A new dawn for schools?
Where has this academic year gone? It’s only a matter of weeks before staff in schools across the country breathe a sigh of relief and wave the children off for the summer break. The arrival of the National Funding Formulae (Schools and High Needs) has meant we’ve inflicted a lot of technical articles on you recently, in order to unpick the real issues, so it seems a good time to change tack a little and reflect on the themes of 2017/18 from a school funding perspective.
I’ve had the privilege of speaking on a variety of topics at four conferences and a regional meeting in the last six months, the culmination being the Schools NorthEast conference for School Business Managers in Newcastle on 14th June, which was full of positivity and demonstrated the great sense of community and collective endeavour that exists in this part of the country. Ok, maybe I’m biased, being on home turf, but this was a very successful and inspiring event. It included a superb motivational talk by the great Sally Gunnell, who happily posed for photos – and of course she brought her gold medal from Barcelona ‘92.
Changes in the air
Listening to the experiences, views and concerns of headteachers, SBLs, governors and other speakers during the conferences in recent months, it’s occurred to me that we are starting to see a slight shift in the way the sector is responding to the many challenges currently being faced.
It’s good news; I think we are on the threshold of some positive changes that will get the profession into a stronger position, most notably through a more collaborative approach. On Saturday, Michael Fullan, former adviser to Tony Blair, warned academies that competing for pupils, instead of collaborating with other schools, is ‘selfish’ and ‘self-defeating’. He urged them to contribute to the bigger picture; system change has to come from the middle, and schools need to influence policy.
I have seen some evidence that this move towards collaboration and interest in policy development is already starting to happen across the whole education sector. Leaders are fed up of things being done ‘to’ them. They do want to use their expertise to support other schools, as evidenced by various surveys. They are now quicker to speak out against perceived waste by central government.
The F40 group of the lowest funded LAs is teaming up with ASCL, to continue campaigning for further improvements to the NFF. We’ve recently seen in TES that the leading headteacher in the ‘Worth Less?’ funding campaign has been complaining about the benchmarking report card, saying that ‘The quality of the information provided is superficial at best and insultingly pathetic at worst’. Hopefully there have been plenty of responses to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into school and college funding; in our School Financial Success response, we certainly didn’t hold back!
There might be an element of schools being united against the common enemy in all this, but that doesn’t really matter if it achieves a more productive set of relationships across the sector, for the benefit of children.
Seizing the initiative
We can use this closer working relationship to start seizing the initiative, particularly in challenging the government to provide the resources we really need to enable schools to thrive educationally and financially. Getting Health and other partners to carry out their roles and contribute funding consistently would also be helpful.
However, it won’t all be plain sailing. The sticking point in relation to sector-led improvement that’s been noted in the conferences is the financial risk to a trust taking on either a school in difficulties or an academy that is being re-brokered. It’s a real concern.
LAs also face substantial risks, particularly since their ability to manage high needs pressures has been severely compromised by DfE’s decision to restrict transfers from the Schools Block to 0.5%. We don’t yet know if transfers will be permitted at all from 2019/20. They also have to write off deficits of schools that are forced to become academies through intervention. When funding is so tight, these risks are unacceptable, no matter which part of the system you are in.
Another observation I’d make is that it feels as if school leaders are permanently on high alert, waiting for the next ‘new thing’ to arrive. That may be due to the relative instability we’ve seen in the tenure of Secretaries of State in the last three years and the corresponding swings in policy. These have included the back tracking on the ‘all schools will become academies’ declaration, delays in the National Funding Formula along with the finding of an extra £1.3 bn, and the new focus on larger MATs rather than academies having a free choice about being a standalone SAT.
As ASCL’s Val Andrews has observed, school leaders need to develop ‘agile leadership’ to respond to changes, sometimes to take advantage of an opportunity and at other times to minimise risks.
