The journey from voluntary aided status to multi academy company

Source: PSE - April/ May 16

Jo Griffin, lecturer at Dudley College and chair of the Board of Directors at St Nicholas Owen Catholic Multi Academy Company, reflects on the challenges and pitfalls of becoming an academy.

This article considers the formation of a Multi Academy Company (MAC) comprising one secondary school and five primary schools, and some of the issues which have arisen since conversion. 

The decision to convert was not based on the advantages of becoming academies, but rather on the pragmatic view that we would need to engage positively with this new MAC structure to secure the long-term future of our schools, despite the very real anxieties and misgivings around the wider academy agenda.

MAC not MAT 

Our governance model is different to that of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT): we have set up a MAC under an umbrella diocesan trust. We do not have a lead school, commercial sponsors or a chief executive: the Board of Directors is responsible for the effective governance of each of the schools within the MAC. The Board has overall responsibility for strategic matters, and each school has an Academy Committee to fulfil many of the responsibilities of the former Governing Body. Good communication is key to ensuring that the principals and the chairs of the Academy Committees continue to have significant influence in this new structure. 

Changes in finance are significant 

The enormous changes in handling the finances for six academies proved to be a major hurdle. Early discussions recognised the need for central MAC staff, but lack of funding information made it difficult to appoint in advance, and although we were working to convert on a specific date, DfE approval was only received at the last minute. Conversion required staff to operate in a very new environment: old systems of cash accounting were replaced by a double-entry based company accounting system, and the skills and experience of finance staff in the schools varied widely. The volume and complexity of work has increased significantly, and appointing a qualified accountant became an urgent priority. We had been warned that the existing school bank accounts would be frozen at the point of conversion, whilst each local authority calculated the residual funding available to each school and decided how much money they would hand back. This process took more than four months, during which time the staff in the schools had to deal with a constant barrage of creditors chasing payment, and in one school they even received a threat of court action from the local council for non-payment of rates. Hardly a seamless transition! 

Improving standards 

The Board, through its Standards & Performance Committee, aims to establish a culture of self-evaluation whilst raising standards in all schools. We appointed two external, highly experienced School Improvement Partners to conduct termly monitoring visits and report on the key areas of outcomes for pupils, effectiveness of leadership and management, and quality of teaching, learning and assessment. Additional bespoke support is obtained where necessary. We are developing a strong network of school-to-school support and professional development, with sharing of good practice emerging in many subject areas. In this respect, we are clearly seeing the benefits of this collaborative approach. 

Role of the Board of Directors 

A major concern raised by both staff and parents during the long consultation process was that the Board of Directors would be remote and would not understand the individuality of each of our schools. On the contrary, we are fortunate to have very experienced directors, each with a connection to at least one of our schools and with a deep commitment to securing their long-term future in this changing educational landscape. 

In reality, why would anyone take on this role without an interest in the schools involved? The responsibility is significant: we run a company with a turnover of £10m across six sites and the Board is accountable not only for the educational performance of our schools but also for financial regularity and compliance, health and safety of staff and pupils, HR policies and procedures, recruitment of senior leadership staff, buildings and equipment, an inherited pension deficit of £2.7m and more beyond, and this is an unpaid role! 

The fact that we have some directors who are retired and some who work part-time has enabled us to achieve a great deal in a short period of time, and our progress is due to the generosity of all involved. Those who are in full-time employment give their time around their working commitments and their expertise is invaluable. But is this sustainable in the longer term? Is it reasonable to continue to expect such an important role to be carried out in a voluntary capacity? The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has clearly recognised the vast changes in governance which are taking place and now believes that chairs and vice-chairs should be paid – but where does he think the money will come from? 

The emerging reality 

The greatest challenge that we now face is how to maintain our standards and progress with ever-increasing financial constraints. When we first considered converting, the Education Services Grant – additional funding provided to academies to replace the local authority support – was in the region of £400 per pupil. By the time we converted in October 2014 this figure had reduced to £140, this year it is further reduced to £87 and will be abolished completely by 2017-18. 

