The penny's dropped: TV series can save schools cash

IN RECENT weeks I've been watching a new TV series designed to save schools cash. Like other Teachers' TV, Saving Money is entertaining and useful.

Having watched the first three programmes, I jotted down a few thoughts about budgeting - I'm always looking for wiggle-room. One of the main tasks over these weeks of spending review is clarifying the elements of choice we have.

For example, most schools need a photocopier - but big savings can be made if you play your cards right on how to lease, hire or buy that piece of kit. Some expenses are set in stone. These months of budget-setting involve a lot of differentiation between costs that are fixed and ones for which there is flexibility. Some instances highlighted in the programme show there is more flexibility than you might think, such as the Private Finance Initiative school that appeared to be tied in to a 25-year management contract. Even there, room for manoeuvre was found.

Successive budgets have taught me what this series confirms. Savings can be made. I won't give away too much, but they do find the usual tasks of benchmarking with other schools expenditure, comparing prices and sharing information central to the task of saving money.

I would always balance the cost of making a saving with the time and effort taken to do it. Yes, we could do our own human resources support, but would the effort cost more than the excellent service we now get from the local authority?

Each school has its hallowed way of apportioning money for curriculum spending. In my experience, it can ossify into an annual exercise in fractions, and we occasionally have to take a step back and ask what we actually need for each subject.

One useful exercise is to ask for wish-lists, whereby staff put down the necessities and then list their dream purchases should money become available. These can give an indication of where spending is needed, provide useful ideas for the future and could stimulate a bit of grant-hunting to finance the dreamier requests.

Spending Money does what I would do every afternoon if I had the luxury. It homes in on figures and questions them. In all honesty, I find that I can't do this for every figure, every year. There are those I keep a tight hold on. It is also worth tracking certain figures for a certain length of time.

One of the heads in the series had done this with the school's spending on paper. This fellow knew his reams so well that it sounded as if he had hugged the trees they came from. I've got my own little list (supply, art materials and cleaning) for the coming year. Next May it will change.

Huw Thomas is a headteacher in Sheffield and series editor of Managing Finance, Premises and Health and Safety (David Fulton). Programmes 1-3 of Saving Money available at www.teachers.tv

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