Simon Leicester on strategic and operating flexibility in schools

Simon looks at competing schools, teaching shortages and rising costs

In part one Simon Leicester, school governor and director of finance and business, explored the financial benefits that flexibility thinking can have when managing challenging times in schools. In part two, Simon looks at competing schools, teaching shortages and rising costs

This is the second in a two part feature by Simon Leicester; if you’ve not already done so read part one here

How can applying flexibility thinking – and using flexibility as a tool – be used in situations where new school competitors start operating in your local area?

Firstly, by engaging with them, not as competitors but as collaborators. Look for win-win outcomes, shared views and common interests. Embrace identical finance systems, similar procurement suppliers, complimentary specialist classroom resources, shared school policies and processes, mutual staff secondments, common training sessions and complimentary teaching timetables.

Secondly, remain flexible in relationships with multiple schools concurrently; then, if one relationship sours, others may thrive. Refer overflow business demand to peer schools – for example, in the case of after-hours school lettings demand. Co-operate in student enrichment outings that leverage each other’s alumni connections.

How can flexibility thinking and flexibility as a tool address the problem of the sector shortage of teachers and rising sick leave levels among established staff?

Firstly, think less about the person missing and more about how their work could otherwise be done; some teaching can be ‘outsourced’ to student self-learn educational software that is licenced for the school to use.

Secondly, can the teaching hierarchy be flattened at peak times to allow more middle leader intervention in the classroom – change the incentives to increase the flexibility?

Thirdly, can more teachers be deliberately hired for part-time positions, allowing them to pursue a ‘portfolio career’ as part-time classroom teacher and, perhaps, a part time private tutor? Fourthly, can smaller-than-average KS5 classes be merged between partnering schools to free-up teachers to cover for sickness absences elsewhere in the school?

How can this be applied to changing stakeholder expectations?

Arguably, for academies, the two key stakeholder groups are the taxpayer – represented by the EFA via its funding – and the parents of current students at the school.

The EFA values responsible management – risk management, preservation of internal controls and adherence to the funding agreement – flexibility offers a rich landscape of options to achieve those things.

Parents are far more individualistic, diverse and unpredictable. When enrolling their child at Year 7 they expect the school to remain a going concern and provide a good education, with suitable social development opportunities for their child until graduation. The flexibility to remain a going concern while their child is a secondary student is preserved in at least two ways – by prudent financial management of the school and by close partnering with a peer school of similar education standards. MATs are able to do this best by offering the child a place at another school inside the MAT if need be. Effective parental engagement offers a further opportunity to create and preserve flexibility in managing parental expectations – the richer and deeper that engagement, the greater the goodwill fostered and the greater the operating flexibility created.

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Lastly, how can applying flexibility thinking and using flexibility as a tool help address the problem of rising costs?

Firstly, regarding staff costs – which comprise the biggest cost in most schools – job descriptions can be systematically reviewed and redesigned to alter the job fractions. For example, a finance manager’s role could be reconfigured as 0.5FTE on financial reporting, 0.15FTE on fundraising (working with other departments), 0.1 on financial budgets, plans and forecasts and 0.25FTE on general project management (working with other departments).

As well as having staff utilise their time on school processes, fractions of time could be combined and recombined on a range of other issues for the school.

Secondly, staff turnover could be viewed as an automatic opportunity either to achieve natural attrition – redistribute the duties – or rehire at three scale points lower for that post, for example, to offset incremental drift arising from the progressive length of service.

Signs that flexibility is falling in an organisation:

  • Being surprised that the organisation came second not first in certain measures, e.g. in published league tables
  • The organisation’s balance sheet weakening over time
  • Experiencing rising customer complaint levels
  • Growing skill mismatches in the labour force
  • Managers are too busy fire-fighting to concentrate on improvement
  • Excessive contract loopholes keep emerging i.e. contracts are not flexible enough to cope with reality
  • Rising staff turnover (staff voting with their feet)
  • Internal complaints about the level of bureaucracy
  • Excessive emphasis on staff utilisation (at the expense of student needs)
  • Efforts to removing decision-making ability from the front line.

Note that falling organisational flexibility may be a by-product of other problems, i.e. may not be the only problem.

Note: The content here is the author’s view alone and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the views of his academy school or the other academy school where he contributes as a governor.

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