Four MAT trends to watch out for in 2022

This blog is written by Will Jordan is Co-Founder of IMP Software

Baroness Diana Barran, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for the School System), has stressed the DfE’s continued vision of all schools joining MATs. In a recent interview with Schools Week, the minister took the opportunity to urge strong maintained schools to launch MATs and revealed how the government is investigating different operating models to see which produce the best outcomes.

From these comments, it is clear that a major part of the sector landscape in 2022 will be the growth of MATs and an increase in merger approvals. There are four issues and trends we should watch out for.

1. Evolution in MAT formation policies

It may be a coincidence, but a week before Baroness Barran’s interview at the Schools and Academies Show, the DfE released new research which found that the rate of academy conversions in the next three years will be “limited to a steady rate” and is “unlikely to increase” without any change to current policies.

The study, titled ‘Schools’ views on the perceived benefits and obstacles to joining a multi-academy trust’, reported that the vast majority of recent converters – 82 percent of primary and 74 percent of secondary schools – said the overall impact of joining a MAT has been positive.

There are, however, other headline findings in the report that provide ammunition for harder policies to be introduced on joining MATs. For example, it was found that around 60 percent of primaries and 70 percent of secondaries finding the process “challenging”. Additionally, 13 percent of maintained primaries and 22 percent of maintained secondaries were considering converting to academy status. Two thirds of standalone academies said that not joining a MAT was an “active decision” from the school.

2. Providing evidence that MATs work

The same DfE research says: “There is potential to increase awareness and raise expectations of these benefits amongst schools that are not part of MATs.”

Whilst recent convertors reported issues around dealing with objections from parents or staff, difficulty adapting to new processes, increased workload, reduced control over finances, reduction in autonomy, taking longer to get things done and volume of paperwork, the advantages of conversion were seen to outweigh these. The research adds that if the DfE wants to implement its vision of having all schools in a strong MAT then “evidencing the positive experiences of schools in MATs will be critical”.

Through the 120+ MATs that we work with, we see the many benefits that can be achieved by working more collaboratively across a trust. Schools benefit from strategic financial management as a larger, integrated entity as opposed to an aggregation of individual schools. They are also able to allocate resources based upon need rather than a formulaic funding formula, which is a route that more trusts are adopting to ensure they can offer the right support at the right time.

Whilst we are seeing and hearing the benefits that this collaborative approach can bring, we are also perhaps seeing a ‘lukewarm’ view on this becoming more widespread due to concerns on how messages around greater collaboration can be balanced with the not insignificant number of schools who see this as a direct trade-off against their autonomy. There is further work to be done to demonstrate how a responsible and collaborative approach to financial management, potentially combined with financial pooling, can provide an overall benefit for schools.

3. Greater MAT accountability and scrutiny

In August 2021, the ESFA released guidance stating that academies can expect tougher checks on their finances, including “more detailed questioning” from auditors. Then in November, Baroness Barran said that “we want to take a careful look at how we hold trusts to account and ensure they deliver value for money”. MAT boards, who must receive monthly management accounts to enable them to scrutinise accordingly, should have these words ringing in their ears.

Our MAT budgeting, financial management and reporting software, IMP Planner, has systemised the entire monthly reporting process. It joins the historic finance actuals with the detailed, real-time, forward-looking forecast data automatically, enabling trust finance teams to focus on the analysis, not the preparation. This ensures that trustees and senior executive leaders have high quality, digestible information to understand the trust’s financial performance, so that boards can deliver effective oversight.

4. Planning with continued uncertainty

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has already changed the landscape of financial management for academies and trusts. While some schools have been able to make some savings on maintenance and supply costs, many have also faced an increase in expenditure from investing heavily in technology to limit disruption to pupils’ education. Additionally, partial school closures have meant there have been fewer opportunities for income generation, negatively impacting revenue and financial planning. Concerns over teachers’ pay following the Autumn 2021 Budget, and costs resulting from the forthcoming government white paper setting out the next stage of system reforms, are also creating uncertainty, even though the government has allocated an extra £7.1 billion for schools in England through to 2022/2023.

Effective support and efficient financial strategies for MAT and academy finances are absolutely essential. In April I am speaking at the Academy Financial Management Conference about centralised approaches to MAT financial management, including GAG/financial pooling.

The ‘mood music’, and expectations around a process for eventually moving to a system where all schools are in a MAT, leads us to want to explore further. This includes exploring the appetite for centralisation within trust finance/operations and whether GAG/financial pooling will be looked at to help maximise the support that growing MATs can offer their schools. Or indeed, whether this potential growth, and the need to be an ‘attractive home’ for schools who are looking to join a MAT, is actually impacting the strategies that might have otherwise been employed.

We have now launched our own survey, and we would like to hear from MAT finance/operations leaders to help shape our latest research. Click here to check the survey out.