quantitative data for different purposes: self-evaluation, accountability, target-setting, performance management, SEN, admissions, financial management, and so on… Key to this too, is the distribution and intelligent use of data across the organisation – for all members of the MAT. This includes governors and advisory boards using top-level dashboards to gain an aggregated view of MAT or academy performance. It includes subject teachers using it for formative assessment and target setting discussions with students. It should also include individual academy departments using data for cross-MAT comparison of subject performance and the analysis of specific pupil groups.

Running parallel to this use of quantitative data are other well-established feedback mechanisms such as internal inspections, peer reviews, lesson observations, learning walks and so on. These gain more traction and significance when deployed and shared across the MAT; for example when teachers from different academies work together to raise attainment for specific groups of pupils, agreeing what progress looks like, and sharing best practice to achieve this.

With an informed vision, the risk of aimless innovation is significantly mitigated. However, nowhere is that risk greater than in the deployment of educational ICT where too often schools (and governments) have pursued inventive (and expensive) technological solutions almost in an act of faith, believing that the investment alone will yield rewards. That’s an entirely avoidable and unforgivable position today. Indeed, ICT is now the basis of the essential tool set to achieve that informed vision for effective innovation. I would go as far as to say that Trust-wide innovation is simply not possible without the efficient use of ICT. As an example, technology can facilitate highly effective and clear quality assurance systems (both quantitative and qualitative) to improve consistency and performance across the Trust. And, as a final example, technology can enable and strengthen meaningful collaboration across the Trust for leaders, teachers and students through highly cost-effective and easily accessible cloud-hosted online platforms.

Autonomy brings both freedoms and increased responsibilities. The prevailing view is that school autonomy creates the most fertile conditions for innovative practices to drive improvement.  Perhaps it is not such a new view. After all, as Darwin himself said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

First published April 2016 at RM Education

Trust-Centred Student Collaboration

Shared Professional Development

  1. Michael Fullan, The New Meaning Of Educational Change
  2. Video Enhanced Observation, by Newcastle University https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/veo-video-enhanced-observation/id879990335?mt=8
  3. Michael Fullan, All Systems Go: The Change Imperative for Whole System Reform

First published November 2015 at RM Education