MATs move to centralise in wake of Covid pressures, study finds

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Many multi-academy trusts have moved to centralise HR, finance, health and safety and other policies in the wake of the pandemic, a new study suggests.

While only 15 trusts of mixed sizes in the Midlands took part in the research, it points to a potentially significant development for the sector if replicated more widely.

Trusts said the move allowed them to provide stability to individual headteachers who could then prioritise pupil welfare.

The study was carried out by the Confederation of School Trusts, ahead of its first annual conference held virtually this week, and the University of Nottingham. It included questionnaires and interviews with trust CEOs and school heads.

The report said CEOs and their teams had “buffered” academy heads by “centralising responsibilities for the development and implementation of policies relating to, for example, health and safety, HR and finance,” as well as providing greater personal support. “

The research highlighted “centralising processes” as a key trend among trusts, with an “early re-distribution of roles and responsibilities between the centre and the schools” after Covid first struck.

“This had brought a degree of stability to the leadership of individual academies, which were then able to focus on the welfare of pupils and their families more easily, and the wellbeing and capacities of teachers to provide and enhance their teaching,” said the report.

It added:  “Across all trusts, the centralisation of processes and policies was viewed as an effective leadership strategy, which allowed easing the burden on schools and strengthened the trusts’ policy presence.”

One interviewee said the pandemic allowed their trust to work as a “much tighter centralised, policy-driven unit,” adding: “It gave us permission to do what we hoped.” The trust was able to relieve administrative, bureaucratic, and financial resource-based “burdens” on schools.

One said a more centralised approach had ensured higher levels of compliance with guidance and statutory requirements. Another said their trust had been more able to take on certain responsibilities because the pandemic meant other responsibilities had been made impossible by coronavirus restrictions, resulting in a “rerouting of work.”

Researchers said all participants were looking to “build upon and embed” certain changes made in the pandemic in longer-term planning.

Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the CST, said the research corroborated recent Ofsted research highlighting the “crucial” role of trusts in providing support on safeguarding, interpreting Covid guidelines and developing remote learning. She said it “argues for the importance of connecting with others.”

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