From the magazine: The Big Short

Feature

It’s a difficult thing to call – the future direction of school funding – but accounting for uncertain budgets which are under severe pressure is something that those who manage the school books are accustomed to. Marie Cahalane talks budgets with finance managers Sue Birchall and Rob Cole and finds that – even in such testing times – opportunity knocks

The National Funding Formula (NFF) was met with great enthusiasm and its delay produced raised eyebrows. There was, briefly, a faint hope that, in lieu of the formula which is now delayed until 2018-19, there might be an interim cash injection to support schools. Such hopes were quashed by Justine Greening in September.

It seems to me, an invested outsider, that when it comes to school finances the goalposts are always being moved. How do you meet the demands of a school’s budget under such conditions? To answer this tricky question, I sought out two individuals familiar with the fluctuations of school finances: Rob Cole, finance and business manager at Wey Valley School, Dorset, and Sue Birchall, finance manager at Mascalls Academy in Kent.

We’re already working on a minus minimum funding guarantee, cutting costs where possible and trying to work within the constraints of an ever-reducing budget and ever-increasing costs

An honest overview

“As school business managers we’re fairly realistic and we’ve known for a while that the NFF wasn’t going to come in yet,” Sue says. That no additional funding is to be allocated to help schools is also of little surprise and, to school leaders well-acquainted with tough-love budgeting, it’s just another day. “We’re already working on a minus minimum funding guarantee, cutting costs where possible and trying to work within the constraints of an ever-reducing budget and ever-increasing costs,” Sue explains. Wey Valley School is situated in Dorset which is one of the f40 groups that have been lobbying for

Wey Valley School is situated in Dorset which is one of the f40 groups that have been lobbying for change in the NFF. For Dorset schools, and schools in the other 39 education authorities perceived as underfunded, the NFF offers hope. However, the delay is a source of particular concern given the added costs – employee pension, NI contribution, the one per cent pay award, the performance management, incremental drift and the negative 1.5% minimum funding guarantee – that eat away at the edges of already taut budgets, while schools strive for improvement. “The old adage of ‘trying to do more with less’ really holds true; at Wey Valley School we’ve been doing more with less for the last 10 years; it’s a matter of how far you go before looking at other options and opportunities,” Rob tells us.

The old adage of ‘trying to do more with less’ really holds true

More with less

Sue stresses the importance of knowing the school that you work in, being aware of all that’s happening and making clear correlations between spend and outcomes – demonstrating value for money. “It’s about re-educating members of staff so they realise that every penny spent must have an impact; if they spend it and don’t evaluate it, then they’re not showing its worth,” she explains. Demonstrating value for money extends to everything, from resources to staffing. “We’re questioning more and more what each person is delivering in school; every member of staff is a cog in the system and it’s about ensuring that each cog is moving at the right pace,” Rob adds.

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Having a clear vision of what you require from your budget is essential; it should be considered in conjunction with your school improvement plan – enabling you to prioritise effectively. In the last two years Rob has adopted the ‘zero-based budgeting’ model – starting from scratch in a budget sense and working up, based on the priorities defined by the school’s improvement plan. “It’s really questioning, through the budget, what provides value, knowing what your greatest resources are – teaching staff – and realising that’s where your greatest output should be.” And, the ideal scenario? Small input, high outcome.

Where we can, we do things in a uniform way, even between phases so that we can cut down on the expenses incurred

Sharing is saving

Collaborative procurement provides efficient, cost-effective purchasing and is a further budget-saver. Rob is fortunate enough to be on a campus with a special school, a primary school and a pre-school and he collaborates across them all. “We’ve developed a campus ICT team and a campus site team; these have brought financial savings and also increased capacity as the teams are more mobile and more responsive across all the schools.”

Sue, working as part of a MAT, uses the ‘cluster-model’ which, again, enables collaborative buying and sharing of resources across the MATs’ schools. “Where we can, we do things in a uniform way, even between phases so that we can cut down on the expenses incurred,” she says. Having previously worked in a maintained school, Sue has experience of successful collaboration between local schools. However, she says this was limited by a tendency to stick within phases rather than involving both primary and secondary schools. Wey Valley School is looking at the MAT as a way of sustaining and improving teaching and learning whilst having a real, hard-edged look at the back office functions of the schools. MATs connect schools and so foster collective purchasing and mutual sharing, providing, as Rob points out, “…a vehicle for delivering education within financial constraints”.

Testing times

While, these are testing times for SBMs there is still room for manoeuvre. “It’s about making sure that you have everything in place – that you’re trying outside sources, attempting to generate income and making the most of your budget,” Rob says. The school budget is a precarious balancing act and poses a challenge that demands a strategic and innovative approach which encourages schools to be dynamic – and therein lies opportunity. As Sue notes, “Along with every risk in a reduction in funding, or flat cash which, in effect, is a reduction, there’s an opportunity to look at what you’re doing and try to make changes.”

This article first appeared in a print edition of Education Executive. For more articles like this straight to your desk subscribe to receive the magazine. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, or connect with us on LinkedIn!