My twitter timeline heated up a bit last night when I saw quite a lot of negativity to the Schools Week Story about the DfE spending £2.3m on a ‘new army of cost-cutting consultants, set up to help schools save money’.
This was seen as a universal waste of money – why not just give the money to cash-strapped schools? As a school finance and business professional I felt rather dispirited by this.
Schools and trusts are responsible for their own financial management. My trust receives £20 million of government funding, so why shouldn’t trustees and our major funder not expect leaders to manage this in the most efficient and professional way as possible?
As an Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL) fellow, I was eligible to apply for the pilot round of school resource management advisers (SMRA), but as I was about to embark on a new job couldn’t give the time commitment.
Why shouldn’t trustees and our major funder expect leaders to manage this in the most efficient and professional way?
I followed the process with interest though, from the training the SRMA’s received to discussions with those who have been deployed into multi-academy trusts.
As a specialist leader of education, I had done a few deployments in schools with challenging financial circumstances and I had noticed some common trends in terms of financial management.
At a recent presentation by someone who had been working as a SMRA, they found similar trends in their deployments. They are, in no particular order:
• High management costs – including TLRs
• Very low contact ratios
• High levels of absence (sickness and paid leave of absence)
• In multi-academy trusts, central costs had not delivered efficiencies
• Unrealistic projections re sixth from recruitment
• Negative cash flow and a lack of management in this area
• An unwillingness to engage
If a school or trust displays evidence of the above, then there will be ways of securing efficiencies and achieving financial sustainability, however it will be quite a long and painful process to get there.
It takes time to re-plan a curriculum, including a realistic post-16 offer. The Integrated Curriculum and Financial Planning (ICFP) tools used by SRMA’s and school finance and business professionals like me can help to show what the key ratios are by analysing a school’s timetable.
This can lead to discussions around what changes can be made. This doesn’t always mean cutting curriculum subjects.
Organising teaching resource more effectively and looking at group sizes, for example, can save many thousands of pounds.
Better absence management can also save huge amounts. This isn’t about becoming an inflexible and unsympathetic employer either.
Many small academy trusts have not delivered efficiencies. Having a single database for finance transactions will begin to yield the management information required to improve procurement.
Somehow finance is a bit grubby and all the difficulties stem from the government’s austerity agenda
There will be many small wins in the non-staffing costs, from getting a bigger discount because you can tell a supplier how much your group spends with them annually, to rooting out duplication of tasks carried out and supplies and services brought.
But it is probably the unwillingness to engage that is the biggest barrier in the sector. The response to the story is a good example of this.
Somehow finance is a bit grubby and all the difficulties stem from the government’s austerity agenda of the past eight years.
I am not defending the government and I would be the first to say that education funding needs re-appraising.
But, as school leaders in publicly funded schools, it is our responsibility to do the best that we can with the resources that we have.