Why you simply can’t afford to avoid the numbers

5th June 2016 at 12:00
Dealing with a school's finances may seem daunting, writes the acting chief executive of the Future Leaders Trust, but it's something that all aspiring leaders have the capability to master

In schools, you are often not exposed to finances at all until you reach headship, when, all of a sudden, you have total responsibility for them. This plunge into the deep end can lead to headteachers avoiding full engagement in their school’s finances, and can put senior leaders off taking the step up to headship. After all, you entered teaching for the students, not for the spreadsheets.

But, believe it or not, as a teacher you are already well-placed to understand your school’s finances. School budgets are mostly about staffing structures, and staffing structures largely come down to curriculum. If you understand the curriculum your students need, you are well on the way to understanding your budget.

To avoid full engagement with school finances is to miss a huge opportunity. The traditional finance manager will always tend to set the budget as it was set last year, but, really, your budget should stem from what you want to do in the next year. Deciding a budget is a critical part of deciding your school’s future. And that’s not your business manager’s area of expertise – it’s yours.

With school budgets becoming tighter, understanding which costs you can and can’t control and how you can manage them to deliver the best outcomes for your pupils is growing all the more important.

There are many aspects of a budget, such as rent, that are fixed. The key driver of the costs you can control is your curriculum, so that’s the part that a headteacher needs to think about – and the curriculum, happily, is also the part that you will best understand.

That said, you can’t do it all yourself. As you will know, school leadership – indeed, all leadership – is largely about leading through others. As chair of the committee dealing with infrastructure during the set-up of the National Lottery in South Africa, I had to grapple with issues that were vastly beyond my area of expertise. I had to trust my team’s expertise, but to know enough to be able to ask questions that would challenge them to deliver their best.

As a headteacher, the principle is much the same. Learning to ask pertinent questions of your finance lead may be as simple as removing your blinkers to financial issues, and there are many things you can do to get started: begin reading the your own organisation’s financials, or the growing number of articles dealing with finance and HR in the educational press; attend training; and ask your business manager if you can shadow them.

But you don’t need to wait to reach headship before you start laying the groundwork for financial competence. Even the smallest, most rural primary schools will have a finance lead, and you can ask to shadow them no matter what your level is.

More often than not, they will welcome your interest – many work locked away in offices by themselves, and this is a rare opportunity to show them a bit of appreciation.

Schools will also have a finance committee or a governor responsible for finance; by asking to sit in on meetings, or by shadowing the responsible governor, you can begin to demystify finance, and hopefully realise how much you are already able to understand.

Fear is the biggest barrier to financial competence, but over my years training school leaders in finances I have learned that if you understand your school, you will be able to understand its finances. And by building your financial confidence, you can do more for your students – who are, after all, the reason you became a teacher.

Jacqueline Russell is the acting chief executive of the Future Leaders Trust

This is an article from the 3 June edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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