Building a strong central team

Central services are the backbone of any successful MAT, yet creating cohesion between two or more teams doesn’t happen overnight. You have to listen to staff, develop their skills and empower them to make decisions, says Jo Wright, CFO at 5 Dimensions Trust in Milton Keynes.

Nobody likes to feel that change has been imposed upon them, and a central services team is no exception. Becoming a MAT is an exciting opportunity – but you cannot expect departments, with deeply-held values, processes and workplace cultures to simply meld together from day one. Like anything, it takes time to create the structure and develop processes, skills and best practice.

Ours is a relatively new MAT, formed when we brought The Hazeley Academy and Shenley Brook End School together as 5 Dimensions Trust. We’re still on the journey towards cementing our central team and are learning what works and what doesn’t all the time. What matters most is that you have a clear vision and base your decisions on achieving the best possible outcomes.

Covid-19 has, of course, stress tested many organisations and I was pleased to see the foundations we laid early on make a real difference, enabling us to continue working together effectively.

Remote working has actually helped us to improve communication and cohesion, we can now easily get everyone together for a virtual team meeting without having to travel or book a room. Of course, it’s easier to feel part of a single department when you see the same faces regularly and it’s something we’re planning to continue once we’re back in school.

A long-standing relationship

We have been fortunate that our MAT was formed by choice following a long-standing informal partnership between the two schools.

While our situation is different to say, an academy experiencing financial difficulties and joining a large-scale existing trust, there are similar challenges to navigate. You need to form strong working relationships with colleagues, while recognising that staff usually have an allegiance to their school. Our job, as senior leaders, is to listen to everyone and look at what they do well. We should take the ‘best of the best’ and continually add value to the service we deliver.

As well as establishing where you want to be and then refining your own internal processes, it is important to benchmark performance. We commissioned an independent review to assess our work across several key areas and give us action points for improvement.

I also speak to colleagues in other trusts to see what they are doing but remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to strengthening your team. One thing we wanted was a central bank, so we didn’t have to reconcile as many accounts – however, this might not work for single academies joining an existing trust if they are concerned about relinquishing too much financial control.

Establishing an effective team structure is key and we’ve developed ours organically by appointing individuals and upskilling the existing workforce whenever someone leaves or retires.

As the trust grows, you need to make distinctions between strategic and operational roles. Many directors working in single academies know what it’s like to be pulled in different directions and constantly asked questions, leaving them with little time to focus on strategy.

An increase in staffing resources

The advantage of becoming a MAT is that your staffing resources increase, so you can move away from day-to-day operations. It’s an opportunity for middle managers to take the lead on operational work and be empowered to make certain decisions, freeing up capacity at a higher level. By stepping away from day-to-day work myself, I have time to work closely with senior leaders – our meetings are more productive, and I feel that I can add more value by supporting headteachers achieve their organisational goals

A strong central team is committed to delivering excellent service to its customers – the head and teachers who are, in turn, driven by improving pupil outcomes. Sometimes the smallest changes make a big difference to their working lives. We, for instance, introduced a new system for ordering classrooms supplies electronically, helping to reduce admin for both teachers and finance staff. Automation is helping us to streamline our service, although we’re careful not to lose the human element that people value too.

You will always get friction within teams and, as any manager knows, minor frustrations can soon escalate if they are not addressed quickly. There may be personality clashes or different attitudes to technology and change. As you integrate groups of people, you need to listen to their concerns, find common ground and be clear on your organisational goals because you can’t stop progress.

One of our ambitions is to improve efficiency – and this meant replacing two separate finance systems with a central platform that would allow everyone to work together. We made sure staff understood the rationale for choosing the software, Access Education Finance and Budgeting, so they feel part of the journey and buy into our decision, without feeling it was imposed upon them at the top.

I would say to any trust embarking on a similar journey not to try and do everything at once. When you have new people and systems, the first year is always a learning curve when you test and sharpen your processes. The second year is much easier and by the third, many tasks should run seamlessly.

Strong foundations

As I mentioned earlier, the Covid-19 crisis has certainly strengthened our working relationships, but the foundations were laid long before that.

The team is more agile and proactive – which enabled us to procure the necessary PPE and set up BACS payments for families eligible for free school meal vouchers during lockdown. We’ve also diverted resources, with site teams painting parts of the school as that is something they can do safely, following social distancing guidelines. There have also been HR-led wellness initiatives to support staff, as well as virtual coffee mornings and communications, which help to build our community and allay their anxieties around returning.

Long-term, we want 5 Dimensions to grow and our success depends on how well we embed the right values and practices now.

We need to be clear about the service we provide and ensure stakeholders have confidence in our recommendations. This could be particularly tricky for head teachers who have predominantly worked in maintained schools before because they have to trust their business team, not the local authority.

It’s our responsibility to employ the right people with the right attitude and invest in CPD – something we have committed to continuing online during lockdown. As a MAT grows, senior finance leaders become more like head teachers or CEOs operating at a strategic level. They might move away from day-to-day work but, supported by their team, they know their processes are robust, compliant and able to interrogate data where necessary.

Whether you’re a long-established MAT or just starting out like us, there are always lessons to learn. You need to understand your team, play to their strengths and see what other trusts in your area, and across the sector, are doing. Once you have everything in place, a finance department can be a leader in excellence, an authority on compliance and ultimately deliver the best value-for-money.