At this point, primary schools in England have largely survived a long period of austerity measures. We may not have come out smiling, exactly, but the situation has at least encouraged some of us to pursue more creative budgeting methods and think ‘outside the box’.
The academisation drive that’s accompanied this period of austerity was originally premised on enabling schools to more effectively share best practice, pool their resources and create efficiencies. But how practical actually is it for primary schools to pool their resources in this way?
From the outset, it should be recognised that collective initiatives in no way make up for the shortfall in funding that all schools are facing, and will likely continue to over the coming years. They should be entered into with a degree of caution; if a collaboration is formalised and/or takes place within a MAT, political and other agendas may result in the project not being beneficial to all. However, true collaboration pursued with the right approach and aims can be successful for both your finances and outcomes.
Any initiative which brings together unrelated parties needs careful input and planning from all involved. Use a business planning approach, set out desired outcomes, establish a timeline and key performance indicators, and devise a robust monitoring approach – that way, you can ensure the collaboration will be well managed and its aims achievable.
Take, for example, a group of primary schools who all require a minibus for transporting their pupils to swimming lessons. Individually, they can’t afford to run their own – but when approached as a collaborative project, this becomes financially viable. First, however, some key decisions need to be made around where the bus will be kept, how it will be shared, who’s responsible for its maintenance and ensuring that it’s available for all parties to use when required.
Let’s assume these considerations get sorted, and that the schools collectively approach the local swimming baths and agree a schedule which allows the bus to be shared. The housing and maintenance tasks have been agreed, and all schools have come to an arrangement whereby they can use it for their respective lessons.
Assessing the risk
The next step is risk management. At this point, all parties will look at the KPIs and assess what risks are attached to their involvement in the arrangement. For instance, what’s the contingency plan in the event of the bus breaking down? Key to this are the decisions reached regarding the partners’ shared responsibility and issues relating to the cost of ownership and shortfalls due to user error.
Say school 1 has a student who proceeds to damage the bus to such an extent that it’s rendered unusable. School 2 consequently has to pay for private bus hire in order to cover an urgent transport need. In this instance, who should end up paying for what? It’s therefore important to put prior work into ensuring a blame culture can’t exist between the schools involved.
The final step is to protect the sustainability and longevity of the agreement – and one way of doing that is to ensure that the terms agreed between you and your partners are fully understood and confirmed at the outset.
Returning to our minibus example, let’s say several schools club together to lease a vehicle, but one school later decides to pull out, citing financial concerns. This won’t be sufficient grounds for all parties to end their contract with the vehicle provider. Instead, the remaining schools will have to fulfil the terms of the contract between them, however financially challenging that may now be. This is a simplified example, but it highlights what can happen when entering into collaborations that haven’t been properly set up.
A more positive example is one of the secondary schools I work in, which is currently engaged in a collaborative project with a group of local primary schools focused around distributing good practice, running joint training and sharing resources – the latter including everything from minibus access, to putting in place service level agreements for ICT, finance and business management. The aim is not for the secondary school to make money out of the arrangement, but to open up the resources it has and make them available to other schools who would otherwise be unable to afford them.
The school is now planning to build on the project by hosting termly meetings for support staff, sharing CPD and opening up its grounds – which include a lakeside shore – for the primary schools to use as forest schools. In my view, this is true collaboration; rather than competing against other schools, we recognise that we all have the same aims and objectives and seek to make the most effective use we can of the public money we receive.
More formalised collaborations, of the sort generally built by federations or MATs, will have a written set of criteria and outcomes and often be focused on using economies of scale to achieve cost efficiencies. (though to be fair, this something maintained schools can do too). Collaborations of this kind will commonly involve centralising services such as finance, HR and site management, taking control of contracts and service level agreements, and negotiating as a larger entity.
This can result in significant efficiencies and savings if done properly, but it can also take away the autonomy and ability of certain schools to purchase locally. In some cases, it may even mean that participating schools have to compromise on what they actually get out of their group purchases, causing ill feeling among the schools involved.
If you like the idea of inter-school collaboration, but either can’t or prefer not to pursue it at a local level, what other options do you have?
Buying collaboratives have been around in education for a while, and can provide schools with the opportunity to purchase items as part of a larger buying initiative. I’ve previously used commercial companies to buy ICT items – they will tender for a number of schools, who then all get to benefit from the company’s economy of scale purchasing rates.
The DfE has since taken up the mantle, creating the Crown Procurement Service to help schools with their purchasing and procurement. Whilst not a ‘collaboration’ in the truest sense of the word, it still gives schools the chance to create efficiencies and savings, and is thus a credible alternative.
As a school business manager, collaborations are a key tool in my ongoing efforts to ensure the schools I work with are using their money to the best advantage of the students. Exercise a note of caution when entering into them, and understand thoroughly all aspects of what you’re getting into – but in general, collaborations are an excellent way of spreading good practice and pursuing new opportunities.
Sue Birchall is a consultant, speaker, writer, trainer and business manager at The Malling School, Kent