The DfE surveyed academies and multi-academy trusts (MATs) and made some comparisons between MATs and standalone academies (SATs). The DfE concludes:
- Schools convert to academy status to collaborate and use their autonomy to innovate
- Academies understand the benefits of collaboration
However, we’ve been looking at MATs a lot in our research over the past year and we aren’t so sure. We looked at the DfE data in this report and here make some of our own observations.
Note that throughout, the MAT responses are made by the MAT trusts, not by the academies within the MATs, whereas SATs made the responses on their own behalf. This is quite significant in some aspects of the research.
Author’s note: while reading this article it may sound anti-MAT, but that’s not a personal view: I’m currently involved in setting one up as chair of an academy trust - see pic.
Are MATs really about collaboration?
40% of MATs say that this was the main reason for their academies converting. So 60% of MAT trusts do not think that it is the main reason for their existence.
Only 16% of MATs say that their academies chose to join them mainly in order to benefit from support from other schools.
The main reason (37%) for SATs not joining a MAT is that they collaborate already: 87% of SATs support other schools anyway.
What do MATs collaborate on?
Sharing CPD of course is the most frequent form of collaboration, but 81% of MATs say that they also secure financial efficiencies collaboratively – more on this below.
39% of MATs say they have secured financial efficiencies in procuring learning resources. However, very few use the same resources across the MAT: only around 6% of MATs have a single approach across all academies with a centrally prescribed set of materials for teaching and learning or follow an identical curriculum. A third of MATs specifically say there is no uniform curriculum encouraged – presumably meaning that they do not necessarily follow the national curriculum either.
MATs tend not to spread funds around between their academies: only 18% do so. The report does not say how much in cash terms this amounts to, or whether it’s spread in kind (eg via joint CPD) or as actual funding. However, it’s reasonable to assume that the bulk of the funding awarded to academies (apart the MAT top-slice) stays within the academies to which it was allocated by the DfE.
Why do schools convert to academies?
The main reason for conversion is for the cash – to get more of it and to spend it as they see fit. 63% of SAT academies gave one of these two factors as the main reason for converting. On the other hand MATs think their academies converted to create new opportunities to collaborate with other schools – 43% gave that as the main reason: four times as many as gave any other reason. Note that this is the MAT saying so, not the academies within the MAT. Only 20% of MATs said their academies converted to get / spend the cash themselves.
This is a major difference in the messages which respondents gave to this study. The above (and several other examples in this report) suggests that MATs think their academies converted to get the benefits of being in MAT, whereas SATs converted to get the benefits of being an academy. But many MAT academies started as SATs before joining a MAT, so the MATs claims may not be well founded and certainly sound suspicious based on Schoolzone’s own research in this area.
Do MATs exist to realise savings through increased efficiency?
Only 4% of MATs say achieving increased financial efficiency was the main reason for converting to an academy.
However, 77% of MATs say that all their academies have introduced savings through back office functions since conversion. But 70% of SATs say the same.
Interestingly though, back-office savings are the most important change available to MATs (28% say so), whereas for SATs the same proportion say that replacing LA procurement of services is most important.
Just to reiterate: for MATs, the biggest single change they could make is through back-office savings – more than changes to leadership, even (25%) – and way more than any other factors mentioned.
MATs and SATs have achieved financial efficiencies in very similar areas, mainly ICT, energy, catering and HR - over 20% say they have done so in each case. However, the picture is far from clear: for example one set of data shows that 43% of MATs have secured financial efficiencies in the procurement of energy, while another shows that 25% have achieved them in energy/utilities. Similarly one shows 80% have secured efficiencies in financial services, while another set shows that only 4% have achieved efficiencies in finance.
It’s also worth noting that although the data suggests that MATs have achieved financial efficiencies in all areas (other than building maintenance, finance and cleaning) more commonly than SATs, it’s the MATs, rather than the academies themselves that are claiming this.
The report doesn’t say how big the efficiencies made by MATs are, but typically MATs top-slice 4.6% of school budgets (some take twice that), so we have to hope that the savings made exceed that percentage.
45% of MATs do not use any procurement frameworks but the report doesn’t look at whether those that do use them are also those who have achieved improvements in financial efficiency, which seems an obvious thing to have considered.
The most commonly outsourced services are legal, payroll, HR and catering – in both MATs and SATs: a little more commonly in MATs in all cases, other than HR.
Our own research (and that conducted by BESA last year) seems to suggest that there is very little MAT-level procurement of resources, exams or other pupil-focused material taking place.
We’ve been asked by clients a lot over the last 18 months to look at MATs – if and how they are collaborating in purchasing, in particular. I’m not sure this DfE report is particularly revealing: the methodology - asking MATs to respond on behalf of their academies – hasn’t done this research any favours. We would expect MATs to make the claims they have made – especially in response to questions asked on behalf of the DfE, but even then the differences between MATs and SATs are quite small.
The waters are further muddied by a lack of differentiation between academies formed as SATs who later joined a MAT and those who joined a MAT at the same time as converting. There isn’t even any data showing the relative proportions of each. This is important because this report suggests that MAT academies converted to achieve financial savings, whereas SATs converted to get more cash and to manage it more for themselves.
Plus the numbers are small – MATs vary hugely in size and composition, so lumping them all together in this way doesn’t help our understanding.
So, it’s all very unsatisfactory from a commercial point of view. Many of our clients hope to achieve higher volumes for lower cost of sales by targeting MAT collaborations, but it’s really not clear if MATs are collaborating on purchasing or not – they appear not to be, but there are very mixed messages in this report about the extent or effectiveness of such strategies. All we can say really is that the MAT market is very imperfect and that it has a long way to go to being an alternative to the kind of procurement mechanism once afforded by LAs.
CPD and professional development is where there seems to be most collaboration – having a detrimental impact on the commercial market – but schools are sharing good practice much more widely than they used to even without MATs.
Our advice to clients, based on our many phone calls with MAT SBMs, SLTs and HoDs, as well as the above, is to keep an eye on the MAT market, but be very cautious with your anticipated sales through coordinated purchasing.