Our Conversation with Claire Jones, the CFO of the Great Learners Trust
Claire, could you please give us an overview of the Great Learners Trust? What are its foundational goals and current challenges?
I think, as a trust, we’re growing and when we started looking for a new finance system we were nine schools and during the last year we’ve taken on a further two schools bringing it up to 11 schools. We didn’t have a finance system ready to support the growth journey that we were looking to do. We have a vision to grow more so that we can enable a wider group of pupils to benefit from the education that we’re able to provide and offer, and we needed the right IT in place to be able to progress that forward.
What would you say was the main driver behind having to find a new finance system? Was there one pivotal moment or a number of events that led to this?
We had a number of frustrations with our previous system, but the biggest issue we had was around reporting, we couldn’t get the flexibility and customisable reports that we needed and to be able to provide accurate management information to trustees etc. And with the system that we had in place, it also wasn’t fully functional from managing the finances centrally. So we needed to move to a model where there’s more shared services between central and our schools in order to support them with their finances. And there just wasn’t the functionality in the system to do things well at a central level and even down to basics like being able to post a reversing journal at central was not an option. So it was a necessity really for us to look elsewhere.
How did Sage Intact come onto your radar as a possible solution?
We did a little bit of market research at the start of our journey and, obviously, the kind of well known names came up like PS Financials, which is now IRIS. And so we started our journey off with those and we spoke to a couple of other trusts as we were going along and did a fair bit of Googling and looked on the FD Forum etc. As we were doing that journey, names kept cropping up and Sage Intacct appeared a couple of times, it sounded like it was quite new. So I think it wasn’t as well known on the market, but those that we spoke to that were using the product already were very positive about it. So we continued and booked a demo to see for ourselves.
Could you guide us through your decision making journey and what were the alternatives you were considering?
We put out a tender with the support of a law firm to manage that process, and we had narrowed it down to three systems that we wanted to look at for finance. We were doing a two-tier tender at the time. So we had finance and budget systems within that. And so we put it out to those that we had already demoed and identified would be systems that we thought would be suitable and there were three systems within that: Civica, PS Financials and Sage. We had the three systems and in the end it was a reasonably close call between PS Financials and Sage.
But I think Sage edged it forwards because the reporting functionality was much stronger. You could, as a business, develop the reports to your own needs. They were very customisable. Whereas if you wanted bespoke or individual reports with PS Financials you were looking at a fee to produce them, a consultancy cost in order to do it. Whereas Sage was offering the whole package and you could do everything within it. You weren’t going to be looking at an extra cost to do this, or when a new requirement came along. It was all going to be the ability to edit and do that yourself and produce something that was easy, ready available, ready to run or, you know, the full package of the report to be able to deliver to somebody without manipulation in Excel or various other bits and bobs.
Once the solution was selected, can you describe the process of transitioning from Access to Sage Intacct in terms of implementation?
The transition process was probably slightly more complicated for us because we also chose to change our chart of accounts at the same time. So it wasn’t a straight lift from one system to another system. And so there was a fair amount of legwork to do in order to get our data remapped from a chart of accounts that was really familiar to us to a chart of accounts that we were rather unfamiliar with and that we didn’t know. It was really fortunate that Danny did know the chart of accounts quite well and so he was able to support and direct us throughout that journey where we were looking at six-number codes used to four and didn’t know if we were coming or going.
We worked really closely with Danny throughout the process and he kind of held our hand on the journey from start to finish. It was a difficult few months for us because internally we didn’t have sufficient capacity really to be doing the project at that time. But we persevered and, I think, the support that we got from Dayta was really good and Danny was always available to answer our questions. And whenever we rang through, there was somebody on the phone straight away which is always really nice. There’s nothing worse than raising a ticket that needs answering and having to wait when you need an answer there and then. We never had to wait when we were trying to do something or change something.
I think we probably both learnt quite a lot along the way because, I don’t think Dayta had transitioned many customers at that point in time onto Sage Intacct and some of those that they had transitioned would have been on other Sage solutions, rather than another system. I think it was a good process. We certainly felt supported throughout it and it was just it was tough for us because in hindsight we really needed some extra capacity internally to be able to make that level of change in the system and we just didn’t have it available at the time.
What immediate advantages did you observe post-transition?
I think whenever you install a new system, you’ve got to give yourself at least three months to start to get used to the system. Even when you join a new company and you start with a new system where you’ve got experts around you all the time, you still don’t really know the system until you’ve been there a good three months. I think when you put in a new system, your team around you can’t always answer all your questions. It takes a little bit longer than three months in order for that to be embedded. We’re just coming up to four months now and it’s only been about the last four to six weeks where my team have started to come back to me with the positives.
