When a plan comes together
Do you ever feel as if you’re in a long dark tunnel, plugging away at something but unable to see the end point? It’s so easy to become despondent and wonder if it’s worth it. The long cold and dark days of December to February can be the worst. Yet for schools and local authorities, these are the months when foundations are laid for the coming year. Admissions are processed, budget plans are made, the previous year’s results are analysed and we prepare for contracts that need to be renewed or started.
At School Financial Success, we’ve hit a bit of a milestone recently which has given us a real sense of achievement after months of hard work, with the publication of ‘School Budget Mastery’ in Kindle, epub and print formats. This is the first in a new series of school funding guides and can be found at Amazon (Kindle and print – see the link at the end of this post) and on the books page of our own website (Kindle and epub). In 2016 we published ‘Secure a Sustainable Budget’ which was an Ebook and toolkit, a product designed to make it easier for schools to compile best, middle and worst-case scenarios for their future funding. The aim was to stimulate discussions between leaders and governors on what to do if funding reforms led to a shortfall in resources. The nature of this meant that it could only be produced electronically.
So it was wonderful to receive the first copies of the print edition of ‘School Budget Mastery’ at the end of last week. It’s hard to describe the sensation of holding a book in your hands that you’ve created; suffice to say it involved a bit of happy dancing and a few excited squeals!
We’ve certainly been immersed in our own version of lifelong learning to achieve this milestone, developing skills in formatting, self-publishing and marketing. It’s been intensive, interesting, and definitely worthwhile in achieving our desire to fill what seems to be a gap in coordinated advice for existing, new and aspiring heads, SBLs and governors. These are challenging times for those who are trying to manage large-scale budgets in a time of rising costs and changes in funding. Sometimes taking time to step back and look at the overall process is a valuable exercise, giving a better perspective and allowing your sub-conscious to work on solutions. We also know that it can be difficult for middle leaders to get good practical experience of budget setting before they take up the reins of headship and are handed responsibility for what can be several million pounds of taxpayers’ money.
‘School Budget Mastery’ looks at the context of school funding reforms, explaining the concept of financial leadership and the school budget as a financial expression of the school’s vision. It guides you through how to gather relevant information prior to starting to construct the budget, making a high-level assessment to identify the overall shape and decide if you might struggle to balance it. It provides checklists and tips for developing the different areas of the budget. Your own circumstances may bring a different emphasis and various challenges, but our advice should act as a springboard for the overall process. We also discuss monitoring approaches for different layers of accountability, and consider how to embark on strategic longer term financial planning.
We have also been working on the second book in the series, ‘Leading a School Budget Review’, due to be published next month. We hope it will be a timely source of support for those who need to lead a review to make their school budget sustainable. Statistics on 2016/17 actual expenditure (SR71-2017 published on 14th December 2017) showed that the number of LA maintained schools in deficit increased from 6.0% in 2015-16 to 9.1% in 2016-17; the average surplus has decreased and the average deficit has increased in both the primary and secondary sectors. The most recent statistics for academies, to the end of the 2015/16 academic year, show that expenditure exceeded income by £280m, representing a 1.5% overspend compared to 1% the previous year.
Clearly some schools will need to undertake a fundamental review of their budget plans in order to achieve financial sustainability. Our book not only looks at the mechanics of how to undertake a review, but also at the cultural issues of people’s behaviour and reactions to change that can pose particular challenges, guiding you through approaches to change management that we hope will help those leading or taking part in a review.
We’ve been producing the books alongside our normal blogging and newsletters for our subscribers, and whilst going through an intensive period in our normal jobs. Nikola has had the added excitement of preparing for academy conversion and looking forward to the birth of her second child in a few weeks’ time. I’ve been immersed in the school funding formula development for a city council, while leading a High Needs review, and supporting my in-laws through a period of illness and hospital stays. Along with most of the people in the country, we’ve been impeded by this horrible cold and cough that keeps returning. It all reminded me that we all have to juggle different things and it’s harder at some times than others.
Sometimes when things get difficult, it helps to try to step back and look at the situation from a different perspective. Try thinking about why you are doing what you do. What is the end goal for you? Why don’t you write down a few things and see what emerges from your sub-conscious? Then work out how what you are grappling with now will contribute to the achievement of that goal. Are you engaged in something that will make a difference? Or are you dancing to someone else’s tune? Is someone offloading their monkey on to your shoulders, i.e. trying to get you to do something that should be their responsibility? What should your priorities be and how can you get back on track?
