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Business as usual for MATs?

Allan Hunt, Director at AHR Building Consultancy, reflects on The Chancellor's Autumn Statement

Posted by Lucinda Reid | November 25, 2016 | People, policy, politics

With the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and The Academies Show falling on the same day, fingers may have been crossed for an unexpected boon. Sadly, this was not a ‘giveaway’ budget and, as one commentator put it, focused far more on the ‘macro’ than the ‘micro’. To say that education was not given prominence is an understatement, with the only announcement being that of capital funding for May’s controversial revival of grammar schools. Those hoping for a windfall or an emphasis on schools as a whole may well be disappointed. Yet no news can also be good news and it is worth looking at what this ‘absence’ says about Government’s approach.

At worst, education does not appear to be a priority for capital investment. Emphasis was given to the housing crisis and the UK’s productivity difficulties, including redressing the imbalances between London and the regions. There was also a focus on infrastructure - Education and Health barely got a look in. On the other hand, educators can at least breathe a sigh of relief that while there are no happy surprises, nor are there any shock cuts or further upheavals. It was a relatively measured Autumn Statement in that while there was no major roll-back of Osborne’s hard-line austerity cuts, the current Chancellor did not appear to wish to plough on with any further full-force austerity measures, and in fact committed to some judicious investment. We can only hope this ‘middle path’ is also applied to schools.

We must also continue to wait for the new fairer funding formulas. Are we then none the wiser? We can glean some insights about the May Government’s attitude to education from Justine Greening’s speech at the Conservative Party conference back in October, along with the recently released Green Paper. Alongside the building of 500 new free schools, we find an emphasis on providing more ‘good school places’ which, in conjunction with the revival of selective schooling may well raise questions about those schools that might be struggling. Another overarching theme is the sense that the Government sees education as central to economic productivity. This is hallmarked all over policy – not least in the fact that FE, HE, and ‘adults skills’, previously handled by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, all now fall under the Education remit.

We also know that the drive to ‘academisation’ and particularly towards Multi-Academy Trusts, while not yet compulsory, will undoubtedly continue. As the Chancellor was making his Statement, The Academies Show was abuzz with the issues involved in this: if a school doing not as well gains by being part of a MAT, what of the ‘better’ schools? If match-funding for Academy condition improvement projects may be an advantage, how to come up with this initial funding in a still austere climate? On the other hand, there can be advantages to pooling together. In terms of estates, for example, there are efficiency savings in being able to treat multiple schools as one ‘portfolio of assets’. As but one example, carrying out condition surveys on several Academies at once allows for a far better ability to analyse multiple needs and cost-effectively allocate budgets.

So whilst the coincidence of the Chancellor’s Statement and The Academies Show may not have set the world alight, it is perhaps not all doom and gloom: certainly there were at least no nasty surprises or about-turns, and this can only be good when what the education world needs right now is some measure of stability and consistency. For now, it seems that for academies it is, at least, business as usual.

To find out more about AHR Building Consultancy visit their website.

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