Much has been said about the need for primary schools to consider academisation as a means to collaborate and seek financial efficiencies. I’ve written articles about it myself, I’ve worked for a MAT and supported primaries, and when it’s done in a mutually beneficial way, it can be an excellent way of collaborating. I’m a fan, believe me.
However, a partnership will only be truly successful if the needs of both partners are met and respected – and balanced. A MAT monster will happily gobble up primaries along the way, filling its belly with succulent morsels of universal free school meals funding, disproportionate lump sums and the tantalising promise of financial efficiencies from the centralisation of back-office functions.
Changing your legal entity will allow you to enter into joined-up, MAT-sized arrangements with all the purchasing power – and opportunities for saving on administration costs – they entail. However, this may mean the driving factor in negotiating new deals sits with the MAT’s majority need, requiring you to compromise more than previously.
My advice for primary schools considering joining a MAT, be it a chain or local cluster, is to therefore consider the following questions, which may well sit outside of the due diligence you’re already undertaking:
1. Understand the governance arrangements
Joining a MAT will diminish your governing body’s powers significantly. Make sure you get a seat at the top table of whatever the new structure will be. If possible, you’ll want to have member voting rights too.
2. Ask what your top-slice will get you
MATS will almost always take a chunk of money from your budget before you get it. The percentage take will vary, but you need to see a breakdown of exactly what you’re paying for. Ensure that there’ll be a mechanism for annually reviewing that top-slice figure.
3. Establish the terms
You’ll need to have a service level agreement in place for those central services the MAT will provide. What happens if they don’t deliver? You’ll be signing up to a long commitment, so make sure you’ve got a voice or comeback route if things go wrong.
4. Whose cash?
Find out what happens to your cash reserves. If you have any funds, private or carried forward, make sure that these will remain exclusively yours and won’t get subsumed into the MAT pot upon conversion.
5. How are the other schools doing?
Ask for the current and 5-year projected financial positions of all partner schools, not just the MAT as a whole. You need to know that your funding won’t be used to support other less viable concerns within the Trust. Ask what happens if a partner school drifts into deficit.
6. Who gets the final say?
What is the MATs decision-making process for contract renewals, IT purchasing and premises works? Small MATS can bid into the Condition Improvement Fund for capital building projects, but who will ensure that your school’s needs are met? Larger MATS receive a formula allocation for capital works, but who makes the call on which projects will go ahead? Make sure you know before signing over control of your infrastructure and buildings, however tempting it might be to pass on those responsibilities.
Those are my general tips for surviving the yellow brick road of multiacademisation and avoiding any lions, tigers and bears you might meet along the way. Be honest, ask questions, stand your ground – and don’t be afraid to click your heels and head for home if the Emerald City isn’t all you hoped for.