Moving beyond the MAT Leadership Development CEO Content Framework

An increasingly critical reference point for trust leaders, and area of scrutiny, is the MAT Leadership Development CEO Content Framework.


This framework, which was published last March, seeks to ‘codify’ the knowledge, skills, and behaviours deemed important for strong trust leadership across six domains: Leadership and Organisational Development; Quality of Education; Strategic Governance; Finance and Operations; Workforce and Talent Development; and Public Benefit and Civic Duty.


Finance and Operations, which our eyes are drawn to as smarter MAT finance experts, provides an overview of the financial management and operational systems CEOs need to employ to ensure the sustainability of the education they deliver and the growth of their MAT.


In summary, CEOs must have knowledge on how to ensure:


  1. The CFO and their finance staff are appropriately qualified and/or experienced as outlined in the Academy Trust Handbook.
  2. The organisation’s finances comply with all statutory and legal requirement.
  3. That sound financial management systems are in place.
  4. The trust’s activities are directed to achieve the most efficient and sustainable provision of education to the highest quality, prioritising and making the most effective use of public funds.
  5. All related party rules are adhered to.


Whilst there are a few sections focused on the standard compliance pieces, which we would consider important but not too revolutionary, some of the detail in the Finance and Operations section is worthy of deeper thought and reflection.


Crucially, the framework requires leaders to embed an annual planning cycle, which includes Integrated Curriculum and Financial Planning (ICFP) reviews at key points in the year that can inform recruitment and staffing plans, and identifying key months for full reforecasting and address these throughout the year, drawing on published guidance. Embedding ICFP is also repeated in the section on prioritising and making the most effective use of public funds.


So, in any discussion about going beyond the Finance and Operations requirements in the MAT Leadership Development CEO Content Framework, we would encourage trust CEOs (and their CFOs and specialist finance/operations professionals) to consider the following:


  1. Moving from budgets to forecasts

There is a growing trend among our customers who are seeing the need to move from budget monitoring to forecast monitoring. Questions we routinely hear are ‘Budgets are out of date as soon as they are produced (especially this/last year!), so what is their worth?’ and ‘Should we go through the year trying to meet the budget?’


Whilst there are differing views, there is an increasing sense that budgets are set with limited information and changeable assumptions – think teacher pay awards last year – and are essentially a ‘best guess’ of what the next year will look like, which also factor in the priorities at the point of setting the budget (often April to July).


So, with these challenges surrounding the budget-setting process, is it then right that you spend all year as an organisation trying to ensure your actuals are then in line with the budget? Tracking to budget can also lead to challenging behaviours. For instance, the view that if budgets are there they should be spent, regardless of whether we really need to; and that as budgets do not roll forward, and unspent monies could go back into the central coffers, a ‘let’s ensure that it’s spent’ mindset creeps in.


We also know that changes happen all the time in education, and some of these are unforeseen and can often be quite significant. In just the past couple of years we have seen the larger-than-expected teacher pay awards, Mainstream Schools Additional Grant allocations, National Insurance increases (and reversals), and more recently some excruciating energy price movements. Change within education is guaranteed, and in some instances these changes can be positive.


In all cases, whatever the change, it is important that priorities are continually assessed and can be accommodated with adaptations to the trajectory or strategy mid-year. Agility is key. It is important that we are structured to expect these changes and reassess priorities when they happen and, where necessary, alter course to mitigate the effects or benefit from the bonus.


For trusts that are recognising this, they are pivoting to monthly forecasting, with less focus then being placed on the year-to-date position (other than to risk assess the full year forecast). – with focus being on the future, this is something that you can change, whereas with focus being applied on the year-to-date picture, this is backwards looking and has already happened. This sounds obvious but this change of focus can really help finance to be an enabling function, rather than a restrictive one.


Whilst this is not new, reforecasting has historically been a painful process, so as a result has largely only been done once or twice a year. Whilst this meets the requirement laid out in the CEO Content Framework, with MAT-focused software such as IMP Planner that is designed to provide an agile approach to financial management, trusts are able to do a full reforecast every month, with less comparable effort.