What sort of answers might come from such an exercise? What keeps us all going when we don’t feel like persevering? It’s often about our individual motivations. These differ depending on your personality and your outlook. Some people are self-driven, where it’s all about professional pride and the satisfaction of a job well done. Others seek respect from family and friends and/or work colleagues. For some people, work is simply a means to an end, i.e. a pay packet.
But if we scratch the surface, we often see a deeper commitment. Our individual experiences and interactions with other people along the way mould who we are. Have you had someone inspiring in your life, who has set an example that you are following now in your own career or personal life? Have they shaped your values, and/or given you skills, knowledge or simply a particular outlook on life that has helped you to survive and thrive amid personal challenges?
In my case, education helped me find my way after my parents divorced. I made full use of all the clubs at school, and enjoyed being a part of the orchestra and choir, playing parts in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, building skills of logic and public speaking in the Debating Society, and developing an interest in history by roaming round the countryside with the Archaeological Society in a battered old minibus with sideways benches in the back (a method of transport for school trips that would never be allowed now)! I also went to Guide camp in the back of a removal van with all the tents and camping equipment, but that’s another story…
My English teacher told me I should be applying to university. ‘What’s university?’ I asked. I went, and had my eyes opened to what was possible. Miss Bone, you changed my life; ever since then, education has been my passion. I want every child to have the opportunity to be the best they can be. My background perhaps made it very unlikely that I would end up as an Assistant Director of Children’s Services or an independent consultant, but I achieved both, showing that anyone can succeed in their own ambitions with a bit of determination and the right support. For me, setting up School Financial Success is a way of putting something back after having had a terrific career which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. I want to help school leaders get the most out of their funding to ensure all the pupils in their care get the best deal.
Nikola’s story is quite different, but we both feel fortunate that our shared values brought us together to form School Financial Success:
‘In the earliest part of my career I thought I’d made a huge mistake, following a path which didn’t allow my creativity to flow. I loved learning so much that I would have been happy to study forever, but in reality, we all know that’s unrealistic and the ‘real’ work must start sometime. I shaped my craft in accountancy in private practice, but it was fate that landed me my first finance role in education and that’s when everything changed.
As well as meeting my future husband and making lifelong friendships, I had found a career that I fell in love with. Securing a place on the senior leadership team at the age of 23 gave me a profound insight into school leadership which has shaped the leader I am today. I will be forever grateful to my then Headteacher, John Bate, for recognising my talent. I hope I have proved that you made a good choice, John.
This multi-faceted role of school business leadership has challenged, developed and rewarded me for over 16 years. It has helped me to find my flow, make a difference and witness my impact on every student I meet. My SLE role introduced me to the concept of system leadership but becoming a mother in recent years has cemented my motivation to have a wider impact on our country’s education system. That was my motivation for setting up School Financial Success with Julie. My own children deserve the very best that education can offer them, and so do everyone else’s children.
So, I now feel a duty to share what I have learned for the benefit of all pupils. I have learned from others, shaped school strategy, at times tried and failed and overall have achieved great success. I am lucky enough to work alongside two forward thinking, inspirational and talented Headteachers, Andrea Crawshaw and Michael Laidler, who allow me the freedom to lead and flourish.
The juggling act can be hard at times, but the end goal outweighs the struggle. Regularly reminding yourself of your own end goals in anything you are trying to achieve is a great way to maintain your focus and momentum.’
Sometimes we can feel down because we know we are doing the right thing, and trying our very best to deliver high standards against the odds, yet it feels like we are battling against a system that is full of other people’s self-interest and political shenanigans that threaten our core values. Sadly, there are, and probably always will be, stories of bad decisions, conflicts of interest and staggering waste. The trouble is that, like it or not, education is overseen by a political system, so short term interests tend to dominate. Each Secretary of State wants to put their own stamp on it, to pursue policies that provide quick wins. The Nolan principles of public life are sometimes forgotten, and we see a minority of school leaders putting their own interests first. If you are involved in educating in the state-funded system, i.e. LA schools, academies, free schools, UTCs etc., then the funding is coming from the taxpayer and all employees are public servants. Often things can slip, bad decisions are taken and it is only later that it becomes evident that the consequences can be harmful to pupils, when the whole system is supposed to be for their benefit.
Recent news stories seem to indicate a build-up of concerns along these lines. The Education Select Committee chair has recently written to Lord Agnew with concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability for multi academy trusts following high profile cases like Wakefield City Academies Trust, which was accused of asset stripping before walking away from ownership of a group of academies. The Private Finance Initiative approach has been shown to be expensive and wasteful, after many years of high costs. Schools involved in it are now becoming even more acutely aware of the inflexibility it presents, placing a large amount of expenditure out of scope for any savings.