With the withdrawal of the academy Education Services Grant and MATs carrying out top slicing of grant just like de-delegation from LA maintained schools, there is no real financial advantage now to being an academy; LA schools can also be in trusts, sharing services and aggregating procurement. It feels as if there is a wider recognition now that an academy trust is simply a legal vehicle, and a school is a school is a school… in other words we are less bothered about organisational status. There are much more important things to worry about, notably whether you have a sustainable budget.
We always knew the NFF would involve a redistribution of funding, and that this would be phased in. For some schools, increases in pupil numbers have softened the blow to a certain degree, although that’s only of help if you can educate the extra pupils at a marginal cost rather than full cost.
The real problem is two-fold. Firstly, the quantum is insufficient to catch up with three years of unfunded cost pressures and is also unlikely to provide for all the roles schools are expected to perform, amid rising special and additional educational needs. Secondly, there is absolutely no information about available funding after March 2020, because it heralds the start of a new Spending Review period and even DfE doesn’t know how much money it will get from the Treasury.
While ESFA and LAs ask for three-year budget plans, they can’t even guide us as to the assumptions on future funding. That’s why we are busy writing our next book, ‘Forecast your School’s Funding’, to guide you through the development of best, middle and worst-case scenarios for future funding and a process for developing a Financial Sustainability Plan. It will help to stimulate a debate with your SLT and governors about how you would respond to funding at three different levels over the next three years.
It would be easy for everyone to hunker down and continue snipping away at the budget, reducing their offer until they get down to the bare statutory minimum. Some schools might not even survive, because of small size, geographical remoteness, failure in standards and/or parents voting with their feet. We’ve seen some high profile failures which reinforce how any school can quickly decline and be on a knife edge.
But in times of adversity, positive things happen. We refuse to admit defeat, because too much is at stake – the futures of the children entrusted to our care. We look for alternative options that are open to us, and we become more courageous and determined.
School leaders can be like tigers protecting their cubs, ready to fight if necessary. But to survive, you need to look after yourself, and this constant state of alertness can be exhausting. As humans, we need mutual support and encouragement in order to sustain our resilience and keep our strength up ready for the attack. At times like this, moral purpose and a sense of community come to the fore, along with a heightened sense of what is fair and equitable.
The power of collaboration
So, what specific responses have I observed? Firstly, there’s been a willingness of school leaders to share information, problems and solutions, providing moral and practical support. For example, delegates shared inventive income generation ideas at one of my sessions, challenging each other to help identify risks and drawbacks to narrow down options, to find viable ideas. It would have been easy for them to hold back in case someone copied an initiative, but the reality is that there is no copyrighting of ideas, and everyone will deliver things differently.
We reminded ourselves that schools are rich in hidden talents and ideas, that there is plenty of goodwill to be harnessed for a united effort to improve facilities for learners, and that we can be more entrepreneurial, offering facilities that appeal to the community and engaging businesses to provide support. The key is identifying where the school’s needs and the community’ needs coincide. It made me realise just how resourceful school staff can be when their backs are against the wall.
Regional networks are either strengthening or being created anew. We have #SBLTwitter, #sbmchat and #SLTchat to group together conversations and #SBLTwittermap to find active SBLs. NASBM has become a professional institute, the ISBL. Some natural leaders are coming to the fore in face to face and virtual networks, becoming role models for those starting out on their career paths or shifting between generalist and specialist roles.
Just as DfE is realising that now smaller primary schools are involved, the model of thousands of individual academies is not the most economic or efficient model, it seems that leaders in every corner of the sector are realising that collaboration is essential both for personal resilience and for survival in the face of funding challenges. It feels a more natural place to be, in a very people-oriented profession.
Fasten your seatbelts
How can we summarise all this? It’s been a roller coaster of a year, and no doubt the challenges will continue. But there is the potential for school leaders, including school business leaders and governors, to step up to the mark and use collaboration as a means of strengthening the challenge to government. Financial leadership is starting to be recognised as an essential element of the job, which we are delighted about.
Please let us know if there are any topics you would like us to consider for our blogs, books and the online courses we are starting to develop in the coming academic year. You can contact us via the Contact form page or directly via email to Schoolfinancialsuccess@outlook.com.
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