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.

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  1. Mark Watson

    It’s easy to make comments about how not filling a kettle won’t exactly transform a school’s finances, and of course it’s correct. We all want more Government funding for schools, and if another £1 billion was allocated tomorrow we’d re-adjust and then want more. Quite rightly so.

    But we all have to operate in the financial environment we find ourselves in. Drawing an analogy to people’s individual circumstances is helpful. If someone came into my house and made suggestions for how I could save money (e.g. by not filling a kettle and turning off lights) I might adopt their suggestions or I might decide the savings are not worth it. But what I wouldn’t do is get angry with them on the basis that I’m not paid enough by my employer to waste money on unnecessarily boiling water and leaving lights on overnight.

    So when someone suggests how schools can save money why do heads get angry and say they are being blamed for years of underfunding? I’m 100% not saying they should be happy with the level of funding they’re getting- it should be more and they should always be campaigning for more. And unless I’m mistaken, no-one’s saying “if you boiled less water you’d have more than enough money in your school” – and if they did this would be crazy – but everything saved is money that can be spent on improving educational outcomes.

  2. Perhaps the reasons heads get angry is because they’ve already cut down to the bone to make savings. In such circumstances, simplistic calls to only boil as much water as needed tend to raise hackles.
    Your analogy doesn’t work. Your visitor suggesting how to save money is not your employer as in the case of DRET. And you’re not expected to act upon it.

  3. Mark Watson

    Perhaps it’s hard for anyone ‘inside’ to understand the total and utter bewilderment felt by those of us on the ‘outside’ when sensible suggestions for how to save public money, which could be used for our children’s education, are angrily dismissed. The irony is compounded when the people objecting to reducing waste then complain about a lack of money.

    Boil less water, turn off lights, use less colour photocopying, reduce food waste … and THEN when there’s still not enough money to educate the children to the standard they deserve there’s no argument.

    No-one’s even touched yet on the environmental benefits of what’s been suggested, separate to the financial savings …

    • Robert Moore

      Really ! If a CEOs want to cut costs – turn the tables to look at the huge costs involved in the 4 restructures that DRET have had over the past 3 years – so much waste paying staff redundancy payments! Then to hire the same staff back! Look at the number of secondary headship vacancies over the past 4 years – 15 vacancies for the 11 schools. Interesting that the longest serving secondary head has been in post for 2 years!!!!

  4. She has been in post for several years. DRET has a £1m deficit when it started with £0 deficit. Sound tips. Wrong person delivering them. Once the pot has finished establishing the kettle is black she should quickly turn the lights off.

  5. Don Johnson

    Considering CEO salaries are among the highest in the education sector, often six figures, it is somewhat insulting to suggest schools need to be more prudent. Perhaps a salary cap on these people will allow more money to be directed where it is needed most, the students and vital resources.

  6. Carl Smitj

    These comments are fiddling while Rome burns. The pitiful idea that saving a few pence on boiling kettles will somehow address the funding crisis is insulting to school leaders and teaching staff.

    At least 80% of a school budget is staff pay, and unless that’s properly funded everything else is largely irrelevant. This CEO will be lampooned by her staff who no doubt feel bitterly angry that this is the instruction when they are putting in an average of 55 hours a week, much of it unpaid. A good CEO would motivate her staff by telling them they were doing heroic work but government funding was hopelessly inadequate.