Q&A with Stephen Mitchell

Prior to our MAT financial planning in uncertain times webinar, we sat down with interim CEO of Oak Multi Academy Trust and Director of Keystone Knowledge, Stephen Mitchell.

Thank you for agreeing to join our expert panel for this webinar. From your perspective, how did this opportunity come about?

“I have known Will Jordan for several years now. We share similar beliefs on aspects of MAT leadership and opportunities to support schools with strategic financial management. I completed my MBA with a thesis focusing on improving the quality of management in education, and my experience working for two MATs over eight years as well as wider knowledge of the sector has informed my view that generally we need get much better at it. I think IMP Planner is a great platform which helps to deliver better financial information to MATs, and is something that can clearly be used as a resource for driving up standards. It is not just the MAT budgeting platform per se; it is the layers of financial and non-financial information it provides on a quasi real-time basis.”

Tell us about Keystone Knowledge.

“I founded Keystone in January 2020 to support Trust and school leaders with solutions to the whole range of operational challenges they face, allowing them to focus on educational experience and outcomes for children. Previously I was Chief Operating Officer at Spencer Academies Trust – a 20-school Trust that grew significantly in the period that I was there, and where we achieved many successes. We were the first MAT to get to 100% renewable electricity across all of our sites and, we believe, the first Trust to eliminate single-use plastics from our catering supply chain. Crucially though, this was all achieved alongside our schools delivering great educational outcomes and educational experiences for children. With Keystone, I want to support smaller MATs and help to improve them. This ethos has also led to a role as interim Chief Executive Officer of Oak Multi-Academy Trust, a five-school MAT in Leicestershire. My long-term vision is for Keystone to be at the forefront of driving the quality of education organisational leadership.”

What are the issues and challenges facing MATs at this time around financial planning?

“I have never been someone who has said there is a funding crisis in the sector. There is enough money in the system, as evidenced by MATs such as Spencer Academies Trust, but we do need to do things differently in terms of financial planning and should not assume that the answers just lie within the sector. More funding would always be welcomed, but we have to be able to operate responsibly with the funding we have. Ultimately, we are public servants and have to use taxpayers’ money effectively and responsibly; nobody would expect schools to spend more than they receive. The challenge is delivering the immediate requirement to continually improve teaching quality versus planning for the long-term stability of the organisation – and MATs have to be sustainable. Very simply: when a child walks through the door there is typically a guaranteed ‘income’ stream. 75-80% of MAT costs are payroll, so we have to get on and manage the rest. However, the sector is generally fixed on summer results, and not where we need to be in 5-10 years’ time. For children starting school this year we have a duty of care to plan for what education looks like in 2033; that is not happening across the country. We have to drive systemic change.”

What are the implications of the Covid-19 crisis?

“Firstly, what schools and their staff are achieving in this current situation is incredible, and I applaud each and every person working in the system. What the pandemic has shown is that MATs which have previously embraced education technology and remote working platforms are not scrapping for resources today. There is also the cancellation of the Budget Forecast Return Outturn (BFRO). Whilst this helps workloads in the immediacy, this is actually something that MATs should be doing anyway. We should be looking forwards to an outturn position. MATs should be developing a three-year budget forecast, regardless of whether the Department for Education requires them to submit a form or not (and they have only deferred the decision currently on the July submission of the BFRO). All of us have to approve budgets for the next financial year – so effectively delaying that as well until later in the year is not helpful. Good MAT finance teams will be doing this. School business leadership now has the opportunity to indelibly change on the back of Covid-19, to recognise that we need to do things differently if we are to move forwards. There is also a need to pull up the profession and for MATs to help unlock the potential of other people by developing peers. Let us all do something about it and move to the next conversation.”

Going back to your interim CEO role, why did you decide to take up that position?

“This was an opportunity to return home and support children in an area where I grew up as a boy. Oak Multi-Academy Trust is on a really interesting journey – and we have a huge opportunity to make a difference to a huge number of children. We have a strong base to build from: Manor High School, for example, is performing in the top 1% in the country and we have some excellent primary schools too. My role is to help the Trust grow structurally and culturally, but that does not necessarily mean chasing growth of more schools. I am a great believer in partnerships and where there is an opportunity for the right organisations and the right people to work with us, and us with them, for the benefit of children, we will do that. It does not always have to be about expanding the size of the MAT. If you are chasing growth to secure extra funding, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Keep your focus on the children and you can’t go far wrong. We need to develop the strategy, vision and processes for that journey.”

MAT Financial Planning in Uncertain Times
IMP Software is proud to bring you an expert panel for our upcoming on-demand webinar, which focuses on helping MATs navigate financial planning in uncertain times. IMP Software Co-Founder Will Jordan will be joined by Stephen Morales (Chief Executive of the Institute of School Business Leaders), Stephen Mitchell (Founder of Keystone Knowledge and former Chief Operating Officer of Spencer Academies Trust) and Pam Tuckett (Audit Partner and Head of Education at Bishop Fleming). We will discuss how MAT CFOs can work through the current challenges and, whilst the BFRO is cancelled, still, produce robust financial forecasts despite the many ‘unknowns’ that still remain. We would love to put your questions to the panel as well; if you are battling with any of these issues please submit one through our portal. Join our ‘on-demand’ webinar, available w/c 4th May.

Submit your questions to our expert panel here