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Is mass academisation a major threat to LA services?

/ Damon Hatcher

Academisation steadily working its way through the maintained sector. With the government outlining plans for all schools to convert to academies by 2030, LAs are facing a continuously evolving landscape in the coming years. Compounding this is the rapid growth of MATs, keen to hit that magic level where economies of scale come into play. The southwest leads the charge with well over half of the schools being part of a MAT. Some other regions however, are yet to hit 25%. 

The government’s ‘Opportunity for all’ whitepaper suggests that LAs’ future responsibilities will mostly lie with planning and securing education provision, along with the headline safeguarding arrangements. So, there is a clear vision from central government to reduce LA services to schools. Yet in the midst of this, a curve ball arrives: LA-run MATs.  

In this sea of change, what threats will LA services face and are there any opportunities to seize upon? 

Tendering 

A major issue that MATs present is the sheer scale of collaborative spend on any particular service. Should a MAT decide to pool its buying power to procure a payroll solution across the organisation, it’s highly likely to trigger the requirement to run a formal tender. Responding to tenders is a tricky business, regardless of how good your services are. LAs may find themselves losing custom to third parties purely due to having limited tendering experience (from the position of supplier) or the lack of resources to respond to them. 

In addition to the potential loss of customers, such tenders would often lock in a service for several years. Therefore, all schools linked to the deal would be off the cards for a significant period. This is a difficult position to find yourself in when your market is already limited by locality. 

With larger MATs swallowing up schools nationwide, their prior tender decisions can often be applied to the new school as a matter of course. From the MAT perspective, it could be one of the benefits of the transformation and a potential cost saving. An LA could easily find themselves losing schools with no opportunity to pitch for services. 

Mass Academisation blurring the borders across england

The border issue 

Historically, LAs have primarily worked within their geographical borders. Their responsibilities fell within these defined boundaries, so they focused on localised issues. Over the years, those lines have become blurred as services have been encouraged to branch out to increase income streams and cover shortfalls. Despite this, the responsibility and associated funding streams limit authorities to operating the vast amount of their services for the local community. 

In the past couple of decades, there has been little to threaten this way of working. Each LA had a decent pot of schools to service. Enough to build up sufficient talent to be an authority on a wide range of matters, from safeguarding and SEND, to MIS and finance. 

That was until the humble MAT stepped into the frame. These growing organisations do not need to respect the classic geographical borders. They can straddle across authorities or even stretch nationwide. The issue arises when MATs review services such as Finance Support, Access & Inclusion, Payroll and a whole host of current LA offerings. Do they keep a mixed, localised economy across the group, take on the role internally or find one organisation who can work with them at Trust level? 

The risk to LA services is substantial if they are unable to successfully pitch for and accommodate larger contracts across localities. Let’s look at Finance support for instance. There is a huge leap between working with individual maintained schools vs supporting a large academy trust. It’s not easy to diversify your offering due to the additional expertise required.  

Traditionally, LA Finance officers would visit schools to work with them and build relationships. With the introduction of geographically diverse MATs, that way of working is highly costly for a local team, and some of the USPs of the regional LA service are lost. 

Arm’s-length organisations 

To counteract this, among other issues facing LA services, a number of councils have opted to form so-called arm’s-length organisations. These allow the LA to still retain a level of control over services but turn them into more dynamic commercial organisations. Funding lines are no longer blurred, and services can be properly funded without the fear of budgets being pulled back into a central pot if not spent by the end of the year. 

These organisations are often far better suited to working across borders and, on the whole, seem to be successfully taking the LA model and adapting it for a wider market. Often, there are additional services added such as Teaching & Learning support and School Business services. This demonstrates that allowing the remit to be extended can be commercially viable. 

Often, these arm’s-length organisations are in a stronger position for retaining the custom from Trusts as they can adapt and grow their expertise at a faster rate. Likewise, as they are forced to be more commercially savvy, they can often have a better win rate with tenders. Unfortunately, their success presents a growing risk to LAs that are delivering services in house. Individual LA teams often experience the downsides of being a small part of a very broad organisation, with varying levels of strategic input. 

Mass Academisation causing LAs to form arm’s-length organisations

LA-run MATs 

One major recent development is the introduction of LA run MATs. The DfE trial, announced earlier this year, allows LAs to initially form MATs of up to 10 schools or 7500 pupils. The Local Government Association had been crying out for this change, as it provides an opportunity to support local schools even further. Although they would be registered as separate entities and there are still limits on council involvement in trust boards, it does share similarities with the aforementioned arm’s-length organisations that have offered LAs more flexibility. 

LAs have long been accountable for the quality of education but had their hands tied when it came to individual school strategy. With a MAT led by an LA, they will be able to shape the education provision in their area and forge closer ties with the school community. 

Central funds have been made available to support these LA conversions and the DfE will be providing a bespoke package of support. Interestingly, LAs are clearly discouraged from sponsoring underperforming schools in this trial. This would suggest that the DfE is really gunning for the programme to be a success, on paper at the very least. 

This appears to be a good opportunity for LAs and one that has all the hallmarks of an approach that will be here for the longer term. From the DfE perspective, having an LA sponsor will help convince more maintained schools to academise. Ultimately, it’s in their interests to use this configuration as a vehicle to achieve their goals. For LAs, they can provide more direct support to schools and gain more oversight of education in their area. 

It also means that existing LA services are still well placed to serve the Trust. The knowledge gained in providing this support can be used to develop offerings to other MATs. Unsurprisingly, we’re hearing about many LAs that are considering this option as they already have a good relationship with their schools and see an opportunity to lead schools into this next phase. 

Academisation will still leave SEND, Admissions, Safeguarding and ensuring children are in education to LAs

Services that are here to stay 

Fortunately, there are a significant number of services that fall into the remit of planning and securing education provision. SEND, Admissions, Safeguarding and ensuring children are in education, are all here to stay and will remain the legal responsibility of the LA for the foreseeable future. Quality assurance and school improvement services stand to be hit the most, but in the face of adversity, there are still opportunities to adapt. 

As we’ve seen within MIS and Finance teams, it’s possible to build up an offering to include essential services for MATs. Some of our support partners design bespoke MAT dashboards, utilising Bromcom’s MAT Vision to pull the data from schools and display the results. Many LAs look at supporting multiple MIS and Finance solutions to ensure they can still sell services to MATs, as they are more likely to change MIS to meet their expanding needs. 

Finance teams have been fortunate enough to cut their teeth on managing the finances of individual academies, then gradually built up their skills as they expanded to small and medium MATs. Again, this often involved retraining as schools moved to more contemporary Finance software such as Bromcom’s MAT Finance solution. 

Localised governance support is still proving popular too, as MATs value the voice of the local community. Only 3% of MATs have centralised school governing bodies. LA support still plays a vital role in developing volunteers to become strong contributors to the ecosystem. 

It’s clear that whilst academisation does present a major threat to LA services, there is still a demand for local expertise. Furthermore, there are plenty of opportunities to develop services and provide much needed support to schools in this new era.  

Academisation has a great deal of momentum that shows no signs of stopping, and LAs need to adapt to retain business. Thankfully, there’s still time to make some major moves to meet the growing needs of their local community and provide quality services to their schools. 

/ Damon Hatcher