Policy Roundtable Report 3: Sustainability through an age of austerity

Forum Strategy runs five regional networks for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of multi-academy trusts (MATs); in the East Midlands, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, the South Midlands and London, and the West Midlands; involving almost 100 MATs across the country. We also run a leadership programme for new and aspirant CEOs and provide a range of strategic consultancy services to MATs and charities. 

Forum’s third #MATLeaders policy roundtable event took place in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, on 15th November 2018. This latest roundtable focused on the sustainability of academy trusts in an era of continuing austerity, considering how trusts are using their scale, expertise and reach to find new solutions that achieve better value for money and improved quality of provision for pupils. In order to gain the views and perspectives of MAT leaders in this important area, Forum Strategy posed the following key questions to those MAT CEOs, trustees and others attending the event:

  1. How are trusts maximising their resources and expertise to improve pupils’ education experiences, whilst achieving better value for money?
  2. What kind of skills, expertise and experience is necessary to maximise resources within and across trusts, whilst generating additional income and social capital to benefit pupils?
  3. How can government (aside from increasing funding!) better support trusts to achieve innovation and create sustainable services for themselves and the wider system? What are the risks, and how can governance and ethical leadership ensure a values-led approach to new organisational models?

The discussion at the roundtable event has informed a report and a set of conclusions / recommendations, which can be accessed here: Forum Strategy Policy Roundtable Report 3 Sustainability through austerity

You can read press coverage of our previous #MATLeaders roundtable events here:


Report conclusions in summary:

The discussion at the roundtable event has informed the following key points which it was felt should be considered by colleagues across the MAT sector, as well as the Department for Education, in order to inform their consideration of and planning for sustainability during an era of ongoing austerity:

Maximising resources and expertise:

  1. There is great scope for individual MATs and the wider sector to realise greater efficiencies and to generate income from a wide range of provision (keeping more funding within the sector). However, this must be driven by the needs of children and young people at its heart, and must not be ethically at odds with this moral purpose.
  2. When considering the potential to develop and provide/sell a service, MATs (or groups of MATs) need to ensure they first test the market to determine whether there is a genuine need for what they are planning to offer, and whether this is likely to be sustainable over the longer term.
  3. MATs should not be afraid to offer traded services, provided that any surplus funds are ploughed back into the MAT and its schools. Indeed, trading in order to generate additional revenue and ensure the ongoing viability of important services is common in the charity sector. MATs are often able to provide key services at a reduced cost to other MATs and schools, and to a high standard. MATs and their boards must carefully consider the legal implications of trading and adhere to these. The ‘cost’ of ensuring this – assuming it is reasonable – should be considered as an investment in long-term sustainability.
  4. MAT leaders and boards should consider whether their trust leadership teams have become too ‘top-heavy’ (perhaps in preparation for anticipated growth which has not yet been realised) and how staffing arrangements at the centre could be made more efficient and sustainable. MATs should also consider whether they have the right people ‘on the bus’ given the growth they are experiencing / have experienced and the demand for more sustainable and innovative delivery models. It was considered that, whilst recognising that senior financial expertise is essential, many CEOs would benefit from the wider remit and operational delivery experience of a Chief Operating Officer in addition to / or instead of a Chief Finance Officer. The CFO role could perhaps be revisited in some trusts so that a senior financial director or manager reports to the COO instead.
  5. It is important that MATs do more to regularly audit the skills, talents and experiences of staff, and how these may contribute to the work of multi-academy trusts and their schools through ‘talent directories’. HR leaders within trusts should seek to identify these additional or complementary skills of both teachers and support staff in order to ensure strategic recruitment, filling gaps in additional skills that may benefit schools across the trust. One example cited included recruiting site managers across schools with complementary skills and experiences – as joiners, electricians and plumbers – so that the trust can better draw upon and deploy ‘in house’ resource across schools according to need and expertise. This approach is often driven by a good Chief Operating Officer – a role that can readily bring HR and procurement together with finance and new models of service delivery. MATs should also think about how they might use the existing expertise and experience across the MAT to offer a wider range of training and development opportunities, as well as developing more ‘in house’ services for schools. This audit should extend to administrative staff, premises staff, teaching assistants, and others.
  6. Recognise that, as the employer, the trust board has a responsibility to challenge where they consider efficiencies and/or income could be made, as well as to ensure the wellbeing and motivation of all staff within the trust. Many MATs still demonstrate unnecessary duplication of roles across schools – particularly with regard to administrative, technical support and site management roles.
  7. When considering whether and how to partner with another MAT or organisation to deliver shared services, always start discussions on the basis of competition – that way you can be open and transparent about the areas where you are in direct competition, and then rapidly move the discussion on to where there may be opportunities for partnership and mutual benefits.



