SATs under increasing pressure to join MATs

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As we emerge into a post-Covid world, single academy trusts (SATs) will be under increasing pressure to join multi academy trusts (MATs). Should they consider moving now before they are pushed, asks Liz Wicks?

The Government has long believed that the future of academy schools is as part of a MAT structure. Whilst calls to merge have slowed throughout the Covid pandemic and with the Government focused on its Brexit agenda, SATs can expect increased pressure to merge or convert.

There are many benefits for SATs to merge with MATs, but this decision should not be taken lightly.

The pros and cons of MATs

The underlying aim of MATs is for schools to collaborate and benefit from the combined resources to deliver the very best education for pupils. It is argued that together, schools will see improved procurement and economies of scale, governance and leadership, making it easier to attract and retain the best staff.

The benefits of MATs include:

  • Economies of scale. The purchasing power of a MAT is greater than a SAT. This will become increasingly important as rising costs continue to bite.
  • Specialist educational resources. MATs are better placed to offer specialist educational support, after school and extra curriculum activities.
  • Staffing continues to be an issue for schools and is likely to remain so for the immediate future. A survey in April 2022 by the National Education Union suggests that one in three teachers plan to leave the profession within the next three years. MATs can share staff across schools, particularly when in a close geographic area, can offer staff wide and more varied roles, whilst investing in continuing professional development.
  • Leadership and management. MATs are likely to benefit from a strong leadership and management teams, with combined HR, finance and administration functions, sharing knowledge and expertise across all individual schools.

However, there are some distinct disadvantages that SATs should keep in mind. These include:

  • Geographic spread. A MAT with schools across a wide geographic area can find many of the shared resources, such as staffing, difficult to access.
  • The individual reputation of a school may be tarnished if the MAT fails to deliver on its promise or if other schools struggle.
  • Loss of autonomy. Schools that join a MAT lose their separate legal identity with decision making potentially resting in the hands of the MAT board.
  • Once a school has joined a MAT, leaving is possible but lengthy and complex.
  • Due diligence work on both sides is important to ensure that all stakeholders, both MAT and SAT, have the information to make fully informed decisions about transferring to a new trust. This can come with a cost but is the best way to prevent unwelcome surprises.

Increasing pressure

The Covid pandemic highlighted the pressures many SATs and MATs faced in having to rapidly switch to online teaching. Whilst all schools made the switch, there is a perception that generally SATs found it slower to adapt than their MAT colleagues.

It will, of course, take time for the full impact of the pandemic to be felt, but it will undoubtedly strengthen calls for SATs to merge with MATs. Schools that are found to have fallen short may be forced into mergers, leaving them with little say over their futures.

Those calls may become louder if, as is predicted, the profession faces its ‘great resignation’. Yes, of course, teaching will attract those looking for a career change, but will those from other walks of corporate life choose to join a MAT with the support offered or a SAT?

It is entirely possible some SATs will be given no choice but to merge with a MAT and it may be that now is the time to jump before pushed.

How Hillier Hopkins can help

Hillier Hopkins offers a 30-strong highly experienced education team that works with 32 academy trusts alongside many independent schools.

The team offers the full range of support to academy trusts from audit, accounts preparation and due diligence work to VAT and tax advice.

In a complex and evolving landscape, training and development of the audit team is vital. Hillier Hopkins has a continuous training programme delivered via regular internal and external experts.

That ethos of continued training and development is extended to our clients with a regular seminar programme supported by newsletters and technical updates.

Do you need extra information?
Liz Wicks

Liz is a key member of our Education team, and specialises in managing our internal audit processes for many of our larger audit clients.

Contact Liz at elizabeth.wicks@hhllp.co.uk or on 01923 634468