Making light of money

4th November 1994 at 00:00
How many headteachers does it take to change a light-bulb? This is a serious question for governors, who will need to demonstrate to the Office for Standards in Education that their customers, the parents, are getting value for money under LMS.

Managing our own budget has certainly led to significant saving at our school. The prospect of redundancies concentrates the mind wonderfully, and close attention to turning off lights and dripping taps has reduced overheads.

Cutting the frequency of hedge-trimming and grass-mowing, employing our cleaner directly instead of through the contracting service and reducing lunchtime supervision have all saved us money, as long as you discount the cost of the headteacher's time spent re-negotiating contracts, wrestling with computer print-outs and bank statements, checking bills and reading the water meter.

Of course, by far the largest item of expenditure for any school is staffing, and value for money here means all teaching and non-teaching staff working at the highest level of their competence. So the answer to the light-bulb question is clearly that no headteachers should be changing light bulbs or working the photocopier or checking the stock cupboard.

In a small primary like ours, delegation of non-professional duties isn't always practicable, but we have established as a principle that we want our head to spend as much time as possible supporting staff and pupils in the classroom. And on a purely financial basis, she can save us more money as a supply teacher covering staff sickness than an a telephonist. We can get pupils to do that.

To the end, we shamelessly exploit our non-teaching staff. Our secretary is a bursar in all but name, and our ancillary helpers are more often interacting with children and supporting their learning than mixing paint or sharpening pencils.

We governors tend to take the view that extra adults in the classroom are always an asset, and we are attracted by the relative cheapness of ancillaries and nursery nurses. We are delighted to welcome trainee teachers, NNEB (Nursery Nurse Education Board) placements and volunteer parents. The teaching staff don't always agree, complaining that the responsibility for planning, preparation, monitoring and reporting for large classes remains with them, and that untrained adults may need more support than they give.

Professional time may sometimes be more valuable than quantities of untrained support time. But we are talking about real people here, and it isn't always a straightforward decision to trade in one for the other.

The recurrent phrase in job advertisements - "suitable for a newly qualified teacher"- tells its own tale. It means that the other staff have been given the choice of an experienced part-timer or a full-time rookie. Or perhaps the choice has been made for them by a cost-conscious board of governors, blissfully unaware of how much counselling and practical assistance a first-year teacher may need.

We had a vacancy for a deputy head recently, and seriously considered managing without an official deputy and advertising a post with two or three responsibility points instead. In the end we were unwilling to appoint a de facto deputy and deny him or her the salary and the status, but it was a close decision.

We certainly can't afford to take advice. LMS in this authority has meant the privatisation of support services and a drastic slimming down in the local education authority, which left many redundant advisers and education officers competing with their former colleagues to offer us their expertise.

At a price. Instead we rely on a network of heads, teachers and governors to pool experience. We guess a lot too, and rely on our native common sense. Frightening, isn't it? But at least we governors come free.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands.

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