Small village schools are a valuable educational asset. They lie at the heart of the rural communities that they serve and are well placed to nurture a child’s potential during early years, to connect learning with ethical values and to develop a sense of responsibility.
However, no matter how well such schools perform, in an era of shrinking public money smallness brings vulnerability - funding depends on pupil numbers so even minor fluctuations in these can have major effects on available resource. If a stand-alone school is not viable financially there is threat of closure.
It has been Government policy to encourage successful schools to reform along the lines of an independent business – to become self managed Academies, no longer under the control of the Local Authority but directly responsible to the Department of Education and centrally funded. This only becomes financially viable for schools of more than 350 pupils. Smaller schools seeking greater security must explore co-operation with others either by means of federation or by entering a Multi-Academy Trust.
A Federation is an example of a formal co-operative grouping of schools. Member schools remain under the jurisdiction of the Local Authority (LA) but there is a single Governing Body (GB) whose duties relate to all the schools in the federation. Each school will have its day to day running managed by a Head of School but in overall charge will be an Executive Head responsible for co-ordinating the work of the Heads of School and Senior Leadership teams and designing the business plans for member schools. It is common practice for federations to set up Local Advisory Bodies for each school. These generally will include a pair of Governors, a senior member of the school staff and up to four parents. Such a body has no executive powers but can alert the central GB to local issues and adds an extra conduit for internal communication. Schools in a Federation continue to be funded as separate bodies through their LA funding formula and staff are appointed in the usual way to work at specific school sites with their contracts held by County but they have the option of agreeing contractually to work on another site within the Federation if the need arises; this builds in considerable flexibility.
A Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) is a charitable company, limited by guarantee, and operating several schools. This allows combined size and funding to reach a level where the business model of an Academy can be applied so offers an alternative co-operative opportunity for small schools. Because a MAT is not run by the LA its member schools are not constrained by LA boundaries. It has three levels of management – Members, Trust Directors and Local GBs. The Members are akin to shareholders and have ultimate control over the MAT. Trust Directors determine its direction and development and Local Governors are appointed for each member school with specific duties delegated to them by the Trust Board.
Academies, MATs and Maintained schools receive the same level of funding for each pupil on their registers but because MATs must ‘buy in’ some services that are automatically provided by the LA for maintained schools they are given an additional annual sum to cover this and a ‘start-up sum of £25,000 in recognition of the legal costs of setting up the business. The annual accounts of the MAT are presented as company accounts and these must be audited and approved before submission to the Educational Funding Agency. Maintained (Federated) schools submit budget monitoring reports (DES) to County.
There are other significant operational differences.
MATs receive funding for its member schools as a single allocation. Federated schools retain their own individual budgets.
Contracts for staff are issued by the MAT Trust Board; Federation contracts are issued by each school.
MATs must ensure consistency across their schools in such areas as budgeting, procurement procedures and curriculum. Federations may choose to do this also but there is less central control.
Decisions and future planning for a MAT reflect the need of the organisation as a whole. In a Federation there can be greater accommodation of individual needs and preferences.
Federated schools will continue to be inspected separately by Ofsted; the schools in a MAT will be inspected individually but considered jointly.
MATs and Federations do share some of the advantages of a co-operative format. They both allow small schools to appoint and have access to a wider range of professional expertise. There is greater flexibility in placing staff where they are most needed though for Federations, this must not remove allocated funds from one school to another. There are improved opportunities for Continuing Professional Development, cross site institution of ‘best practice’ and time saved through policy alignment. An agreed curriculum can be delivered across MAT or Federation schools. All these advantages should result in improvements in teaching and learning. Financial security is strengthened because the increase in total numbers of pupils in a multi school organisation will blunt the effects of a temporary drop in the roll at an individual school. A cross site business manager can be appointed and there may be economies of scale through joint bulk ordering and the multi- site provision of services - better value for money spent. Re-constitution of the Governance structure which both types of organisation must undergo and the appointment of an Executive Head will result in stronger senior management. There can be a creative shared vision for the future.
The two major differences relate to finance and commercial ‘mindset’. The overtly business structure of a MAT gives greater freedom to be entrepreneurial. Decisions in relation to future planning will reflect the needs of the organisation as a whole. Funding is allocated centrally from the DoE as a single payment relating to the total number of children in the MAT schools and the exact distribution of this sum across the schools will be related to long term development plans for the MAT. Member schools are seen primarily as part of a whole contrasting with the Federation ‘Co-operation of individuals’ ethos.
Many schools have decided to move directly into a Multi-Academy Trust; the Abbas Federation schools had reasons for not choosing to do so. Most such MATs are created by groups of schools often cross phase (taking different age groups) and of varying size who decide to bind themselves together as a single event. This necessitates a huge and complex re-organisation for the participating schools – staff re-assignment, new job descriptions and some new appointments, re-arrangements of the Senior Leadership teams and alignment of curriculum and policies. The budget allocations for each school will stem from a single lump sum – this requires skilled business management and an intimate knowledge of member schools’ budgetary requirements. Such detail may take time to install effectively in the system. The Trust Board must decide which services (not now provided by the LA) must be bought in and from whom. The Governance structure must be completely revised with the appointment of Members, the Trust Board together with Local Governing Bodies for each school in the MAT. All this presents the management with a formidable mix of decisions and tasks which must be completed in a limited period of time. Furthermore, if the organisation contains schools of varying sizes and complexity, particularly if there are cross phase schools, there may be problems of balance – will every school have an equal say in corporate decisions?
Federations by contrast can be extended school by school with each new school only added after successful integration of the previous one. This allows the co-operative to adjust to each phase of enlargement - to review policy, practice and the skill mix across the Federation and how best to deploy it. Federations retain the support of the Local Authority and keep their own separate budgets reducing the risk of falling into deficit. Whilst federation schools do not have the financial freedom of a MAT they retain individual personality and have equality within the organisation.
Though it is difficult to quantify, there is probably an upper limit to the size (a function of the number of participating schools and the sum of their pupils) at which a federation can be effectively sustained by its governance structure. Beyond this, the three tier MAT system, with the overall supervisory input from Members and the devolution of some duties and responsibilities from the central Trust Board to Local Governing Bodies, becomes an increasingly attractive and efficient way to run the organisation. However, passing through a phase of federation, where member schools are still supported by the Local Authority and in charge of their own budgets, allows the embedding of defined relationships and working practice. This establishes an atmosphere of trust - a secure starting point for the increased interdependency required of schools in a MAT.