They’ve gone through the implementation pain, and they’ve gone through the difficult part of implementation where everything feels quite foreign to them, they’re doing things in a different way. It takes you longer to do stuff when you don’t know the system. So they were all busy, as it was near year-end for us. They were trying to gear up for year end, manage audit and learn a new system. They did only start coming back to me with positives and the last four to six weeks. But it’s been really nice to hear what people have been saying about it. They’re talking about how it is starting to make their workload easier, how they can duplicate and copy things that they used to have to input one by one.
We haven’t moved to automated bank reconciliation yet, but that’s on our radar in the next few weeks to get the skills in the team to be able to roll that out. They are starting to see the benefits of it, and they particularly like the reporting for management accounts because we used to have to download multiple reports in Excel in order to be able to produce the level of information that we wanted to provide our trustees. And now they hit a button and the report comes out with everything that they need in there. So they’re seeing the benefits.
I think from a financial control perspective, it’s really helpful because of the workflow that we can see, we know it’s built into the system. So when the head teacher tries to go and approve an invoice that’s more than ten grand, that’s out of their authorisation – they can’t, and they kind of come back and say “Oh, why can’t I approve this?” Well, you don’t have the authority to approve it. So it really helped us embed the procurement process that was always laid out but there was the ability to circumvent it on paper and that now isn’t possible. It’s helping improve our financial control in that respect and it’s been really helpful to be able to interrogate management accounts and make corrections without having to repost journals. Being able to reclassify journals where they’ve been coded to the wrong place, and things like that, has made it a much cleaner, slicker process to get our numbers in the right place when an error has been made.
Are there any tangible metrics or examples you could share that demonstrate the benefits brought by Sage Intacct?
I think tangible at this stage is quite difficult. Because there’s still things that we’re feeling our way around in. I’ve spent some of today tweaking and designing reports for some of the schools for their governor reporting packs. But because we’ve been so low on capacity and we’ve been running year-end and audit, which is still going on, there’s so many things on my to-do list that I know I want to do and can do with Sage, and I’ve just not had the time to get there.
I was doing a little thing today where we were posting some statistical journals to get the pupil numbers into the finance system and, you know, you just like: “ohh, yes, brilliant. That report comes out now!” Whereas before, all 11 schools used to go into Arbor, pick up the number, populate it in the report and it’s now just there for them. Every time they run any report and drop that metrics in it, it will appear so and it always gets me a little bit excited.
Would you recommend Dayta and Sage Intacct to other Multi-Academy Trusts and what insights or tips would you offer for seamless transition?
Yes, without a doubt I would. I would highly recommend Sage and the team at Dayta and, as I say, we feel really supported and Danny certainly knows his stuff inside out and has been able to fix anything that we’ve come across where we’ve wanted to see something differently or change our structure. He’s found a solution for absolutely everything that we’ve come across and that we wanted, that hasn’t automatically come out exactly how we wanted it the first time. So it’s been really nice that we can tweak everything to how we want to see it as a trust and while he’s done all of that, he’s given me the skills to be able to do it myself moving forward. So I’m not reliant on Dayta on a daily, weekly basis because I’ve got the skills now to do most of that myself. I think, as a support partner, you’ve all been brilliant and the product’s great.
I think for people doing an integration or a system transition moving forwards my top tips would be: don’t do it quite as close to year-end if you have a choice and whilst we weren’t able to do it after year-end, obviously it’s cleaner to do it as a September start and you’ve got to have the finances to be able to pay for two systems for a year to be able to do it that way, to close your year-end, and and we didn’t, so that was quite tricky, our timing. I think, in hindsight, if we’ve been able to do it slightly earlier before year-end, then we would have been up and running with the new system before we then had to enter the year-end phase. We would have had a better skill set at that kind of time. But there’s never a perfect time to do these things.
I would say, if you can get yourself some extra resource, it isn’t a small task, changing your finance system. It is a big, big job, especially if you change your chart of accounts at the same time as well. So if you can get anybody to help with some of the daily grind while you’re doing other things, then that would really help. Because otherwise you’re chasing, trying to play catch up all the time. Every report that you’re used to having or every process that you’ve got in place, it’s all needs changing. But everything that we did at year-end, every schedule we provide the auditors, every analysis tab that we do, we’ve had to change every single one of them to be able to change the chart of account codes on it. But also to change the layout, because the layout would often pick up from the old system and the new systems never going to produce an identical layout. We didn’t want it to. That all takes a lot of time to design and develop and you need to be able to have that capacity and resource to be able to spend time on those areas that are going to take you longer for quite a period of time.