It’s a fact of life that money makes the world go round – something that applies to schools and education as much as it does anywhere else. Whether or not you believe schools should be run as a business, the truth is that schools in essence currently operate as businesses with a restrictive business model. Our main ‘product’ is the education of children.
In my time as a school business leader, I’ve seen a shift in the attitude of senior leaders – and to be fair, most staff – towards the financial elements of education. When I started in the profession back in 2002, there was a feeling that education shouldn’t have a monetary value; that what was needed for students should always be provided.
In these times of austerity, this attitude has been strongly challenged with all schools now recognising the need to plan their budgets to outcomes and seeing the importance of delivering both educational and financial value.
We’re often as seen as the ‘bad guy’ when trying to bring up the cost element in conversations about education supply, whether they be operational costs (stationary and resources) or developmental costs relating to CPD and other services.
Taking a holistic view that refuses to recognise cost as an element of measuring an intervention’s outcome, new product or strategic decision can cause confrontation.
Teachers often don’t understand the restrictions their SLT may be under when supporting or denying a purchase – though of course, if your SLT don’t understand those restrictions either, you have a bigger problem on your hands.
Keep staff informed
Your own personal budgets need buy-in from all stakeholders to ensure that true value for money and best value can be achieved – so how do we attain this at a whole school level? Regardless of whether you allocate budgets that others are responsible for, or manage them all centrally, every member of staff has to recognise the need to generate value from their spending.
Strategy number one is to therefore share information. Historically, schools have tended to keep the budgeting side things at senior management and governor level only, creating a culture where staff have little awareness of what’s happening with respect to their school’s general funding and budgeting.
Budgets are often distributed on the basis of historical spend, or as a percentage of the ‘pot’ left remaining after a school’s day-to-day operational spend is fully accounted for. This eventually contributes to a culture of kneejerk spending at year end to ‘use up the budget’, resulting in purchases that may have no impact at all on student outcomes.
Begin by dispelling any myths about the way your school is funded and to what amount. If you fail to share this information among your staff, they’ll fall back on assumptions shaped by what they’ve read in the press and social media. The first time I did some training with staff about how our school was funded I was shocked to discover that they held some very strange and inaccurate views about what the costs of running a school actually entailed.
However, I received a fantastic reaction when they realised that over 75% of the school’s income was spent on staffing. Once we’d added in the costs of running the building and our statutory and operating expenses, they quickly came to understand the need for best value purchasing using the 5% of the budget remaining for curriculum spend. A true eye opener!
Embed the idea of budgeting
Once your budget holders and staff understand how your finances work, it’ll add a level of responsibility to their purchasing and budget decisions. No longer will orders be placed without them giving some thought as to the resulting impact on the wider school budget.
Having exposed staff to the realities of your school’s financial opportunities and restraints, the second step is to then embed the concept of cost to every aspect of the school’s operations. If you’re an SBL attached to your SLT, you’ll be party to various discussions around strategic planning and operational changes and therefore be well placed to put this into action.
But even if that doesn’t apply to you, there are still things you can do to improve the financial perspective of your senior colleagues when it comes to important decisions:
- Ask to cost the school improvement plan
- Provide cost reports for staffing and other such decisions, even if they’ve already been made
- Provide financial monitoring that can be shared at SLT meetings
- Seek out your Pupil Premium champion, and sports and music funding leads, and offer them help with monitoring their spending
- Create service level agreements for the school’s various services and ask to have these discussed and approved by SLT
Even if imparting this knowledge isn’t requested of you, the more your colleagues are able to understand about spend versus outcomes, the easier your role will be. One of the most productive pieces of advice I can offer for SBLs is to not be afraid to speak up and share the cost impact of the decisions made at your school.
Some of the above strategies may also work when working with teaching staff, particularly around budgeting for different subject area plans and monitoring spending through regular updates.
The next step to consider how you can maintain this newfound budget-sensitive attitude among your staff and keep it going. Use your initial information sharing sessions to discuss the positives of knowing and understanding how school funds are spent.
At SLT level, make it clear that the ability to cost and accurately assess interventions for Pupil Premium, SEN or any other type of directed funding will add value to reports and statements and make for great discussions with Ofsted.
Among teachers – particularly those who are budget holders – drive home the message that using their funding in a way that achieves the greatest impact will help them better gauge what’s working and improve results. The process of doing this can also provide your colleagues with a useful form of CPD.
Finally, include others in your decision making when it comes to setting both your annual budget and three-year strategy. Indeed, I’d encourage staff to look at their proposed spending not just for the year ahead, but also looking further forward.
Particularly if, for instance, you have any longer term projects on the horizon, such as the purchase of a new three-year ICT programme or are testing something now that might require a financial commitment later down the line.
Ultimately, the setting of your budget is a whole school issue that calls for a whole school approach.
Sue Birchall is a consultant, speaker, writer, trainer and business manager at The Malling School, Kent.