Discussion Paper on Federation and Multi Academy Trust Status
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 to ethics and to develop a sense of responsibility.
However, though smallness may be allied to excellence, it also brings vulnerability – funding depends largely on pupil numbers and minor fluctuations which might be hardly noticed at a large school can, for a small school have a major effect on budget management. 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 Local Authority control but directly responsible to the Department for Education and centrally funded. This only becomes financially viable for schools of more than 400 pupils. Smaller schools seeking greater security must explore co-operation with others either by means of an informal Collaboration, by Federation (a legal partnership but with financial independence) or by entering a Multi Academy Trust (MAT).
Maintained schools – those still under the control of the Local Authority - may choose to work co-operatively together in an informal way. Such collaborations have no legal basis and are not binding but they are nevertheless capable of delivering significant advantages to the participating schools.
Alternatively, they may choose to enter into a Federation with other Maintained schools. Federated schools are bound by a binding legal agreement defining the permitted areas of joint and of individual activity along with the management structure. Member schools retain their Maintained school status and remain under the jurisdiction of the Local Authority (LA) but they share a single Governing Body (GB) whose duties relate to all schools in the Federation. Each school in a Federation has its day to day running managed by a Head of School with an Executive Head(EH) in overall management of the group. The EH co-ordinates the work of the Heads of School and the Senior Leadership Teams and designs the business plans for the schools. Schools in a Federation continue to be funded as separate bodies through their DfE/ 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 to work on another site within the Federation if the need arises. Work done on any site is paid for by the school that holds the contract of the member of staff. This builds in considerable flexibility to match changes in cross site work- loads.
A Multi Academy Trust is a charitable company limited by guarantee and operating several schools. This allows the combined size and funding to reach a level where the business model of a single Academy can apply. Because a MAT is not run by the LA its member schools are not constrained by LA geographical boundaries. It has three levels of management – Members, Trustees and local GBs. The Members are akin to shareholders and have ultimate control of the MAT. Trust Directors determine its direction and development and local GBs 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 of the services that would be provided by the LA for Maintained schools they are given an additional ‘start-up’ payment in recognition of the legal costs of setting up a business. The annual accounts of a MAT or Academy are presented as company accounts and must be audited and approved before submission to the Education Funding Agency. Maintained schools submit budget monitoring reports to the LA.
There are other significant operational differences between MATs and maintained schools:
- A MAT receives funding for its member schools as a single allocation from the DfE which is then allocated to the member schools by internal arrangement. All Maintained schools whatever their co-operative orientation continue to have separate budget allocations via the LA.
- Contracts for all MAT staff are issued by the MAT Trust Board. Maintained schools each appoint their own staff informing the LA Human Resources department of the details; HR then issue the contract.
- MATs must ensure a degree of consistency across their member schools in such areas as budgeting, procurement procedures and curriculum ethos and delivery. Federations and Collaborations may choose to do this but there is less central control.
- Decisions and future planning for a MAT reflect the needs of the organization as a whole. For co-operating maintained schools there is greater accommodation of individual needs, preferences and character.
- Maintained schools will be assessed separately by Ofsted. The schools in a MAT will be inspected individually but considered jointly so poor performance at one-member school will inevitably reflect badly on the central management of the MAT.
There are some advantages to small schools in having a legal framework for co-operative grouping (working in a Federation or MAT). Both arrangements allow the member schools to have access to a wider range of professional staff. with greater flexibility for placing staff where they are most needed to cope with varying needs of pupils though, in the case of Federations, this must not move allocated funds from one school to another. There are opportunities for cross-site (‘in-house’) Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and staff that have undergone specialized training can cascade down this knowledge to other staff in the organization. Similarly, ‘best practice’ working can be agreed and shared. Curriculum strategies and policy alignment cam also save valuable time and there is clarity from a shared and consistent approach. All this should improve teaching and learning at the schools. Financial security is strengthened because the increase in total numbers of pupils within the organization will blunt the financial effects of a temporary drop in numbers at an individual member school. Some posts will take on work for the whole group, for example the EH and perhaps a cross-site business manager, and there may be savings from bulk ordering of goods and services – better value for money. There can be a creative shared vision for the future.
