The budget takes the amount of money allocated to the school by the local education authority, plus any carry forward from the previous year, plus any income the school aims to generate from lettings etc and assigns it to a serious of headings - staff costs, heat and light, maintenance, equipment, resources and so on. Once this has been agreed, the day-to-day spending is delegated to the head.
Your governing body should have agreed limits on how much may be transferred between budget headings or taken from contingency funds without the sanction of the finance committee.
Please note: it is not necessary for governors to patrol the school turning off lights, putting bricks in cisterns and curbing reckless pencil sharpening. That's the head's job.
The extent to which you can get involved in the financial management of the school depends on two things. One is the size of the school. In my area budgets vary from under Pounds 100,000 for small village primaries to almost Pounds 4 million for the largest comprehensives. Small schools can, and probably do, tot up their figures on the back of an old envelope (paper costs money). Large schools will employ a full-time bursar.
The other factor is your own background; governors are often warned not to venture into the territory of the professional, but nothing in their training prepared the current generation of headteachers for accountancy. They may be very glad of help from anyone who can make a row of figures add up to the same total twice.
But number crunching is only a small part of the budgeting process. What governors should be concentrating on is ensuring that financial decisions and educational ones are as closely meshed as possible. Like any government making spending pledges, we must be able to cost our plans and know where the money is coming from. By next year, be ready to ask the difficult questions: it is what you are there for.
You should have been given a copy of your school development plan. Some of the planned improvements, such as reviewing schemes of work and revising assessment procedures, will just involve more work for the staff. But others, such as restocking the library, upgrading information technology provision or improving sports facilities, will have definite cost implications. Many schools now depend on fund-raising, sponsorship or lottery money for such projects. If the money has to come out of the budget, the question is, what else will have to go?
What percentage of the annual budget is being carried forward and why? If there is a large carry-forward, is it earmarked for a particular purpose identified in the development plan, or is it just a result of over-cautious spending? If there is no carry-forward, what provision is being made to replace large items of equipment?
If you are feeling really brave, ask if your school can arrange to compare budgets with a neighbouring school of a similar size. Compare percentage of expenditure on teachers and support staff, clerical time, special needs. There are no right or wrong answers here, but any marked discrepancies should be traceable to clearly identified educational priorities, not just attributed to "we have always done it like that".
You will never have enough money to fulfil all your aspirations for the school. Governors now have to review the salaries of heads and deputies on the basis of "sustained excellent performance" - as if good schools made a profit. Sadly not true, but you can help make the most of what you have got.
Joan Dalton is a governor in the East Midlands