Hammered into shape

24th November 2000 at 00:00
New tools are on hand to help heads to manage budgets. Phil Revell reports ONE of the central points made by this week's Audit Commission report, Money Matters, is the need for schools to link their development plan to their budget in a meaningful way.

"It is clear that good resource management can help schools to target money at educational

priorities," says Nick Ville, one of the report's authors. The

commission has launched new self-evaluation tools to help schools.

Many heads come to the job with no experience of running a budget. As deputies, they focused on the curriculum, the pastoral programme or staff management - the budget remains the secret garden of many heads.

"When I came to run my own school budget," says former head Ruth Liss, "I had to rely heavily on an experienced school

secretary and advice from


She has been seconded to the Audit Commission from Norfolk local education authority and was on the report team. Isn't

the situation very different today?

"The take-up of the module, 'Efficient and effective deployment of staff and resources', in the National Professional

Qualification for Headship would suggest not," she says. "Tomorrow's headteachers will at least benefit from training - most heads have had to learn about financial management on the hoof."

The demands made on heads have increased as Local

Management of Schools became Fair Funding. From January, Best Value was added to the list, yet many heads have still to develop an understanding of the concept and this is despite the fact that, since January 2000, the Office for Standards in

Education has included the

inspection of Best Value in its inspection framework.

Best Value is a set of

principles designed to secure

continuous improvement in local government. The four

principles, as they apply to schools, are:

Compare - how a school's

performance compares with that of other schools.

Challenge - whether the

performance is good enough and why and how services are being provided.

Compete - how the school secures economic, efficient and effective services.

Consult - seeking the views of takeholders about the services provided.

Under Best Value, local authorities have to benchmark their services against comparable providers, but schools aren't obliged to do this in detail. But, when governing bodies submit their annual budget plan to the

authority, they have to include a statement setting out the steps they will take to ensure that spending reflects the Best Value principles.

The Audit Commission's

self-evaluation tools will help schools to do this, with a Best Value score when the questions have been answered.

Ian Herring, head of Bitterne junior school in Southampton, was involved with the pilot for the tools and is full of praise. "For new heads coming into post this is ideal," he says. "It's a checklist to ensure that the main areas which need attention get looked at."

The tools do take time to get into. "Put aside half a day, sit down and work through it and it will give you a lot of useful

information," he says. He believes that the strengths of the tools lie in their accessibility and clarity of presentation. Pressed to identify a downside, he conceded that the "one size fits all" approach could pose minor

problems for heads whose LEAs have idiosyncratic procedures.

He recommends involving deputies in the process and argues that the tools have a lot of

potential for training. Heads and their chairs of finance committees could carry out the self-

evaluation jointly and the

process could provide governors with an opportunity to act as a critical friend. A read-only version of the tools allows other teachers to learn from the results as part of their professional


Schools may also find the tools useful when the next inspection looms. A print-out of the results will tell a story about the school's management processes and

registered inspectors will accept a copy as part of the evidence base for inspection.

The tools are in addition to the existing Comparing Schools Finances website - www.schools.audit.commission.gov.uk - which allows schools to benchmark their spending against a database of 4,000 schools. That database will be updated with the latest figures this month.

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