    Skills and experience:

    1. There needs to be a shift in mind-set within the MAT sector to adopt a more (ethical) entrepreneurial approach and be willing to be brave and take calculated risks, in particular with regard to income generation through services that also benefit pupils.
    2. MATs need to consider how they might collaborate with regard to fundraising opportunities, as well as with regard to bidding for funding. MATs must also be discerning about what they bid for in a climate where it is tempting to pursue multiple opportunities for funding. Some funding streams are not sustainable as – whilst tempting in an era of tighter funding – they may not be aligned with their wider organisational strategy or business plans.
    3. MAT trustees can play an important role in generating social capital within their communities to the benefit of trusts and their schools – whilst also being mindful of potential conflicts of interest. Where this happens, it should be recognised and celebrated by trusts and the DfE.
    4. Trusts should acknowledge that individual schools within MATs know their communities better than those at the centre – and are therefore better placed to consider how best to engage their communities in the activities (including fundraising and opportunities for volunteerism) of both the school and wider MAT. MATs should think carefully about the remit of their local advisory / governing boards in generating local social and professional capital.
    5. MATs should consider how developing closer links with the commercial sector can not only increase the skills available to MATs (including via membership on trust boards) but can also open up opportunities to engage with such organisations’ CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities – potentially generating a regular additional source of income through sponsored events.
    6. All MATs should replicate the successful approach of many HEIs in devising schemes to maintain contact with their school/MAT alumni – again, with potential benefits from both fundraising and social capital perspectives.
    7. MAT CEOs should consider appointing a well-qualified COO early on in the MAT’s development, and be open to looking beyond the sector and paying a bit more to secure the right individual for the role – they may well be able to make their own salary back (and more) once established through the efficiencies they achieve and the income they are able to secure. A Chief Finance Officer, whilst in a good position to provide strategic budgeting and achieve better procurement, may not have the experience of developed integrated operations and new models of delivery that give rise to sustainable approaches; such as traded services, fundraising, external relations, and deploying talent more strategically across a MAT to save external contractor costs.

      Government support for trusts and ensuring a values-led approach:

      1. There is a need for the DfE and wider government to emphasise the positive work taking place in many MATs on achieving sustainability – reducing costs and improving services. The government should also be highlighting the excellent practice found within some smaller and medium sized MATs – rather than repeatedly celebrating the same large national MATs.
      2. There is a need for the DfE to decide what its school improvement strategy is at a national level, and how MATs and other players fit into this. Too much duplication and complexity in school improvement strategies is leading to more cost and a lack of efficiency in places.
      3. The DfE should look at developing a ‘seed funding’ initiative for MATs to work together to design and develop cross-trust services – including high quality catering, education psychology services, ICT services and others – that address external supplier costs and improve provision for pupils. Services designed by MATs for MATs could result in higher quality provision for pupils, at lower costs than if provided by private profit-making providers, and with better accountability attached to the service. Any funding initiative should look to build these elements in as success criteria.
      4. MATs need to be better at telling their stories and sharing the narrative around the work of the sector – including being willing to participate in the development of case studies that can be shared across the sector, as well as with other sectors.
      5. MATs need to consider how best to communicate with their communities, as well as with the DfE, about the efficiencies they are achieving, the way in which they are improving services, and the income some of them they generating to the benefit of their schools and pupils. This is important so that they are not seen as commercial ‘beasts’ but as values-led organisations, with moral purpose around securing the best outcomes for children and young people at their core. Some MATs are doing excellent work in retaining more funding in the sector by providing alternative services to those offered by private providers.
      6. As such, MATs need to consider how to analyse, record and share the impact that their activities around sustainability are having on improving educational outcomes and life chances for the children and young people they serve, both within and beyond their MATs and local communities.



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