Ben Waldram

How schools can stretch their shoestring budgets

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Headteachers have always had to keep a tight hold on the school purse strings and, with funds drained further during the pandemic, difficult decisions affecting staff sometimes have to be made. But there are ways to add to the pot and stay in the black without taking drastic action, finds Ben Waldram

How schools can stretch their shoestring budgets

What is the most difficult part of leading a school? Until the events of the past year, I had an easy answer to that question: handling the budget.

The past 12 months have taught me that running a school during a global pandemic, with very little support, a diminishing budget and last-minute notifications from the government is, in fact, harder – but handling the school’s budget still comes a close second.

And, pandemic or not, those budgets always seem to be diminishing. Schools have had to cope with increasingly limited funding for a good few years now. Many find themselves in deficit (and have been for a while) and others are on the brink of it.

I was in my second year of headship when I had to make some very difficult decisions regarding the school’s finances. These were the kinds of decisions that wouldn’t just alter the purchasing of paper or the move from Pritt Stick to Econo Glue. These were the sort that were going to affect the workforce, the very backbone of the school.

I didn’t have all the answers then and I don’t now. I know that all schools are different and that one school’s issues will be totally different to another’s.

But the elements I looked at to reduce costs, save money and ensure we had a strong workforce worked for us. It could, hopefully, work for you and your school, too. So, in no particular order, these are some of the ways we made subtle changes that saved a lot of money and meant we avoided the red deficit line on budget day.

Set your boundaries

The number one cost in any school is staffing. If there is no opportunity to reduce this, either through retirement or redundancy (always a difficult decision to make), then you need to start looking at the smaller margins. It is possible to cut back in other areas.

Before you go through the budget with a fine-tooth comb, you need to know where your line is and what you won’t be prepared to cut back on. I wanted to ensure that the children still had the resources they needed and that the staff weren’t having to scrabble around for paper or gluesticks. We were more careful with what we used, definitely, but I didn’t padlock the photocopier.

Check your commitments

Go through your whole budget, item by item, and ensure you know exactly what each is and how it is used. If it doesn’t serve a purpose somewhere in the school, why is it there?

In a previous school, one of the contracts we found was for vacuum cleaner maintenance at £300 for the year. It had not been used in the four years I was there. That’s £1,200 of dead money (with which you could purchase a dozen Henry Hoovers).

What contractual obligations do you have with either your local authority or external companies? Are they all still needed? For example, do you have an arrangement with software companies who might be supplying you a coding package or a maths or spelling one? If so, do all classes use it?

There are plenty of companies out there who offer coding packages for free. There are very competitive curriculum ones that run their offers on a class basis rather than whole-school, or who are prepared to do a cheaper deal if you join forces (either as a collaboration or simply as a friendly arrangement) with another school. We saved almost a thousand pounds by doing this.

Check your suppliers

Who supplies your phone, photocopier, printer and the like? You may well be tied into a three-year (or longer) deal with a company but check on this, as it may be possible to strike a deal. We managed to reduce our phone and photocopier lease by a few thousand pounds over a three-year term.

Consider insurance

One gamble we took was related to the services for schools: we were paying approximately £9,000 a year for staff insurance (teachers, teaching assistants and site manager) and had claimed back a measly £110 in the past year. So I took the risk and didn’t pay it but still put the equivalent amount into a ledger code in case of emergencies. For the first year, we spent about £500 of this to cover staff absence (this was a real blessing in terms of absence, I know). The following year, we took more of a hit and had to use about £3,000. Overall, however, we made a huge saving.

Explore grants and donations

If you have the time, there are plenty of grants out there for the taking; it takes hours and energy to source them, write the bid and do the follow-up, but it can be well worth it. I won’t buy anything that isn’t directly related to the curriculum now unless I get it for free.

In the past two years, I have negotiated 30 free djembe drums; £300 from the local council for aesthetic improvements (flower baskets); £500 for a market stall so the children could sell ice-creams from it in the summer (maths at work); £600 to run a design technology club and to purchase more tools for our forest school; and £500 for our forest school to put towards the building of a pizza oven. Nothing here is essential but all add up to the excitement and enrichment of school, all made manageable by bids.

Your local Rotary club (there will be one) may support you. Ours paid for the renovation of our prayer garden, including a fence and tools to garden with. I work closely with the Co-op; they have several schemes in place to support education and have donated £250 this year towards books.

We are also taking advantage of their community funding grant for the year (which should earn several thousand pounds).

As well as all this, as a voluntary-aided church school (which my school is), you can bid for building or IT projects every year. State schools can access similar funding through their local authorities. If you have the time, companies such as Teach First offer financial incentives for coaching other senior leaders over the course of the year, too.

There are lots of little ways to get additional funding into your school if you are prepared to do the groundwork, and a business manager or governor could easily take on this role. These ideas may or may not work for you, but what is guaranteed is that schools will not suddenly be granted a larger budget without good reason.

Ben Waldram is headteacher of Lowdham CofE Primary School. He tweets at @mrwaldram

This article originally appeared in the 5 February 2021 issue under the headline “How to stretch a shoestring budget”

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