Companies operate with huge variance in size, professionalism and integrity. Some organisations are purely trading to achieve the largest return for its shareholders while some have additional agendas such as environmental or social ideals. The education sector is non-profit, with childrens’ life chances as our outcomes.
Serving its pupils via some 32,117 schools throughout the UK, the sector has a high moral purpose guiding its direction. As an educational leader I have a moral duty to implement effective systems that quality assure and protect our organisations and staff and to ensure that we operate as efficiently as we can; not to realise a profit but to reinvest back in to our schools. It’s not about the bottom line, it’s about getting the very best resources to the front line. If there is a better or more efficient way I am happy to research and consider.
With the shift to academisation (The National Audit Office stated in 2018 that 72% of secondary schools, including free schools, are academies compared with 27% of primary schools) there has been a significant need to manage change. Some years down the line, after those early converters, I feel that there is a second wave; a different kind of change through re-brokerages. This is requiring a new set of skills and is much more aligned with commercial business; we are seeing a self-improving system emerge where the strongest will survive.
ISBL created an article in 2016 about emerging school structures. The need for different HR solutions, changes to policy and a much greater focus on strategic leadership are all areas that can be supported by commercial companies and management information systems that enhance our skills and experience; allowing us to compare, contrast, report, challenge and quality assure the provision and outcomes across our schools.
For me, the biggest shift is the ownership of our strategic direction. As a leader within an academy trust, I am part of the solution design. There are a number of high-profile commercial CEOs who place vision and strategy as a top priority; common threads are that they are seemingly very focused characters who set out clearly their expectations. Successful ones value and nurture their staff; outwardly communicating that they are the company’s most valuable asset, offering opportunities and pathways to develop.
Steve Gutzler (author and Leadership Keynote Speaker) tweeted recently:
‘The decision to BELIEVE in your future over your past is the most important decision you'll ever make.’
For a school that is going through a challenging time, it is of paramount importance that our educational leaders (at all levels) embrace and nurture that belief.
My background before education was in the oil industry. I value these influences most from the commercial environment:
Negotiation skills - the oil industry was cut throat with fierce negotiation. One of the first things I noticed when coming into education; there seemed to be a culture of rolling contracts over but they were not necessarily providing best value.
Communication skills & relationship building - moving from seller to buyer gives me the insight into what might be going through the mind of our providers as we negotiate - this allows me to be a step ahead rather than simply taking sales patter at face value. We are looking to build partnerships with suppliers and providers as well as working collaboratively with other trusts to realise efficiencies through group procurement and offering bespoke solutions aligned to strategy.
Training - it didn’t occur to me when attending training courses that this might not be offered everywhere; that companies choose to value their staff and invest in their development, or not. Clearly within the oil industry, it was regulated and there were health and safety and international standards (ISO) compliance to adhere to so it may be that the strategy behind this was more to do with risk and liability management, compliance and regulation but nonetheless I see now that I was fortunate to receive such high quality training.
Resilience – commercial business faces the constant challenge of managing factors that affect their bottom line, and ultimately their survival; competition, regulation, supply and demand. The education sector is facing an increasingly challenging and complex funding situation requiring greater analysis, running scenarios and simply knowing our metrics better than before. Things that commercial business do as a matter of course.
So what now?
Planning strategies and structures has given me greater understanding and makes me realise that we need to bring the staff with us to share that buy in.
Attending an ESFA Financial Efficiencies event several years ago I asked if any research was taking place to see what we could learn from other countries in relation to financial efficiency in schools and was surprised to hear that no such work was on-going. At the time I was studying my Masters in Educational Leadership and Management and I chose to research a module on this topic. I found of course that there are huge complexities in comparing and contrasting systems that are inherently so different culturally, politically and demographically but we have businesses that operate globally and this, I believe offers great learning potential.
At an ISBL Fellows event last year, a speaker was present from one of the major car manufacturers. This fell at a most opportune time when I was contemplating the thought ‘how will I know if there is something wrong?’ With my role moving to a less localised one where I know everything just in my head. How would I identify if there was a problem within one of my teams?
I had already carried out a body of research and had developed some ideas that could help but this event gave me the confidence that I was going down the right track and it was worth seeking the support of my Trust Board to invest in this properly, rather than use my makeshift version.
As a result of this I have been supported in creating a new business structure and invested in a management system to support this. Six months in, this has transformed the way we work and is already helping to identify strengths and sharing within the teams. If that’s not a MAT learning from commercial business I don’t know what is!
Alison Moon is the Trust Business Manager at Veritas Multi Academy Trust. She is a Fellow of the Institute of School Business Leadership and has significant experience in the school and academy sector. Alison was awarded an MBA in Educational Leadership and Management in 2016.
Alison is particularly interested in MAT leadership, governance and financial sustainability with a focus on finding systems to support the needs of a developing trust. During the last year, she has developed and implemented a new business structure within Veritas MAT, introducing Capita SIMS SchoolView and the ‘Every’ Business and Compliance Management portal which is transforming the way the business team operates.
Alison is in her second year of designing and delivering NPQH and NPQEL training in Resource Management and Risk.
Alison is a founding member of the Kent MAT Alliance Business Manager Group, a cross trust collaborative of 10 trusts in the South East.
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