Balance the books

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh looks at the way one head deals with the challenge of budgeting.

Bob Jelley has been head of St Giles, a 210-pupil junior school in Warwickshire, for ten years. During that time he and his colleagues have steadily and successfully striven to improve standards of achievement, as measured by SAT and value added scores.

Always, though, the battle to improve standards has been set against a parallel challenge of making best use of the school budget.

Mr Jelley is very clear about priorities. More than anything, it's his staffing, he says. "Pupil numbers in this part of the county are volatile and at the moment we have some small year groups working through. We want to avoid mixed age groups and so we're running some small classes - in the low twenties. The authority might say that we should have seven classes with some mixed age grouping, but we choose to run eight single age group classes."

Governors support him and his colleagues in their belief that this is the right choice, and that the record of steady improvement in SATs results is a direct consequence, so it will continue in the year to come.

His emphasis on staffing doesn't stop with teachers. Of the staff costs, pound;30,000 will go on classroom assistants, and almost the same amount again on special needs assistants. Mr Jelley uses classroom assistants creatively, often for short periods of time, or for just a few hours a week.

"I'm always looking for extra classroom assistant hours," he says."There are constant initiatives that can be pushed forward with their help - reading support, behaviour counselling."

All of that means that of the school's pound;450,000 budget, just under pound;370,000 - about 81 per cent - is committed to staffing. Add to that a long list of other mostly unvoidable commitments including pound;17,000 for water, gas and electricity, pound;10,000 fr business rates, and the amount left starts to look paltry.

However, the school is allocating pound;6,500 to classroom materials and pound;3,000 to the rental of reprographic equipment.

"The numeracy and literacy initiatives mean that teachers are producing a lot of their own materials," says Mr Jelley. "Someone worked out that we used a quarter of a million sheets of paper a year and I don't doubt it. Sometimes I look at something that's been done as a handout and I wonder if it could have gone on the blackboard, but really I trust the professionalism of the teachers."

The ability of teachers to make their own worksheets and other materials is enhanced in this school by the fact that following an unplanned budget surplus two years ago, every teacher was given a laptop computer.

Mr Jelley admits that it won't be long before he has to look at upgrades. "We'll have to start thinking about replacing them because four years is probably the limit."

This pragmatic and optimistic approach to resources leaves room for flexibility. "I don't spend a lot of time every month studying the figures when they come in. I look quickly to see if it's a lot different from what we anticipated. Having done it for ten years now, I get a sense of where we are.

If I begin to see that we're in the black, and I think we can manage a classroom of new chairs, I just do it, and later on I'm not really proved wrong."

In the background, he says, is the belief that we're in a time of growth - that gradually more money is coming into schools. This, he believes, encourages heads and governors to spend, feeling confident that at the very least they don't have to worry about an unexpected squeeze.

"The amount per child has increased, and there are initiatives like Gordon Brown's extra pound;20,000," he says. "Everything feels that bit easier now."

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