What makes a good academy conversion?
We all read the headlines about what can go wrong with academy conversions. Issues such as problems with PFIs, disagreements over terms and a realisation that two different sets of ethos might not align keep cropping up over-and-over again.
Rarely do we ever see any guidance or best practice about what works well. With the best part of 7,000 conversions already completed across the country, it can’t all be bad.
Jeff Marshall, who established J&G Marshall Ltd, has been responsible for 100s of conversions and is increasingly offering support to Single Academy and Multi-Academy Trusts looking at both growth and mergers.
Jeff said: “What makes a good academy conversion is, on one level, very simple. It is about entering into a relationship with your eyes fully open so that you know the benefits, and some of the harsher realities, of what you are entering into.
“This comes down to doing your homework and undertaking quality due diligence. If I had a pound for every time I was told a governing body was looking on making some serious decisions about their school’s future based on Google searches…well, I could be a rich man.”
“Yet, therein lies another problem. At a MAT level, lots of trusts have undertaken growth for growth’s sake and don’t fully audit a school before joining them. They accept the school on the basis of some broad conversations and then are surprised by some of the problems and issues they inherit. Terms then, understandably, change – but the process has left a nasty taste in the mouths of both parties.”
Jeff added that detailed understanding at the start then eases the conversion process.
“There is a grant to help schools convert. The reality is that, if you do the correct due diligence, conversion can be a very straight forward process. That is why I am able to charge schools and trusts just 50% of the money they receive for conversion – so that the remaining 50% can be used to support school improvement.”
So what should schools and MATs look at as part of the due diligence. Jeff’s three key points are:
- Firstly, both parties should conduct a comprehensive review of key areas to give an honest account of the strengths and areas for developments for a trust and school at that moment time. This includes; Teaching & Learning, Leadership and Management, Governance, Finances and, if applicable, a Condition Survey.
- A second piece of work needs to then be undertaken to assess capacity and strength for the future. This includes looking at Standards & Track Record, People and Leadership, Risk Management, Financial Sustainability and the Vision & Growth Plan.
- Finally, while initial support may be needed, due diligence should be owned by the organisations themselves. They are the ones who live and breath their trust and school, so can interpret some of the nuances of what the due diligence means for them.
Jeff added: “That is why we offer toolkits and training for due diligence. It improves the skillsets in a trust, reduces cost and helps ensure that problems are addressed before they arise.
Is this approach really as effective as it is made out to be? Dan Thomas, CEO of The Learning For Life Partnership, believes so.
Dan said: “Since starting on the journey to develop a multi-academy trust, J&G Marshall has been with us every step of the way. In the first instance we used their services for advice when deciding on whether we converted or not and then for the conversion itself.
“Jeff and his team were fantastic at giving us advice on all aspects of the conversion and through their knowledge and experience of converting schools the process was straightforward and allowed us as a school to focus on the children rather than the conversion.
“Since our initial conversion Jeff has worked with us on converting another school into the MAT as well as providing support with due diligence on other schools and academies to make sure that we are fully informed in all aspects of the schools before we agree for other schools to join us.
“The level of detail and information that Jeff’s team have given us has ensured that our Directors are confident in making informed decisions about our growth strategy. This vital work ensures that we are not risking our existing schools by making poor decisions.
“I couldn’t imagine us using any other conversion team and see J & G Marshall LTD as a key element of our multi-academy trust.”