Skip the start to get to the bottom line
It is important that a school's finances are kept in proper order, and I take pride in keeping money matters running smoothly. I pay an accountant for two hours a month, just to check everything over and correct any mistakes I might have made. For years, before my annual audit from the local authority, I would be sent its form to fill in. It was straightforward and to the point. Are there good security systems in place? Who is allowed to sign the cheques? How has the budget been spent over the past year? That sort of thing. A peaceful hour on a Sunday afternoon and I would have finished it, and the form helped make the auditing process very straightforward.
But it seems that is no longer good enough for the Department for Children, Schools and Families. There is a new model of "good practice", intended for all schools, designed by one of the Government's favourite management consultancies. This is the same group that was asked to investigate what makes a good teacher. The final report cost millions and told us, among other pearls of wisdom, that to be a good teacher you needed to find out where a child was at and move on from there. I think we have a copy in the staffroom somewhere, under "humour".
One of the rules of bureaucracy is that an "improved" form must be twice as long as the last one and twice as difficult to decipher. If it isn't, then the department that produced it is not considered to have done its job properly.
The fact that headteachers are still presented with huge amounts of questionable paperwork is, to the parties who churn it out, neither here nor there. Fill it in or else. And, sadly, most do.
The new Financial Management Standard in Schools - at last you've found out what it stands for - pre-audit questionnaire has 42 pages. It doesn't ask my age, date of birth and inner-leg measurement, but not much else is left out. As I ploughed through it, every checkbox - and there were at least five to a page - contained the usual chunks of jargon. "Give details of your processes for completing the SIC, with supporting papers prepared to inform the judgement on the SIC, and ensure it is signed by HT, COG and COF ... ".
Irritated, I rang the local authority's senior finance officer. "Don't tell me," she said immediately, "You're ringing up about the FMSiS form. I'm afraid we're not to blame. We don't like it either."
"But didn't anybody complain? After all, you are the finance experts."
"We did. We went to a meeting with the people who designed it and told them the form is far too complex."
"And they didn't agree?"
"They said the form is easier to complete if you start at section 5 and work backwards."
"So why don't they make section 5 into section 1 and work forwards?"
"They said if you did that, the form wouldn't make sense ... ".
When I put the phone down, I felt I had been to the Mad Hatter's tea party. I threw the form in the bin.
And when, later that day, one of my teachers asked me if she could pop to the shops to buy a dustpan and brush for her classroom, I threw up my hands in horror and said she would need to complete a form in triplicate, prove she was creditworthy, and show me her passport.
I was joking. But only just.
Mike Kent, Headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London.