Keeping a lid on school finances

6th November 2015 at 00:00
As budgets tighten, follow these tips to look after the pennies so the pounds will take care of themselves

Here’s a conundrum: you don’t need any financial management qualifications to be a headteacher and yet the job requires numerous financial management skills.

How does this problem usually resolve itself when you get your first headship? Frantic swotting, desperate appeals for help and quite a bit of panic.

Of course, you may have had responsibility for large budget areas as an assistant or deputy headteacher, but once you take up your first headship you suddenly find yourself in a role similar to that of a chief financial officer in a large business.

If, like me, you are the head of an academy that is not part of a multi-academy trust, you will also find that you are the accounting officer of the organisation – a position that carries with it a significant amount of legal responsibility.

This is daunting in itself, but coupled with constantly increasing pressures on budgets from funding cuts, variations in pupil numbers, and rising infrastructure and equipment costs, the issue of financial management becomes a minefield.

As a new headteacher, I have found a number of ways to make this minefield easier to negotiate and, importantly, to save money at a time of ever-tightening budgets.

The first thing I did was to take direct control of all financial transactions. I operate a zero-budgeting policy, whereby all expenses must be justified to and approved by me in advance. This control enables me to ensure both the need for the purchase and value for money.

I also constantly examine all areas of current and potential expenditure to see where savings can be made. Here I outline four approaches that have made a significant difference to our school finances:

1 Shopping around

Although this sounds obvious, especially considering the need to undertake procurement and value-for-money exercises for all purchases, it is surprising how much money can be saved by shopping around.

Considerable savings can be made if you research equipment and resources that for a long time have been the domain of dedicated educational suppliers. For example, we sourced furniture through an online company that specialised in discounted office equipment. This was 75 per cent cheaper than one of the main educational suppliers.

2 Hire-to-buy

One of the problems with investing in IT equipment is what to do a few years down the line when it needs replacing with newer, more advanced technology. We have developed a hire-to-buy scheme for pupils and staff that means they can rent their personal devices (iPads for pupils and laptops for staff) at a discounted rate for two years, at which point they can purchase the devices from the school for a small final payment.

The advantage for the children and teachers is that they can use their device for personal as well as school purposes, and after two years it is theirs to keep. The advantage for the school is that equipment is better looked after if individuals have a financial investment in it. And, after two years, approximately two-thirds of the cost of each device has been recouped, which can then be reinvested in new, more modern equipment.

3 Family dining

Rather than having a canteen in the school with a wide selection of food and drink for pupils to buy, we operate a family dining system. This involves children and staff sitting down together each lunchtime and eating a healthy, home-cooked meal.

This approach has numerous social, behavioural and health benefits – and it also means a considerable financial saving.

Menus are produced with a meat dish, a vegetarian dish and a jacket potato option. Pupils and staff select their choices a week in advance, meaning that the food can be cooked to order each day.

As a result, only the required number of meals are made and the amount of wasted food is massively reduced. Furthermore, we can plan meals that are healthy and nutritious yet cost-effective, largely because we don’t have to cater for a wide variety of options.

4 Developing relationships

In this age of austerity, times are difficult for everyone. As a result, we have tried to develop as many mutually beneficial relationships as possible to aid both parties practically and financially.

As a new school we didn’t have the resources to invest in lots of musical instruments. What we did have, however, was some spare space. Meanwhile, a local community steel pan orchestra was looking for somewhere to store their equipment and rehearse during the evenings. We reached an agreement whereby they use our facilities in exchange for providing steel pans for music lessons.

This is a win-win situation, and there are countless ways in which similar arrangements can be made.

Ben Thompson is headteacher of Trinity Academy in Brixton, South London

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