Successful service delivery models: Where to now for school support services?

Catherine Newman, Sharpe Pritchard

The saying goes that ‘a week is a long time in politics.’ That certainly rings true at the moment in the field of education. Against this fast-changing backdrop some things will always be the same. One example is the need for all maintained schools and academies to have good quality service provision for teaching and learning and the back-office functions that are necessary for successful operation.

This issue is heightened by the still anticipated proposals to introduce a new national funding formula with devolvement of resources directly to schools, rather than via the local authority. This means all schools will need to find ways to continue to access good quality, flexible, cost effective services.

Many academies choose to receive services from local authorities, so the potential to work collaboratively across the maintained and academy sector remains very relevant. There is a growing trend to establish new organisations for the specific purpose of delivering services to schools that local authorities can no longer guarantee to provide.

The overall driver for a successful school services delivery model is meeting the requirements of the schools themselves. These will be determined by local factors: the strength of the relevant local authority, the number of (particularly sponsored) academies in the area and the prevalence of other quality service providers.

There is no one size fits all solution. This is reflected in the range of models in operation and emerging, including joint procurements or local authority led procurement for specific services, schools’ companies, public or private sector ventures and different forms of employee-led mutual.

In a number of areas, school improvement services are being delivered through a body which is separate from the local authority but which can harness existing local authority expertise. Through that organisation, participating parties can collectively agree a financial and practical basis to offer support to all schools in need, be they maintained or academies. Options may seem complicated but exploring straightforward questions, such as the following, can help:

  • What services are required?
  • Who wants to work together?
  • Who should receive the services?
  • Where is the current expertise and how is it funded?
  • How should the services be funded in the future, for example, top slice contributions, rate cards for pick and mix, grant funding, local authority funding or commercial operations?
  • What influence, if any, should the local authority have and should there be a relationship between the local authority and the organisation?
  • How should appointment rights to any board operate? How will success be measured, who will be responsible for doing that and what happens if something goes wrong?

Thinking about these things will help to shape answers to more technical questions as to:

  • the purpose of any intended organisation, for example, commercial, social enterprise, mutual or co-operative; and
  • the appropriate legal form of any intended organisation, for example, company limited by guarantee, community interest company, co-operative and community benefit society or trust.

A good starting point is for all interested parties to explore these issues and to draw up a non-binding memorandum of understanding. Although not legally binding, a memorandum of understanding is a useful tool for focusing constructive discussion and recording common intentions.

It is also important to remember that the timescales for authorisation processes, to enter formal arrangements, will vary between parties depending on individual governance arrangements.

Finally, it is essential to have a clear information sharing strategy so that individual governing boards can make informed choices as to whether the intended model is right for them. Getting this right can mean the difference between an option being viable or not.

So, while the pace of change is fast and the financial backdrop challenging, taking a collaborative approach allows schools to come together to harness expertise and establish service delivery models which can be flexible and bespoke. With a fair wind, that could be a positive opportunity.

This article was first published in MyAcademy.

Catherine Newman
Sharpe Pritchard
020 7405 4600