The £2.7m pension deficit that we inherited is a very significant financial burden, which has been placed on our schools and has had a dramatic impact on our budgets. The current government continues to claim that education spending is protected, but this is far from true: nationally negotiated pay increases for teaching staff and support staff are not funded, nor are increases in National Insurance contributions and teacher pension contributions. These additional costs must be met from existing funding levels. Schools across the country are now facing a major crisis in funding, and reductions in staffing will be an inevitable result. 

So are we where we thought we would be? Yes, in that we have successfully established a new organisation based on a set of shared values, with the aim of providing high-quality education for all our pupils, with the support of committed and generous staff and volunteers. Our school-to-school support is developing as a means of improving standards, and our schools are reaping the benefits. 

However, we did not anticipate the enormity of the financial pressures which we now face: in the current climate of financial austerity and reductions in government funding we have to continue to find ways to work effectively within our reduced means, and we no longer have the support of the local authority. 

The experiences considered here will be of general interest to all those now considering conversion, either within a MAC or a MAT. This is even more relevant following the announcement in the March Budget that all schools are now going to be compelled to become academies. Our schools have engaged positively with the academy agenda, and we work tirelessly to achieve the very best for our pupils and young people, but it feels like this government continues to pull the rug out from under our feet. The message from the Education Funding Agency is clear: you are on your own.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment

public sector executive tv

more videos >

latest public sector news

Leeds’ Clean Air Zone Plans Suspended for the foreseeable future

19/08/2020Leeds’ Clean Air Zone Plans Suspended for the foreseeable future

Leeds City Council have today (August 19) announced that their plans for a Clean Air Zone within the city may not have to go ahead due to lower e... more >
Colleges set to receive £200m in Funding

19/08/2020Colleges set to receive £200m in Funding

Over 180 colleges are set to receive a share of £200m, in order to repair and refurbish buildings and campuses. The funding makes up p... more >
UK climate change projects to receive £14m funding

18/08/2020UK climate change projects to receive £14m funding

The National Lottery Community Fund has announced the first 14 grants from the Climate Action Fund going to communities across the UK to tackle c... more >

the raven's daily blog

Cleaner, greener, safer media: Increased ROI, decreased carbon

23/06/2020Cleaner, greener, safer media: Increased ROI, decreased carbon

Evolution is crucial in any business and Public Sector Executive is no different. Long before Covid-19 even became a thought in the back of our minds, the team at PSE were looking at innovative ways to deliver its content to our audience in a more dynamic and responsive manner. We’re conscious to take the time to both prot... more >
read more blog posts from 'the raven' >


Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

17/12/2018Artificial intelligence: the devil is in the data

It’s no secret that the public sector and its service providers need to invest in technology to help make better use of their resources. Bu... more >
Digital innovation in the public sector: The future is now

17/12/2018Digital innovation in the public sector: The future is now

One of the public sector’s key technology partners has recently welcomed a new member to its team. Matt Spencer, O2’s head of public ... more >
New Dorset Councils CEO on the creation of a new unitary: ‘This is going to be the right decision for Dorset’

05/11/2018New Dorset Councils CEO on the creation of a new unitary: ‘This is going to be the right decision for Dorset’

The new chief executive of one of the new unitary authorities in Dorset has outlined his approach to culture and work with employees, arguing tha... more >
Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

15/10/2018Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

On 6 September, the biggest decision-makers of the north joined forces to celebrate and debate how to drive innovation and improvement through th... more >

last word

Prevention: Investing for the future

Prevention: Investing for the future

Rob Whiteman, CEO at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA), discusses the benefits of long-term preventative investment. Rising demand, reducing resource – this has been th... more > more last word articles >

editor's comment

25/10/2017Take a moment to celebrate

Devolution, restructuring and widespread service reform: from a journalist’s perspective, it’s never been a more exciting time to report on the public sector. That’s why I could not be more thrilled to be taking over the reins at PSE at this key juncture. There could not be a feature that more perfectly encapsulates this... read more >

public sector focus

LGA: ‘Air pollution is a major public health issue’

17/08/2020LGA: ‘Air pollution is a major public health issue’

The Local Government Association (LGA) has ca... more >
Automating back-office processes for local authorities

29/07/2020Automating back-office processes for local authorities

Words provided by Cantium Business Solutions,... more >