It seems that there are ever more frequent examples of bad management of precious resources at the moment, and those who are supposed to be responsible for overseeing the system are not picking things up, or turning a blind eye. An article in the last week has highlighted that DfE hasn’t clawed back excess funding from free schools which have overestimated pupil numbers. For quite some time, it’s been the case that some schools and academies are allowed to accumulate significant deficits without intervention. Ofsted seems blind to the importance of financial leadership, awarding judgements of good or better that are built on shifting sands of unsustainable staffing and class sizes. Schools in this position have only managed to achieve higher capacity because they have spent more than their income, creating an unfair advantage compared to other schools that have taken difficult decisions to stay within budget. When cuts have to be made, standards can slip. Inspectors focus on minor grants like PE & Sport, and Pupil Premium rather than the totality of funding and how it is used.
Every time weaknesses in accountability or examples of waste are exposed, it angers many of the upright and honest school leaders who are working hard in the face of real challenges, struggling to provide the best education with limited resources. What can be done about the flaws in the system that allow such problems to emerge?
It’s hard to spare time to monitor what’s going on or to get involved in national issues when you have severe pressures closer to home. But if we aren’t vigilant, and don’t challenge decisions and behaviours that run counter to the interests of pupils, more people will get away with fraud, waste and political bias that divert resources away from where they are needed. We need to watch out for things that don’t seem right, challenge them and blow the whistle if our concerns aren’t responded to appropriately. We need to speak out against consultations, policy proposals, and news stories that raise concerns. Too often there are low levels of responses to government consultations; for example, there were only around 1,000 responses on the Stage 2 consultation for the High Needs National Funding Formula, compared to over 25,000 on the Schools NFF. Yet as we’ve shown in other posts, the high needs proposals represent a threat to mainstream budgets in areas where funding won’t keep pace with changes in need.
As a member of the DfE’s advisory group on school funding between 2007 and 2015, I tried to ensure that the funding system achieved the best deal for all pupils. For example, I gathered evidence from a range of authorities to persuade the policy makers not to withdraw funding for high pupil mobility when the formula factors were being simplified, and when the single early years funding formula was being developed, along with others in the group I urged DfE to adjust nursery funding to reflect increases in take up during the year. I succeeded in both areas. It can be hard to find time to read technical papers thoroughly, but I’m still challenging DfE on some aspects of the funding system, and while sometimes it isn’t possible to persuade them to move away from a pre-determined course of action, at other times a rational argument does bear fruit.
At the end of the day, we should remember that most people are trying to do the best they can with the resources they have. In DfE’s case, they are having to manage the depletion of capacity caused by experienced civil servants being pulled across to the Brexit team. In local authorities, the loss of expertise and experience is telling, as the public sector is subjected to more cuts. Schools have to think very carefully about how staff are deployed, because this is the area where cost pressures are most likely to outstrip the funding provided. It’s all becoming an even trickier balancing act.
Recently, DfE found there were significant errors in the free school meal data from the October 2017 census, which governs school budget allocations for 2018/19. LAs were notified and the data set was replaced only a week before the deadline for submitting local funding formulae. Decisions on requests to disapply regulations were only notified the day before the deadline in some cases. Given that LAs have to consult Schools Forums and get a political decision on the formula, this timing was unfortunate. We’ve also only recently been notified that the regulations have actually been laid, the Department having abandoned the process of consulting on them in the last couple of years.
So please be patient with LAs regarding timescales for publishing budget share statements – it’s been a particularly difficult process in the run up to this first year of the new NFF.
On our home page, you can sign up for a regular update on news from the world of school funding and finance as an efficient way of keeping abreast of what’s going on across a wide range of media. When significant announcements are made on school funding, we also provide detailed analysis and commentary to our subscribers, which can be used in drafting responses to government consultations.
We hope that you will take a look at ‘School Budget Mastery’ and ‘Leading a School Budget Review’ and that you find them useful. The links are shown below. We would really appreciate a review from those who buy the books; this makes them more visible on Amazon, and therefore gives more leaders the opportunity to access the advice and support we offer, which hopefully will take away some of the strain of developing school budgets. We’d also be grateful for re-tweets and sharing of posts on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Our plans for future books include subjects such as how schools get their funding, developing an income generation strategy, and a guide to High Needs funding. If you have any requests for future topics, please get in touch via our website or email address, both of which are shown below.
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PS Julie is speaking on income generation for schools at the School Finance Conference on 31st January in London, run by Forum Training. Find out more at: https://www.forumbusinesstraining.co.uk/product/education/school-finance-conference-london/.