The school budget: advice for new headteachers

Tackling the school budget is central to improving the quality of teaching and learning in a school and should be a top priority for aspiring headteachers or those new to the role

John Tomsett

A Teacher Managing The School Budget

Unfortunately, in my experience, new headteachers rarely understand the intricacies of the school budget. But thankfully, there is much you can do now as an aspiring leader to ensure that you are better prepared if you get the top job. There are also things you can do when you start in that job to further help you get to grips with the numbers.

If you are currently a deputy or assistant headteacher, you should:

  • Shadow the school finance manager and get to know the detail of the school budget and the annual rhythm of budget planning
  • Volunteer to manage a significant element of the school budget and accept the accountability that comes with such a responsibility.
  • Request a place on the governors’ finance committee as this is another useful way for you to learn about school finances.

For the new headteacher, there are two key priorities.

  • Invest in the best teachers you can recruit – this is crucial to your school’s success. I have been able, throughout my 14 years in headship, to appoint the best teacher available rather than allow school budget pressures to compromise the quality of appointee. Put the best teachers in front of the smallest classes – it never fails.
  • Invest in high-quality training as this is the best possible way to retain your teachers. You have to ring-fence funding for your continuous professional development programme because we know, of course, that the quality of teaching has the greatest impact on our students’ outcomes.

Beyond these tips, you have to get to grips with what can at first appear to be very complex data about optimal staffing.

Budgeting staff costs

The vast majority of your school budget – somewhere close to 80 per cent – is spent on staffing and most of that 80 per cent is spent on teachers. The vast majority of your income is determined by pupil numbers.

There is an obvious tension here. The more pupils you attract, the larger your budget, but the more teachers you need. The crucial factor is your pupil-teacher ratio: the higher the figure the better for the budget, but, arguably, the worse for your teachers facing larger class sizes.

I learnt my financial/timetable calculations from Sam Ellis, erstwhile finance expert at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). If you are a member, you can find Ellis’ advice on ASCL’s website. Sam is quite an expert at how to optimise your pupil-teacher ratio.

So, à la Ellis, to calculate the average class size for the year group, take the teacher periods allocated to the year group and divide that by the number of periods in the timetable week or cycle. This will give you the average number of teachers working with the year on any one lesson in the week.

Now divide the total number of pupils in the year by that answer to get the average class size. It is also the operational ratio of pupils to teachers in that area of the timetable.

In these straitened times, you should, as a rule of thumb, be looking for average class sizes in the 25-28 region in key stage 3 and 21-24 in KS4.

See the big picture

Take a long-term view of things. Have your finger on the staffing/curriculum pulse at all times. Begin preparing for curriculum change two years in advance. If you are going to change your school’s curriculum offer, it is likely that you’ll see a change in your full-time equivalent (FTE) staffing figure, and/or a shift in subject staffing.

Such changes need a long lead-in time because they may involve making colleagues compulsorily redundant, and that requires you to operate within a specific statutory timeline.

I usually send an email to all staff in October entitled, “What are your plans?” In this I encourage staff to keep me informed on any changes they might be planning in their career, whether it be a move, a change in part-time hours or retirement.   

Managing your staffing well in advance of submitting your annual budget to the governing body/academy trust will mean that you can manage cuts to your budget efficiently and remain financially solvent. 

A final useful thing to remember is that permanent staffing is a recurrent drain on the budget. If you appoint one teacher at £37,000, in three years that will have been a budget commitment of £111,000, or 3 x £37,000. The converse is true, which is really helpful: if you have to save £111,000 over a three-year period, cutting a single teacher in Year 1 is all you need to do to make that total saving.

Find ways to cut costs

Beyond efficient management of your staffing, free your finance manager to drive hard bargains on your cleaning contract, your food contract, your gas and electric contracts and your grounds maintenance service.

Encourage him or her to collaborate with neighbouring schools to secure economies of scale. Leave all this to your budget expert but understand it all and monitor the money on a frequent, regular basis.

As a headteacher you will find times when it is hard getting to sleep. If you invest time in learning about the budget before you become the ultimate buck-stopper, you’ll have one less thing to keep you awake at night.

John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington School in York.

John Tomsett has recently taken the brave step of revealing his school budget via TES News. See how recent cuts are impacting John's secondary school budget