I’ve written previously about the relevance and potential pitfalls of some of the online information available regarding academy trusts, and how it can harm those organisations working hard to improve. But recently I was asked a different question – what information would I like to see about trusts that isn’t out there in the public domain, which would help to highlight the achievements of individual organisations, as well as offering an opportunity to compare similar size institutions?
This got me thinking about some of the information that trusts currently collate and examine, and how that could be put to better use, maybe in front of a wider audience.
For a start, it would be great if there was a clearer link between the information that each trust submits to the Department for Education (DFE) for the land and buildings survey – which happens in October every year – and the financial benchmarking website data and census data.
For example, last year, I undertook a financial efficiency review for a lot of trusts across East Anglia. One of the things that came out of this was whether schools were making the best use of the facilities they had at their disposal. So if your school is at 80 per cent capacity in terms of student numbers, what are you doing with the other 20 per cent? Are they just dormant rooms, are they there for interventions, or are you hiring them out to generate revenue?
That sort of information is not immediately apparent when you’re looking at the financial benchmarking website. Still, if you did have more information about the age, condition and usage of the school site (which is all obtainable through the land and buildings survey), it could help to explain why a school with 80 per cent capacity is operating more or less efficiently than a school ten miles down the road which is at 94 per cent capacity.
Likewise, if you have census data, you can potentially isolate where student number utilisation is at its most efficient, which might also help to understand where there is a capacity for improvement.
Having access to all of this information in one place could help trust boards identify strategies to make their organisation as viable as possible – should they push to recruit more students, or look to reduce their costs? Where should the leadership team be expending their energy?
With academy trusts becoming ever more accountable and autonomous, these sort of strategies are a fundamental part of helping to shape a school’s trajectory and its journey of improvement. For stakeholders to be able to see that journey will undoubtedly improve the patchy understanding of how academy trusts can (and do) achieve better outcomes for the young people under their stewardship, but this is not currently available. Ratings and benchmarking give a snapshot of the performance of a school or trust, but often out of context. I’m not sure how feasible it is, but it would certainly be reassuring for people looking from the outside in, to know that, even though a school is in special measures or requires improvement, it’s on a journey and heading in the right direction. It could also be one way of holding trusts to account for what they are committed to achieving.
It would also be beneficial to know how many and what type of pupils are being serviced by an individual trust, and how widely geographically dispersed that trust is – two factors which can contribute significantly to a trust’s effectiveness. The overall number of pupils gives you an indication of revenue-generating capacity. However, with a bit more detail and joined-up thinking, it can also tell you how many are generating funding with additional factors (such as deprivation, special educational needs, social care etc.) and how that mix contributes to the circumstances of that trust. Is there a correlation between staff headcount and the level of SEND or deprivational factors that contribute to the funding rates in that school? What is that relationship? And is it comparable?
I also know from experience that five schools within a ten-minute drive of each other will naturally collaborate more effectively than five schools spread two and a half hours along the coast. For example, where it’s difficult to get from school number one to school number five – which is some miles away – and be ready to step into that building and start adding value.
Finally, I’d love to see the correlation between the average school improvement journey of a trust, and how it rewards its key people who are responsible for delivering that improvement. Both of those pieces of information should be absolutely transparent and in the public domain. It’s a public service delivered by public servants. If those public servants are being paid medium salary levels and are delivering outstanding results, there may be a strong case for improving their remuneration. But if they are being paid top salaries while not delivering more improved outcomes for the people in their care, they shouldn’t be rewarded financially for poor performance. It would also enable trusts to justify decisions on how to best spend public money. And that’s the role of governance – to make the best use of public funds, to hold to account those people who are paid to deliver – but if you haven’t got all the information, it’s really difficult.
So while I’ve previously warned against the false gods in terms of misleading or irrelevant information about trusts, that’s not to say we don’t want publicly available information – in fact, the more information, the better. It just needs to be the right, relevant information that can help us to improve academy trusts, and to hold people to account.
This post was written by Tom Meeks, Senior Manager at Price Bailey and a trustee at a multi-academy trust. If you would like more information on this article, please contact Tom using the form below.
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