Five key takeaways for MATs from the autumn 2023 Schools and Academies Show

The Schools & Academies Show attracted thousands of people from the education sector to Birmingham’s NEC with a programme of inspiring content, policy updates and practical resources. 

The twice-yearly event brings together schools, academies, multi-academy trusts, central government, charities and education-related businesses. 

iplicit was there to demonstrate its education finance software but also to listen to school leaders, education experts and frontbench politicians. We picked out some of the key takeaways for schools and for MATs in particular.  

SAAS Roundup

1. The government really likes MATs 

We know the government favours MATs as the way for many more schools to go – and Baroness Barran, Minister for the School System and Student Finance, was full of praise for them. 

Addressing the event’s main stage, she said: “I’m such a believer in what a strong MAT or a strong family of schools can bring to everybody in the system. 

“I think it centres a lot around resilience.” 

This resilience shows in a host of ways, she argued. These include the quality of the curriculum, “professional resilience in terms of support for teachers and teaching assistants” and financial resilience in the form of “more intentional” spending. 

MATs are also “organisationally more resilient”, she said.  

“People always underestimate the career opportunities that a strong MAT can offer, particularly in primary in primary, with more incremental steps that teachers and teaching assistants can make,” she added. 

She said such schools were “really trusted anchor institutions in the community. 

“There’s greater interest than there has been for many years in conversion to become academies,” she added. 

2. Labour isn’t keen to reorganise schools unnecessarily 

If the opinion polls are to be believed, we’re likely to have a Labour government in charge of education at some time in the next year or so. 

Catherine McKinnell, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Schools, spoke about the party’s mission to “break down barriers to opportunity”. 

She didn’t mention academies specifically, but suggested the party doesn’t favour change for change’s sake. 

“We know there’s been so much change in the sector, so our mission to improve standards doesn’t mean disrupting good schools. We want to learn from and build on what works whilst bringing a fresh approach to our education system,” she said. 

“Our mission-driven government will break down the barriers that are holding too many children back and ensure rising standards for all.” 

She said the party was committed to breakfast clubs in every English primary school, to a mental health hub in every community and mental health counselling in every secondary school. 

But she stressed Labour’s eagerness to work with teachers and other education experts. 

“We need to reset the relationship between government and the sector. Schools can’t do this alone and neither can government,” she added. 

3. Education could be slipping down the agenda 

Like Labour’s Catherine McKinnell, the Liberal Democrats’ Education Spokesperson, Munira Wilson, spoke of the financial difficulties facing schools – whose spending power, she said, is 3% lower than in 2010. 

“Headteachers and school leaders are having to make heartbreaking decisions,” she said. 

But she pointed to YouGov polling that suggested education was no longer among the handful of issues cited by voters as top priorities for the country. It lags behind issues including crime, immigration, housing, health and the economy. 

“Education has fallen off the government’s, the media’s and, sadly, the public’s agenda,” she said. 

She said this lack of priority – together with the staff churn in schools – was creating a “toxic mix”. 

Yet investing in education meant “spending on human capital, generating returns for generations to come”, she argued. 

4. The cost of living crisis is still blighting education 

It may be that inflation has peaked, but the cost of living crisis is still acute and is affecting schools as well as the families they serve. 

A session called The Cost of the Cost of Living heard from Jenna Julius, Research Director at the National Foundation for Educational Research, and Lorna Nicoll, Operational Lead at Children North East. 

“The share of pupils experiencing wellbeing challenges has increased in secondary schools by about 10 percentage points,” said Jenna. 

“We’re talking about really big magnitudes.” 

This was a strain on schools, which had to put more resources into supporting those pupils, as well as on the families struggling to make ends meet. 

The cost of living crisis has also made staff recruitment and retention harder. 

“Half of teachers couldn’t afford an unexpected expense of £850,” said Jenna. While this was in line with survey results for the workforce generally, she added: “It’s a real concern that this is only going to exacerbate recruitment and retention challenges which we know schools are already grappling with.” 

Lorna said retaining teaching assistants was also hard in this environment. “I’ve heard head teachers saying ‘All my teaching assistants are going to Aldi’,” she added.

5. Setting school budgets is going to be VERY tough 

An average-sized secondary school could be looking at making budget cuts of £300,000-£500,000 in 2024-25 to avoid worsening its deficit – on top of the squeeze that’s been going on for the past decade. 

That was the message from Simon Oxenham, Director of Resources at Southend High School for Boys and National Lead for the Institute of School Business Leadership, looking at the funding situation in Southend. 

He said schools in his area are set for an average 2.1% funding rise (discounting an outlier which has had an unusual revised allocation). With costs rising by 7%, that creates a need for substantial cuts. And many have deficits to carry over from the previous year. 

Simon also pointed to the challenge of rebuilding schools – currently being done at the rate of 50 a year. 

“It’s going to take 488 years to rebuild every school in the land. How many schools do you know that are 488 years old and still in use?” he said. 

In a talk titled Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance: How to Plan a Budget in Changing Circumstances, he urged schools to be bold and to establish “red lines”. He said they should stick to these and argue: “We are not going to cross this red line because it will damage provision.” 

He urged schools to communicate with local authorities and the Education and Skills Funding Agency – as well as to lobby local MPs, who would not want to see schools fail in a general election year. “Be brave, protect your red lines and engage,” he said. 

Simon offered a checklist for school leaders: 

  • Have you got your red lines to protect pupil outcomes and safety?
  • Can you demonstrate you are as efficient as you can be?
  • Have you explored every option?
  • Are your forecasts based on realistic assumptions?
  • Do you have a predicted outturn?
  • Are your decisions defensible?
  • Have you had an SRMA (school resource management advisers) visit?
  • Are parents ready to be supportive?
  • Is your MP on board?  

Looking to 2024 

There was no denying the scale of the challenges facing everyone in schools at the moment. But the Schools and Academies Show offered plenty of opportunities to share experience and best practice in order to tackle those challenges. 

There will clearly be no less to talk about when the first Schools and Academies Show of 2024 comes to London’s ExCeL on May 1, 2024.  

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