From the magazine: Hey big spender! (Part ii)

With public money comes public accountability. Ithe June/July issue of Education Executive two of our contributors explored the stipulations and considerations associated with spending public money as well as addressing questions of accountability and compliant procurement

Last week, Sue Birchall, SBM at The Malling School, Kent, discussed creating a ‘best value’ culture. In this, part ii, Stephen Mitchell, chief operating officer at The Spencer Academies Trust, Nottingham, checks accountability and how to pass the litmus test

The Nolan Principles are the guiding star of accountability. We work in the public eye and, whether we like it or not, the decisions we take are part of the duty of public service and, therefore, we’re bound to uphold these principles – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. These apply to us in a number of key areas: financial probity, value-for-money, compliance, risk management, staff welfare, student welfare, data security, etc.

Distilling value-for-money

A system of accountability is based around a good and robust management structure, where there is solid, evidence-based review – without undermining the trust that exists between colleagues. We must be able to demonstrate our performance, conduct independent verification where appropriate (for example, audits) and report above the bare minimum. There are many areas on which we must report – compliance with these is a part of accountability and we should be driving this level of transparency where it is in the interest of the public for us to do so.

However, there must be a point at which transparency and accountability become too expensive and cease to represent value-for-money. I put judgements of value-for-money to what I call ‘the Daily Mail test’ – how would a decision look if it was that day’s headline? Would I be prepared to stand up and justify that decision with cameras pointing in my face? I find this to be a good litmus test; however, this doesn’t mean that we should always opt for the cheapest solution – a more expensive option in the short term, one that is higher-quality, can be ‘better value’ in the long term – we need to assess this. Where that line is drawn is subjective – but we should be able to stand behind our decisions.

Prime procurement

There are multiple procurement frameworks that schools can access; these are helpful, and can save huge amounts of time and, potentially, money. It’s key, however, that you take the time to establish exactly what it is that you want to procure and in what volume – you may find you’re better-served by setting up your own framework which caters precisely to your school’s needs; we’ve just done this across several areas in our trust and saved significant sums.

However, being a relatively large trust makes this easier, as we can free up the resources required to establish our own frameworks and get things up-and-running. There are procurement specialists out there who can help; I’ve had great experiences with one procurement company which, with a level of expertise and competence that we don’t have, was able to negotiate the procurement of our catering provision and saved over £300,000 for us over a three-year period. That money is now being reinvested in improving the quality of education for our students. Win, win! Collaboration with other schools is a potential way to help save funds by being able to take advantage of buying in bulk. This is a great opportunity and it’s worth developing relationships but, I would also say, it’s important to ensure that you’re procuring what you need and not compromising on what you want to get cheaper unit pricing.

Delivering equity

Pupil premium (PP) is such a shame; I wish there was no need for it to exist in the first place. We believe that all children deserve an equitable education; unfortunately, evidence shows that those from disadvantaged backgrounds do continue, on average, to underperform and make less progress compared to children from less disadvantaged backgrounds.

Pupil premium is, therefore, essential to deliver that equity. Pupil premium is designed to benefit Child A, for example – not by attributing the full amount to her/him solely, but by ensuring that the school invests in activities and resources which mean Child A and other PP students close the performance- gap with non-PP students. Rolling pupil premium funding into the rest of your budget for use on day-to-day activities – without any regard to the impact it will have on student attainment – would fail any substantive level of scrutiny; allocating some of the funding to support the running costs of intervention staff may be appropriate in individual circumstances though.

Key to this decision is comparing the level of pupil premium funding received with the outcomes achieved through its application. If you are putting all funding in the same ‘pot’ then I would urge you to look at your budget and ask what would be removed from provision if £X funding wasn’t there – and then justify that. Ask, ‘Is it driving student outcomes for all the cohort, or primarily the PP students?’

This article featured in the June/July issue of Education ExecutiveSubscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.

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