However, a legal con-joining of schools and the consequent required changes in management structure that are required can create problems. The post of Executive Head requires specialist training and a flexibility of approach that can encompass the mainly business an organizational content of the post. The differentiation of roles and responsibilities between the EH and Head of School must be kept in sharp focus but, even then, parents and other staff may feel unsure of ‘who is in charge of their school’. A Federation of schools must have a single Governing Body but, for the GB to remain effective this will limit the number of schools that can be accommodated in the Federation and the sheer volume of business to be handled for several schools may require an increase in the frequency of GB and Subcommittee meetings Bearing in mind that the GB consists of a group of unpaid volunteers many of whom are in full time jobs there is an upper, if ill defined, limit to the size at which a Federation can be effectively sustainable. Beyond this, the three tier system MAT structure of management with overall supervisory input from the Members and the cascading of duties and responsibilities down through the Trust Board to the individual GBs becomes an increasingly efficient way to run the organization
Many small first or primary schools are church schools – either Voluntary Controlled (VC) or Voluntary Assisted (VA). Salisbury Diocese have strict rules relating to the appointment of Foundation governors (these are governors appointed by the church) a different proportion of Foundation governors is required for each of these church school types thus preventing federation between them. This seriously limits options for federation partners along with the inbuilt limits of geographical location. MAT schools are not constrained by County boundaries but the Diocesan ‘Foundation’ appointment rules apply also to a MAT Trust Board albeit in a modified form and this may be problematic. Each school in a MAT retains a separate GB but the powers devolved to this are limited by the Trust Board. This partial disenfranchising of the GB may stifle motivation and lead to parents feeling distanced from the organization managing their child’s education. MATs are generally cross-phase, that is they contain primary (first) and secondary schools. If an organization contains schools of different sizes and complexity, there may be problems of balance – will every school (and particularly small first schools) have an equal say in corporate decisions?
This leads on to the two major differences between Maintained schools and those in MATs – finance and commercial ‘mindset’. The overtly business structure of a MAT gives greater freedom to be entrepreneurial. Decisions relating to future planning will reflect the needs of the organization as a whole and ‘brand image’ will be an important consideration. Funding from the DfE for MAT schools is calculated in the same way as in maintained schools but is received by the MAT as a lump sum thence to be distributed to the member schools. With business ethos as a driver small schools with a relatively high cost per pupil could be at risk of cost saving measures being imposed, perhaps restricting professional services on that school site. Whether this could, in extreme cases lead to closure is a moot point but uncertainty hanging over a school struggling financially will affect staff and parents
All this presents a small rural school with difficult choices. The individuality of a rural school, its close relationship with the local community, the small classes and the bespoke teaching that can be offered to its pupils – this could be at risk if Cerne Abbas school joined a MAT and, having previously been frustrated in an attempt to set up a Federation and exposed to the potential disadvantages of this form of co-operation there is no wish to repeat the exercise.
However, in the current educational and economic environment, small stand-alone schools are at risk. This leaves the third co-operative option of Collaboration. This has no legal framework – co-operating schools work together within a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ but if relationships between Head Teachers are good and they share the same philosophy and work ethos then many of the advantages of MATs and Federations can be achieved largely without the disadvantages. Internal CPD, access to the experience of a widened staff skill mix, cross site institution of best practice, cross site sharing of policies, joint Senior Leadership team meetings, cross site benefit from staff training schemes, sharing of problems and problem solving, a rise in confidence levels and a drop in a perception of isolation – all these are potentially available.
For all these reasons, the Learning First Alliance (LFA) of informally co-operating schools has been created. Currently it consists of four local First Schools – Cerne Abbas, Cheselbourne, Prince of Wales and Broadmayne. The Alliance is not expected to save money but will increase value for money and, crucially it will improve Teaching and Learning at all the member schools while conserving the individual character of each.
The GB at Cerne Abbas School will always monitor and be responsive to changes in the educational environment; at present the LFA offers the best option for safeguarding the continuing existence and development of the school.
Chair of Governors
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