  1. Embedded, not tokenistic, ICFP


Our straw poll in 2023 found that only 10% of trusts who were sampled have fully embedded ICFP across their schools. Over a quarter (26%) reported that ICFP is not being done in a meaningful/consistent way and a further 54% have partially embedded ICFP in their schools.


So, how can we enable more trusts to move from either thinking about ICFP to being able to embed it on an ongoing basis, and really get the benefits from what ICFP allows? This is an aspiration we should be working towards, but with MAT-focused technology trusts can ditch spreadsheets and embed an iterative approach to ICFP.


Embedded ICFP, in our experience, involves:


  1. Allocation of resources maintained and considered all-year round, not just once or twice per year.       


This helps to ensure that staff re-structuring decisions, caused by issues such as falling pupil numbers, can be considered throughout any 12-month period, avoiding snap decisions and difficult processes around budget-setting time.


  1. ICFP datasets contributing to all staffing planning discussions and maximising a trust’s resources.


There are lots of staff changes mid-year, so it is important that the current ICFP analysis can be considered, not the dusty old spreadsheet that was produced back in March and is now woefully out-of-date.


  1. Changing priorities are captured and considered on an ongoing basis, which can then be checked against the existing staff resource plans to ensure they have a chance of being achieved.


Essentially what we are talking about here is if something is a priority for the school or trust, is this supported by the resource being allocated to it?


With trusts that have embedded ICFP, all staff planning discussions are grounded against the current resource allocation dataset. ICFP analysis should never lead decisions, but should be an objective dataset to aide discussions. School staffing is constantly changing so there are a lot of moving parts. ICFP can provide a grounded position so decisions can be taken which are supported by present-day information, yet used to help ensure that priorities really are prioritised.


One fear that can often present itself with ICFP is the perspective that “accountants are trying to run my school based on metrics”. Metrics being higher or in ‘red zones’ are not necessarily a problem, but if you do have high/red metrics, it is important they are deliberate – i.e. we know this metric is high, but this is because we are placing extra focus on x; effective – the additional focus is working and providing the results you would expect, and balanced. To make space for high/red metrics, there needs to be corresponding green/low metrics. Education funding has never been more challenging so this leads to tough decisions. Of course, if all metrics are high/red you will have budget issues.


  1. A further push on GAG pooling


Finally, I was surprised to read the following paragraph in the Content Framework:


“CEOs must ensure that resource allocation across schools in the trust has sound rationale and transparency, including by instilling collective trust-wide responsibility for all pupils attending trust schools”.


Now maybe I am reading this with rose-tinted glasses, as I have been a proponent of GAG Pooling (in the right context!) for some time, but the ‘collective trust-wide responsibility for all pupils’ sounds very much like what I hear when trusts are talking about why they GAG pool.


What is not in doubt is centralising and GAG pooling is a growing trend. Our MAT Growth Survey found that 94% of MATs felt that centralising more of their operations and/or funding could make them more effective. And among those Trusts that already GAG pool, 71% said their approach to pooling or centralisation had been either a positive or neutral factor for schools looking to join them. GAG pooling was also highlighted in the 2023 Academies Benchmark Report as growing in traction, with 41% of trusts now pooling, and 54% of large trusts either pooling or actively considering it.


What is also interesting to see is how the definition of GAG pooling has evolved in the past two versions of the Academy Trust Handbook. In 2022, it was described as: “A trust with multiple academies can amalgamate GAG for its academies to form one central fund. This can be used to meet the running costs at any constituent academy within the trust.”


Yet in the 2023 version, the description is extended to read: “The ability to amalgamate and direct funds to meet improvement priorities and need across the trust’s schools can be integral to a trust’s successful financial operating model. A trust with multiple academies can amalgamate GAG for its academies to form one central fund. This practice can enhance a trust’s ability to allocate resources in line with improvement priorities and running costs across the trust’s constituent academies.”


This is major change within the space of a year and, to me, indicates the growing sense from the DfE/ESFA that GAG pooling can be a powerful force to ensure that resources are allocated upon need, not based on who gets what funding.


Will Jordan is Co-Founder of IMP Software