If schools want more money from government, they must use funds efficiently

15 Apr 2019, 14:59

The government’s scheme for providing financial advice to schools is helping them redirect more resources to the frontline, argues the academies minister, Lord Agnew

School resource management advisers are part of a package of support to help schools get the best value out of their budgets. Their work is not something that should be viewed in isolation, taken out of context, or, as Schools Week chose to do, framed as a cost-cutting initiative with the aim of improving trusts’ bottom lines.

The article I reference, Limit pupils’ lunch portions to save money, say Agnew’s cost-cutting advisers, called into question the expertise of SRMAs in helping schools make the very most of their available resources to deliver the best possible education for pupils.

In response, I am challenging those that suggested the work of SRMAs does not have the interests of pupils at heart, and I will evidence the impact the expertise of the SRMAs is already having at Chapeltown Academy.

SRMAs offer professional financial support, usually free of charge, to schools and trusts that need it. These advisers are not merely accountants looking to improve the bottom line, they are sector experts – often school business professionals with many years’ experience helping make the best use of resources to maximise what they have to spend in the classroom, rather than to crudely cut it altogether.

Their support is the same as that offered by national leaders of education and national leaders of governance, and school leaders value this support, including the head of Chapeltown Academy – the school said to have been told to “reduce lunch portions”.

At no point was the school told to limit pupils’ lunch portions. On the contrary, advice was offered on how the school could cut down on how much food was going to waste – and this was just one of 12 recommendations in a report to help the school maximise its budget. [*Editor’s note: the report said the school should “look to improve the efficiency of the kitchen, including reviewing the portion size and waste control”. The school was also advised that portions were “too large” and “by controlling these, it will reduce the amount of food purchased”.]

The headteacher – who has since told officials in my department that he, in fact, found working with SRMAs an overwhelmingly positive experience – took this advice and has since been able to offer better quality food to pupils at a lower cost to the school and, with re-directed resources, is now offering more classes in popular subjects.

It is up to schools to decide which of the recommendations to implement

Recommendations such as these have helped schools across the country to tighten up governance of their spending and to redirect more resources, from all areas of their budgets, to the frontline – a process I would challenge anyone to disagree with.

It should be noted that they are only recommendations – as it is absolutely for schools to decide which of the recommendations to implement, based on their specific circumstances. This programme is not about telling schools that they are doing things wrong or forcing them to make changes against their will.

However, where a change to spending is achievable and will not have a negative impact on pupils – or will directly benefit them, as is the case at Chapeltown Academy – we would expect schools to see the benefit of taking these independent, impartial recommendations on board.

To offer further support for school leaders, the education secretary has been clear that he will argue to make sure schools have the resources they need to deliver a world-class education as the government-wide spending review approaches. 

To stand the best chance of securing that money from the chancellor, we must also ensure schools can use funding as effectively as possible, as any taxpayer would expect.

School resource management advisers help them to do that.

*Schools Week put this inaccuracy to the Department for Education but they chose to leave the text as it is.

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  1. Chapeltown has a recovery plan in place following ESFA financial support. Presumably this explains the SRMA advice. But the recovery plan isn’t included in a DfE FoI response showing a repayment schedule for ‘longer term advances’ to academy trusts.
    Chapeltown isn’t the only missing trust. It’s difficult to rely on DfE FoI responses if info is incomplete.