Now schools will have to make the numbers add up

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Will all governing bodies be ready in time to fulfil their financial obligations for budgets? asks Stephen Adamson

Even the smallest school budgets can be daunting sums to the mainly lay people - the governors - who are accountable for them. Accordingly, the Department for Education and Skills published the Financial Management Standard in Schools (FMSiS) in 2003 to help heads and governors assess the quality of their financial practices.

A useful document for those who wanted it, and it was up to you whether you used it.

But the standard has now become compulsory. A year ago, the Government announced all secondary schools would have to meet it in March 2007, but the announcement seems to have slipped in under the radar.

Peter Bates, governor services manager at Thurrock, says: "FMSiS seems to have been dropped on governors quietly, and they will need training."

And not all are happy about it after discovering that governors elsewhere in the country have already resigned over what they see as yet another shift of professional work on to volunteers.

Surely no one objects to systems being in place both to ensure against fraud (mercifully rare) or failure to make the best use of funds (more common)? But does the standard represent a huge new burden and, if so, on whose shoulders does it fall?

First, it is not something that governing bodies can happily leave to the school management to sort out. Complying with it has to be more of a collaborative effort. The standard unequivocally quizzes governors about their work.

The first of its five headings, leadership and governance, addresses the strategic and monitoring roles of the governing body, while the other four also assess, in varying degrees, the involvement and competencies of the governing body.

An online toolkit at the FMSiS website (www.ipfbenchmarking.netconsultancy_dfes_update ) lists the different elements of the standard, together with some additional objectives, details what you have to do to attain each one, and links to documents where you can get further help.

With it is a self-assessment tool which shows the evidence that you need to produce.

Just filling in the document, however, is not enough, as schools are to be independently assessed as to whether they have met the standard, are within grasping distance of it, or are falling woefully short.

Local authorities must report next spring to the DfES on the number of secondary schools in each category, and give an undertaking that they are working with those that have not got there. Those that have will get a certificate, valid for three years.

Many schools will find they already perform to much of the standard's specification, but completing the 16-page toolkit and producing a portfolio of evidence will be a lengthy task. An even bigger issue could be that of who pays.

While local authorities are responsible for ensuring assessment takes place, they do not have to carry it out. If they do, the Government's hope is they will be able to absorb the cost.

But Mr Bates says: "If we absorb it, what else do we give up?"

If they cannot do that, they may pass on the costs to schools by charging more for their service-level agreements. Alternatively, schools may commission an external assessor. There are eight approved firms, whose charges range from pound;500 to pound;1,738. At least that will help those struggling to spend their budget.

Another concern is whether meeting the standard will lead to governing bodies looking to fill vacancies with financial experts. The detail in the toolkit suggests that the governing body should include those with "identified financial management competencies"; this implies more than a household-budget approach to financial monitoring.

It bodes ominously of a return to the early days of LMS, when every governing body sought to recruit the local bank manager.

You can decide whether this is careless, uncaring or devious of a government, one of whose slogans is "parent power". It is also another example of how accountability is being made more to the centre rather than to local stakeholders: previously governors had to include a report on finance in the annual report to parents, but there is no comparable stipulation in thenew school profile.

Headteachers and governors of primary, middle and special schools who have been sitting this one out will not escape so easily. Consultation is due to start soon on when they will have to meet it too. The Government's suggested date is 2010. This indicates officials have realised that meeting the standard is no easy task.

Stephen Adamson is editor of the TES Governors' Handbook and vice-chairman of the National Governors Council

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