Using Management Tools to support Business Structures in Schools

23 Jul 2019 | by Alison Moon

As a business leader within a small growing MAT I have thought long and hard about the most appropriate structures for our organisation and I have researched and sought out systems to help support this.

The emergence of the academy sector has seen changes to operations within schools at an unprecedented level. More responsibility and accountability sits at local level and MATs have looked to business and commerce to inform their structures and practice. I have been keen to ensure that we merge the benefits of an efficient, effective and streamlined operation with the local needs of our individual settings.

I don’t think many would argue that it is logical for a national (or international) company with numerous outlets all producing the same product to have a centralised administration including Finance, HR and procurement ensuring consistency in product or service delivery.

Whilst the theory of this is tangible within education - we can strive to achieve a consistent ethos and to secure minimum quantifiable measurables, there is a distinct difference; we are not churning out a consistent product or service. The output for us is not an exact educational experience regardless of which of our schools you attend - yes there may be consistencies or a flavour that is Veritas MAT but our schools are different sizes, in different communities with their own context, challenge and opportunity. Most notably our pupils are individuals; cohorts fit differing profiles, requiring different levels and types of support.  So how therefore can we have an exacting approach to our support offer?

The concept

I believe that with an overarching view of what is needed across our schools makes each one stronger. If we are able to take what works well in commerce, things that encourage greater procurement power, that drive efficiency through shared resources and practice and that reduce waste, then apply that across the trust. Why wouldn’t we do that? It doesn’t mean that we can’t have staff located in our schools and it doesn’t mean that the set up in each school has to be the same if the context suggests otherwise.

In order for us to achieve a centralised structure without having a centralised team (in terms of location) I have resorted to tech. What I wanted to achieve was a shared area for staff in the different teams to access and very quickly update so that I could identify what has (or hasn’t) been done. Not from a finger wagging ‘you haven’t done that!’ perspective but from a support perspective and a risk perspective. I wanted to be able to see if there were resourcing issues so that support could be given and I need to know if there are statutory/compliance tasks that have not been completed. 

Moving from the role of School Business Manager with copious knowledge just in my head to that of Trust Business Manager and a sense that local knowledge would diminish; I felt that I needed a system that would allow me to see for example if the bank reconciliation for a particular month had been completed at each school, if the VAT reporting was ready for me to consolidate, that payroll reports had been checked for accuracy etc. as well as the H&S site related tasks that often lend themselves to this type of MIS. It may be that in time our financial systems will include additional functionality but we are transitioning and working with a two school budget. 

Design and implementation

I first looked to devise a series of Google Docs - we had successfully been using Google for some time for sharing and creating co-edited documents. I quickly realised however that this would not be as intuitive as I would like it to be. (Or if it were, it would take a lot of time and technical input that I would realistically not be able to achieve). It seemed there would be a reliance on me to go in and check for updates rather than to receive notifications etc. Looking back, the system we now have in place far exceeds what I could have achieved but the starting point came from having strategic time out that allows you to look back in from the outside. 

At the same time I had been looking for a solution to our asset management and had seen some demos in relation to this. One particular company struck a chord with me:

I could see that the bespoke nature of the system being demonstrated could be structured to emulate our own business structure. I started a trial and quite quickly secured approval from our trust board to engage.  Training was set up for the teams and champions identified to create the framework for trust and school input. This was one area that I did want to see consistency in so that reporting across trust schools would be meaningful and so that any new joiners coming on board would easily be able to pick up the process.

In the first instance we signed up for two modules - asset management and business management. What I didn’t see coming was how well the different modules all fit together. The more modules you have access to, the more value you get out of the system as they all intertwine. We have now invested in six modules.

In practice

As an example, within the risk management module you are able to link a particular risk to an activity within the business management area and assign it to a member of staff, so it may be a H&S issue that links to the ongoing servicing of automated gates or doors for example. This can be assigned to a Site Manager or Caretaker. However, if you have other modules it can also be linked to a particular asset, detailing life expectancy and calculating depreciation, it can be linked to a contract for an external servicing company to carry out annual checks and it can also link to the 5 year conditions survey. 

