December 2015


  • Influential focus
    Six months after the General Election, we have a much clearer understanding of how the political land lies. Whatever the challenges may be, there are numerous opportunities for us to influence policy makers both in government and in opposition, says Brian Lightman. More
  • Making maths add up
    When specialists are scarce, leaders need to understand the fundamentals of mathematics in order to ensure it is well taught throughout their schools, says Julia Upton. More
  • Central lines
    John Banbrook looks at the advantages of centralising services for schools in a multi-academy trust (MAT) and the issues for leaders to consider in terms of governance, staff and costs. More
  • Off the chart
    The obsession with tracking and recording data threatens to annihilate joyful learning and teaching, says Dame Alison Peacock. To make assessment truly meaningful, we need greater expertise throughout the system. More
  • No barriers
    Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson brushed aside society’s low expectations of disabled people to achieve multiple golds on the athletics track and a seat in the House of Lords, yet still faces prejudice in everyday life. She talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Recruitment drive
    The number of graduates entering teaching is falling and the confusing plethora of routes into the profession isn’t helping. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how schools are tackling the problem themselves. More
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John Banbrook looks at the advantages of centralising services for schools in a multi-academy trust (MAT) and the issues for leaders to consider in terms of governance, staff and costs.

Central lines

The Faringdon Academy of Schools is one of the largest MATs in Oxfordshire with eight schools. It was created in 2012 when the secondary school, Faringdon Community College, and Faringdon Infant School, and Faringdon Junior School agreed to join forces in order to exert a greater influence on the educational strategy in the town.

In November 2013, building on existing partnerships, we expanded with five further local primary schools and the new trust was one of the first nationally to contain a mixture of primary, secondary, Church VC and non-church schools. There are now 2,500 pupils from nursery through to sixth form, more than 400 staff and an annual budget of £12m. The governance structure comprises a board of 12 directors, including an executive head, and eight local governing bodies who oversee each of the academy schools.

The trust had three senior leadership roles with a trust-wide responsibility: the executive headteacher (part-time), director of school improvement (part-time) and the business and finance director (full-time). As the academy evolved and confidence grew, it became clear that there were more activities that would benefit from being conducted centrally.

As resources become even tighter, the spotlight on centralising support functions is really on.

Governance and trust

The foundation of every successful MAT is effective governance.

One of the early lessons identified through the conversion and expansion process was that while the partnership headteachers knew and trusted one another through working closely together for a number of years, there was considerably less trust between the local governing bodies who simply did not know one another. Even now, with the academy schools working increasingly more collaboratively, effective communication between local governing bodies and the board of directors is one of the biggest challenges we face.

To address this, we hold an annual summer conference each July so that we have at least one opportunity every year for all directors, local governors and heads to get together. The chairperson also holds a ‘Chairs Forum’ twice a year so they can meet with the chairs of all the local governing bodies. But it remains a work in progress and we still have to improve the communication flow between our directors and local governors.

One of our headteachers recently encouraged all of our staff to refer to ‘the academy’ as ‘our academy’. This subtle change of language is actually really helpful as it builds a sense of belonging and supports our overall approach of ‘realising potential through partnership’.

Our leadership team, comprising all of the headteachers, the executive head, the director of school improvement and the business and finance director, meets every three weeks to discuss collaborative teaching and learning initiatives and once every half-term to discuss support activities.

Building a whole-team approach with effective governance and leadership is the prerequisite to establishing the confidence and trust to centralise services.

The case for a more joined-up approach

Following the expansion of our academy from three to eight schools, we took some time to consider ‘What next?’

It was clear that the next five years would bring significant financial challenges with funding allocations not keeping pace with growing costs and, in particular, spiralling staff costs. It is also possible that other local schools may ask to join the academy or that we may be asked to sponsor other schools. Both of these pressures pointed to a need to take a more joined-up approach to our support activities.

In addition, the academy programme has inevitably driven a professionalisation of the support organisation within schools, something clearly recognised by bodies such as ASCL, the National Management (NASBM) and the National Governors’ Association (NGA). A professional support organisation within a small- and medium-size MAT can reasonably oversee all of the schools within their MAT and the administrative processes and procedures, including procurement, routine HR and operational level finance, which are part of everyday life.

In theory, this should allow trustees and governors to govern, headteachers to focus on teaching and learning and professional support staff to deliver the enabling activities. In practice, care must be taken to avoid the feeling of a loss of autonomy by those headteachers and governors who have been operating in the maintained sector for many years.

How much?

So, how much activity should be centralised and what should be left in schools? This is probably the most challenging consideration for emerging MATs like Faringdon. On conversion, we agreed to common budgeting and accounting software with a single bank account. This has enabled us to mature from a model where schools conducted their planning independently to a model where we can take a whole academy approach to financial management.

Last year we delivered economies by centrally procuring IT support, broadband and management information systems (MIS) support. Following a whole academy support staff organisation review, we recently decided to centralise all our finance staff and HR support into a single office and to bring all premises staff under a single line manager. We expect both of these initiatives to lead to further savings as we identify better ways of working across our schools.

We are looking to deliver more of our contracts, such as catering, grounds maintenance and telecommunications, from a single provider. We recently took this a step further and completed a collaborative procurement exercise for payroll provision together with 34 Oxfordshire academy trusts, allowing us to negotiate as a group but to contract individually. It won the group the inaugural Education Procurement Excellence Award earlier this year and we are now repeating the exercise for energy procurement and HR consultancy support.

While the gradual move to centralising support has already delivered savings, there are other benefits, too. Notably it allows us to upskill our support staff, who, in turn, will deliver a more coherent and consistent approach that will inevitably lead to identifying more opportunities and further savings.


A popular concern associated with the centralisation of support functions is that member schools may lose their identity or ethos. Ethos and character stems from strong leadership and organisational values. Assuming that effective governance and leadership is present, ethos and character can absolutely be assured at individual schools.

The support staff reorganisation that we have been through was challenging and occasionally divisive. However, we are confident that it was necessary to deliver the professional structure that we need in order to operate for the future.

We have taken the opportunity to be proactive in delivering change early rather than to wait for a time when it is forced upon us, perhaps by financial or employment pressures. Our new structure provides the foundation for the next level of working more collaboratively in order to meet the challenges of the future.

John Banbrook is Business and Finance Director at Faringdon Academy of Schools, Oxfordshire.

Find out more 

See the following ASCL guidance papers online: 

ASCL guidance: Effective Procurement 

ASCL guidance: Forming or Joining a Group of Schools: Staying in control of your school’s destiny

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