You might be fooled into thinking that Dartmoor Multi Academy trust is relatively young, after all, it only formed four years ago. But the roots of the west country trust run much deeper. Developing from two federations and a variety of individual schools, both the spirit and practice of sharing ran deep.
I’d known of the trust’s breakthrough practices in elevating standards and outcomes and in our recent workshop with Chief Finance and Operations Officer, Susanne Kiff we’d been given a sneak peek into their operating model. Eager to learn more about how the 17-school trust was able to scale its impact, I sat down with their Director of Finance, Alex Richardson to speak about pooling and getting the most out of economies of scale.
Alex joined the trust just over a year ago when the trust was in the advanced stages of their discussion on GAG pooling. Being a fresh pair of eyes, Alex’s objective financial opinion was key, as was his ability to see the wood for the trees of this strategic move. He concluded that “the whole notion of gag pooling and that cooperative trust feeling was the obvious next step”.
Describing the end goal as that of ‘one trust but many campuses’, Dartmoor MAT had opted to massively centralise as many of the service elements and commercial aspects of the trust as possible. In shorthand, Alex clarified, “where we can pool, we pool everything”.
Before venturing deep into it, they set up a diverse working group first with the crucial involvement of trustees and heads. Both the foundation and working model of the group was based on a representation of differently skilled and natured people. Information was also spread openly across the trust with which everybody could engage at any time.
Advice and support were sought outwardly too. Alex and the wider team embarked on a mass engagement campaign, speaking to colleagues from other trusts who had walked the walk. Awareness of their relative successes and more importantly roadblocks allowed them to sidestep as many pitfalls as possible. That’s not to say that they did not experience their own hiccups along the way.
Like many SBPs who I speak to, the cultural challenges were the unpredictable element of adoption. Unpredictability is however just a cause for more strategic and agile thinking. Alex put it best when said that ‘the shock of a systemic change is 90% of the issue but that just demonstrated that we had to step up the comms and publicity.’ It was a case of turning the argument around on autonomy.
“the reality was that you never really had autonomy, overheads are overheads.”
Pooling was an opportunity to empower school leaders to channel their skills into what they know best: educational outcomes. You might not have a dedicated premises manager now, Alex explained, but when you need one, you’ll have a bolstered service in a skilled estate team, capable of turning around your estate challenges in unprecedented ways. The challenge sits in recommunicating this lost sense of autonomy. It was after all only a sense, a feeling. Alex put it well when he explained that “the reality was that you never really had autonomy, overheads are overheads.”
The release of time, energy, and grey matter to focus on curriculum, enrichment and student wellbeing have been well received by leadership. It’s not just the educational outcomes which are being felt, there are brass tax benefits which Alex could command to soothe the cultural hurdles.
If you look at the bigger picture, Alex said, as a group of schools, we can command a better price in bargaining and achieve economies of scale. We hear a lot of talk about economies of scale, but income and gag pooling are essential to achieving it.
The ability to now divert funds and services on a temporary short-term basis to help an individual school get where it needs to be is just part of the picture. In addition to the school improvement package, it’s a failsafe for all the things which schools might not have planned for, an endemic of staffing shortages as a topical example.
One challenge which Alex was keen to point out as being a candidate par excellence for pooled support was the tech investment which Dartmoor MAT had embarked upon. An injection of cash was essential if they were to stem the widening gap in access to digital infrastructure experienced in their rural area. Arguably rural communities should have the same access as urban schools, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t, and that’s where the ability to deploy funding and reserves helps to tackle these issues more effectively.
As well as a case study for investment, technology was also an essential part of the infrastructure of centralisation itself. Getting economies of scale meant the right tools, but it was not a simple case of shopping for the best. For Alex, tech adoption was viewed as an iterative steppingstone path with the caveat of balancing value for money and the ability of the tool to evolve as they grow.
In their current stage of development, Alex has focused on visibility. For heads, they are adopting tools so they can see in real-time where their money is being spent. As for forecasting software they can quickly model something like the NJC pay rise of 1.75% across the whole trust confidently in a matter of minutes, giving better visibility of impact at light speed.
Unlike the evolution of their suite of tools, Dartmoor MATs professional services team had to unfold rapidly into the required specialisms that come with centralisation. It was by comparison an overnight shake-up. The pains of this rapid growth often meant that challenges were amplified and so it was essential that they focused on developing and recruiting more specialists with the appropriate expertise. A focus on specialist knowledge areas has ultimately better served the individual schools, but importantly for Alex, it’s also given more faith to trustees who get assurance from a richer council of experts.
In the long term, the development of specialist knowledge and skills areas set the trust in good stead to think about exploring traded services. Turning their triumphs into successes for other schools is a win-win scenario for Alex and the team, what’s more, it’s an additional revenue stream that makes their finances just that little bit more future-proofed. Whether that’s providing outsourced payroll, outsourced management, accountancy etc. the next step for the trust is rooted in that self-same commitment to sharing that launched them from a federation to a successful MAT.
PlatformED is an open group for anyone who is interested in subjects relating to school business management; from policy changes in funding and estates to best practice in procurement, payroll, budgeting and auditing.