Can a new generation of trusts blend centralisation with autonomy?

Centralisation versus autonomy is a debate which has raged since the earliest days of the academy movement. There is a view that schools risk losing their independence by belonging to a multi-academy trust (MAT) – in fact, many would argue that the power of MATs is that all the schools in the group exist interdependently and work together to achieve the best outcomes for pupils. Leora Cruddas, CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts, explores how MATs can find a balance that works for them

Financial resilience remains one of the most important issues for trust leaders. Most would acknowledge that, by centralising processes, trusts are better placed to save money, work efficiently and bolster their buying power.

Healthier finances
This collaborative approach not only strengthens a trust in uncertain financial times, but it also allows funds to be channelled back into teaching and learning. Daniel Moore, finance director of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Multi-Academy Trust, sees that collective buying power gives his trust added clout, which delivers cost savings.

“Before we formally centralised, we had something of a trial run with a couple of large contracts,” explains Daniel. “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.”

It’s when these savings have a positive impact in the classroom that centralisation becomes an increasingly attractive option – as Sarah Appleby, finance director of the River Learning Trust, has found. “I think anything that makes our team here more efficient will be welcomed,” she says. “If centralisation of some key tasks saves us time and money, that time and money can be reinvested into teaching pupils and improving outcomes.”

Working together
While an efficient, centralised management model can strengthen a trust’s financial position, and drive efficiency, the important point is that it can provide a better environment for teaching and learning, too. Joining a strong and sustainable structure is often in the best interests of making every child a powerful learner and creating the conditions for teachers and leaders to work together.

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However, trust leaders shouldn’t underestimate the local knowledge that exists at school level. School business managers often have extensive experience that can complement the skills of a trust’s central team.

“We blend the local knowledge that the school has – which is invaluable – with the technical and accounting knowledge of the central school business partner,” Sarah explains.

Best of both worlds
This method of blending a centralised team with hubs can work well, furnishing a trust with a pool of knowhow to draw upon; Daniel agrees that there are some clear benefits in strengthening central leadership with local management input. “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 could be that we are starting to see a new hybrid model, where MATs are finding a middle way, allowing centralisation and autonomy to exist in harmony, tapping into central and local expertise and aligning responsibilities.

As each trust is different, a blended approach can lead to a management structure that works best for the pupils, staff and communities of the schools because everyone in a trust – regardless of size, structure or location – is working towards a common goal – improved educational outcomes.

For more information, download the PS Financials white paper, Checks and Balance, which examines how MATs can find a balance between centralisation and autonomy.

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