School staff should look after 'every penny like their own', says academy trust CEO

School staff should treat “every penny” of funding as if it was their own and apply the same “discipline” to financial management as they do to improving educational performance, an academy trust CEO has said.

Tes reported earlier this week that the David Ross Education Trust has asked its schools to consider using cover supervisors instead of supply teachers and “only boil as much water as you need in kettles”, as the chain grapples with a £1 million deficit.

But writing in Schools Week, Rowena Hackwood, the trust’s chief executive, said it was common for academy trusts to “live and breathe the collective responsibility of educational outcomes”, but said the same “cannot be said of financial outcomes”.

Schools have in recent years been forced to look at ways to tighten their belts in response to rising costs and flatlining funding. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that funding has been cut by 8 per cent in real-terms since 2010.

The government itself has encouraged cost-saving initiatives similar to those deployed by DRET, and now sends school resource management advisers in to schools and trusts to help them find ways to trim more from their budgets.

But the initiatives have prompted a backlash from angry heads, who say they are being blamed for years of underfunding.

Hackwood, a former education director at Capita who will leave DRET at the end of this academic year, said the steps taken by her trust “make educational and staff sense”, and insisted the organisation is not alone in considering how best to cover staff absence.

She also defended efforts to cut down on non-essential travel and using technology for communication, and said making schools get non-teaching rules signed off by her “means that we think twice about the best use of our resources”.

“These are sensible management approaches to relieving the funding grip we and many others find ourselves in. Many more are just plain common sense economically – not to mention environmentally.”

Hackwood said considering whether documents need to be printed or copied, switching off lights in disused rooms and not filling the kettle for one cup of tea were “all things we typically do more of, and better, in our own households, yet less so in our places of work”.

“And that’s the central point: I want every member of staff to think of every penny as though it was their own. ‘Efficiencies’ and ‘value for money’ get bandied around all the time, but they don’t mean much unless we look at the everyday spend as well as large-scale items.

“Elite sports coaches obsess with marginal gains to move performance onwards and upwards, and while we are all used to looking at education performance in that way, the same level of discipline is not consistently applied operationally and financially.”

In 2018, DRET was warned by the Education and Skills Funding Agency that it was “vulnerable” following a review of its finances. It had a forecast deficit of £4.9 million as of June 2017, and officials raised concerns about “limited revenue funds”.

In response, the trust introduced a shared service for academy back office functions and pooled school budgets. Accounts show the trust had a deficit of £1 million as of last August.