Within these areas, different staff can be assigned different tasks, so the finance team will receive reminders of when the contract is due for renewal and they will have the information required relating to the asset for the financial year-end. Site staff will have access to servicing records with reminders - the ability to upload documents means that over time this will become a central repository for whomever to access whatever information they need. When conditions surveys are carried out all the documentation required will be accessible and auditors will be able to see asset information.

Impact

I worked recently on a peer review with my CEO (@chiskent) as part of our new cross trust collaborative work with the KMA (Kent MAT Alliance) which led to me revisiting our Risk Profiling process which was spreadsheet based.  He has written a blog on the peer reviews. 

Revisiting our Risk Profiling resulted in me working with the developers to upload the spreadsheet based content into our MIS portal making it much more of a live entity rather than a periodic procedure which has huge impact and the RAG reporting allows the Trust Board to quality assure and drill down where necessary with ease.  As we grow as a trust this functionality will prove even more valuable.

In perfect sync as I type this blog, my weekly email notifications have just landed in my inbox letting me know what is overdue and those items coming up during the next 2 weeks. This includes items relating to Governance, Finance & HR, Infrastructure and Admin & Communications

Quality Assurance and Risk Management

If a member of staff leaves the organisation, information is still easily accessible adding a more seamless transition of staff as well as protection for the trust.  It doesn’t matter whether I am in my office, one of the schools or at home (or on a beach in St. Lucia for that matter!) I can still access information.  The wider staff can report faults with any equipment or request site jobs and senior staff and trust staff can access the information they need for monitoring, reporting and quality assurance purposes.  A range of useful reports, dashboards and graphs (many RAG rated) can be created to summarise and or consolidate information.

This is quite an upgrade from that initial Google Docs concept that was sparked from a presentation at an ISBL Fellows event and it is still work in progress. What was key to the success of this implementation was that it had future scalability, in the same way that our business structure is scalable as we develop.

 Lessons Learnt and what next?

As a new team developing the way forward, we have come a long way in a short period of time.  What we now need to do is develop some norms, get a sense of what is normal practice, consolidate what we have learnt and tweak it where necessary. 

We need to share our learning with others - many have heard my colleagues speaking about this new system but it hasn’t yet been introduced beyond the Business Team.  We wanted to get this right before others start to look in on it; to pull out data and question either practice or content. 

I am conscious of the fact that there are other senior leaders who need more information than I have been able to give them during this period of change; that needs to improve. Given the financial and therefore resourcing constraints, I don’t see that this could have been introduced any better than it has - my focus had to remain on those directly affected by the new systems; the wider roll out will come next.  Ironically the project management module that forms part of the package would have helped to plan the implementation, though the limiting factors have not been in planning more the time constraints around communicating developments.

Which system it is that we have implemented isn’t the issue here - it is the impact that it has made and will continue to make on our organisation. One of the trust’s core aims is to create systems that ensure the organisation remains future-proof and failsafe. The MIS development assists this aim by: 

  • the support it will give to ensure that important tasks are not forgotten to aid our compliance
  • the challenge it will provide by reminding us of risk mitigation that has not yet been actioned
  • the day to day consistency that will aid our practice
  • the overarching trust view that will enable more efficient and planned procurement
  • the knowledge bank - servicing records, copies of contracts and service level agreements at the click of a button
  • the framework that is set up for supporting new schools joining the trust

These are all elements that make a difference in providing safe and inspiring environments for our staff and children’s teaching and learning experience. It makes a difference to ensuring that our financial management remains strong; ensuring that we continue to get the best resources to the front line as well as dealing with the bottom line. It also protects our staff in many ways not least the wellbeing assured by the structure created; enabling the sharing of tasks within the wider team when staffing is stretched. It gives staff the tools to feel more organised which can in itself help wellbeing.

Both our governance and business structures have been developed around a hub based design encouraging a streamlined approach with the least amount of duplication; thinking about our senior leaders’ time and the MIS has been set up to support these making sure our system is effective and efficient.

What we need to do as we roll this out more widely is to ensure that the core framework for any elements to be quality assured is structured by the trust in the same way that we have done for the Business Team in order that we can carry out the strategic work required at trust level.

Hmmm …. An opportunity to learn more about the workings of the project management module.

 

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