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Feeling the squeeze? Top tips on getting the most out of your school's budget

Guest Post
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In today's post, Kim Cannon of EES for Schools shares her top tips on securing good financial management in your school, even with a squeezed budget, and reminds us that it's not how much you've got but what you do with it that really counts. 

Ask any headteacher, governor or school business manager what the financial challenges are in schools and the answer is invariably the same: ‘Not enough money’.

But if you look at the published information there is approximately £56 million left in school balances in Essex alone at the end of each financial year, which brings to mind an old-fashioned saying:

‘It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that matters’.

As we all know, no matter how much money you have, there are always ways to spend it. Balancing the books is one thing, but including everything needed to get a 'good' or 'outstanding' rating from Ofsted is quite another.

It seems to me that we are currently facing the biggest challenge: ‘achieving more with less’.

On a ‘stand-still’ basis, the education sector’s budget is being squeezed; the removal of the National Insurance rebate from 1 April this year plus the recent increase in an employer’s contribution to teachers’ pensions means an increase of almost six per cent on stand-still teaching costs alone for the next financial year. And that's before you take into account any incremental progression in your school! If you're a school leader in an academy, then you'll also be wondering how to cope with the upcoming drop in the education services grant. This all paints a pretty bleak picture for the 2016/17 budget: while it's true that the education budget is indeed ring-fenced, policy changes such as these add up - as the school business managers I talk to are all too aware!

There isn't much those at the front line can do about a real-terms fall in income. It's a challenge that simply has to be met. But as we've discovered in our research and observations, spending decisions are also a challenge and, here, education is the key.

Quality of teaching is paramount, as is the effective deployment of staff. If you're an avid follower of the Sutton Trust's work, you'll know that putting a good teacher in front of a class for a whole year can raise children's attainment level by a staggering 40 per cent. Replace that good teacher with a poor teacher and there's a real risk that a pupil's attainment is detrimentally effected to the tune of half a year's education. Readers of Alex Collinson's blog post "Teaching assistants: underpaid, under pressure" (June 2015) will know that teaching assistants don't always make a positive difference, but they have a real potential to do so provided they are used effectively.

According to the National Governors Association, the success of a school is closely related to how well a governing body does its job. I have to agree. One of the most important governor responsibilities is overseeing the school's financial performance and making sure its money is well spent.

The very best way to do this is by monitoring the effectiveness of resource deployment, so that your school is achieving best value for money.

Here are my top tips to make this happen in your school:

  • Benchmark staffing costs against attainment levels
  • Benchmark other costs & income
  • Contact the most efficient schools in your area to find out what they are doing
  • Consider collaborative working – consult other local schools or academies to share resources including specialist staff

It is essential for school leaders and governors to work together. Schools must self-evaluate before producing an effective, realistic, school development plan. At the centre of this plan, of course, are the pupils. And all this should be done before compiling the next year’s budget.

I hope that my message is clear: plan carefully, develop effective staffing and prioritise projects. Good resource management leads to the ability to achieve the desired result - improved education for all your pupils, who remain at the very heart of everything you do.

Related content and practical help from The Key:

Did you know that finance is one of the main 'disciplines' in the NASBM professional standards for school business managers?  We've created a skills audit based on these standards, to enable you to assess your areas of strength and areas for development. Get it here.

Are you yet to benchmark your school's costs and income? Let us help you make those purchasing decisions with an article which includes case studies on benchmarking from other schools.

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