Best in Class: Why a resilient operating platform is vital to the success of Multi-Academy Trusts

11th May 2022

With Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s recent Schools White Paper envisaging an entirely Trust-led education system by 2030, Civica’s Stewart Mcluskey examines the crucial role of digital technologies in helping Multi-Academy Trusts stand out from the pack.

Over the past two decades, we’ve seen the most radical shake up of our national and secondary education system since the Second World War and this has impacted the fundamentals of teaching and learning in a myriad of ways. What began with a ‘disaggregation’ of our schools - from maintained to academy status - has now become a re-aggregation of schools under the banner of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). The Schools White Paper, published last month, makes clear that MATs are a permanent feature of our education landscape, with Government envisaging every child in the country being educated within a ‘family of schools’ by 2030. The White Paper also opens the door for Local Authorities to set up their own Multi Academy Trusts, creating a new opportunity for schools in a local area to come together for collective benefit and development.

Making the grade

The rationale for MATs is plain to see; through economies of scale, they offer access to a range of expertise, resources and wider support that may not be available to a stand-alone school. The more schools a MAT can attract, the larger it becomes and the greater that pooled resource. What we’re therefore very likely to see in the coming years, is a scramble amongst MATs to attract more schools into their orbit. Conversely, with greater numbers of MATs to choose from, schools will be carefully considering which one is right for them. The question for MATs therefore, is how to make yourself stand out and become the ‘family’ of choice for the UK’s 30,000 schools?

A cursory glance at the websites of a representative group of MATs, shows a major emphasis on high teaching standards, student performance and culture. These are of course pivotal to the success of any learning environment and will be front of mind for any head teacher, school governor or parent. But the crucial – and often largely unnoticed – foundation stone for any high-performing learning environment is a resilient, efficient, digitally-enabled operating platform which supports the school to plan to use its budgets most effectively, streamline HR and Payroll and manage the school’s finances to direct maximum resources at teaching and learning.

Behind every great teacher is a slick operating platform

From virtual classrooms to digital homework platforms, the past two years put into sharp focus the indispensable role of digital technologies across our educational system. Just imagine if Covid had hit in the 1980s or even the 1990s; the long-term social and economic consequences of children facing major disruption to their formative learning would still be felt today.

The Schools White Paper rightly emphasises the need for schools to build on the innovations we saw during the pandemic. But the drive towards digitalisation must not stop at the classroom; we need to see that same ambition across the entire school environment, particularly where it comes to what have traditionally been labelled ‘back office’ functions.

Let’s use the analogy of a ship. Imagine the classroom as the bridge of the ship, with the teacher helping guide their pupils’ learning outcomes and charting the best course for their future. Now think of the operating platform of that school as its engine room. A ship, no matter how big or experienced its captain, will never sail smoothly unless its engine room is in perfect order. In much the same way, critical ‘back office’ functions are indispensable to the smooth running of any learning environment.

For MATs, having an efficient ‘back office’ digital operating platform supporting all schools within its trust can offer enormous benefits. These range from drastically reducing the amount of time and resource needed for monthly management reporting, to managing school estates more efficiently, saving up to £10,000 a year in maintenance and IT costs. In an era where data security is (rightly) front of mind for all of us, a common operating platform can ensure that vital student data is used effectively and stored securely, allowing teachers to deliver the best for pupils, regardless of where they are located. And, of course, we must think about disaster planning and recovery. Over the past two years, organisations of every kind have had to learn – the hard way – that disaster planning is now very much a ‘cannot do without’ rather than a ‘nice to have’. Our education system, overall, coped well during the crisis, but a robust operating platform will ensure that schools can plan and quickly adapt to any future crises - including those we cannot yet foresee.

Be the best

Digital technologies are rapidly transforming every single aspect of our society from the classroom to the care home. We know that MATs will be the dominant feature in our educational landscape over the coming decade, offering unique opportunities for both schools and their pupils alike. Those MATs which invest in the right operating platforms will be top of the class, pushing more resources to the frontline, attracting the brightest teachers and delivering the best learning outcomes for students.

Stewart Mcluskey, is Divisional Managing Director (Education) at Civica

Civica would welcome the opportunity to talk to Local Authority Teams who are starting to build plans for their own MAT and would like to know how they can leverage Civica’s Schools ERP Platform to reduce costs and improve outcomes in their schools.