Make budgeting software work for you
Lynne Higginbottom, Bursar, reflects on her professional journey and experience with school budgeting solutions.
This is a relatable story for any school professional and also a useful reminder from an experienced SBM of how to apply software to benefit your day-to-day work.
As ever, if you have any questions about how a budgeting solution could help your immediate workload and future planning and also it's role alongside your other school business management software please feel free to contact our team on firstname.lastname@example.org and 0345 222 1551 | Opt 5.
Make budgeting software work for you…
When I started training to be an accountant back in the early nineteen nineties, the fundamentals of cost accounting, budget analysis and financial planning were executed by a variety of exercises and projects being hand written and ‘added up’ with a calculator, even when working in private practice, conducting audits and collating information was by way of handwritten figures within your trusty 8 column analysis paper and calculated manually….oh the joys!
Thankfully times have moved on and we have a wide variety of different financial software providers out there, providing diversity in relation to the software available to use, particularly in Multi Academy Trusts who have the autonomy to choose which financial software is more appropriate for them, whereas, Local Authority schools remain very much restricted by the financial software that the Local Authority approve.
Which brings me onto exploring the benefits of using a budgeting software package. As far as I am aware, there are no restrictions on the method you use for your budget forecasting. I have, through discussions with colleagues and my own experience, found that many School Business Managers prefer to use an excel spreadsheet to calculate their budgets, whilst others use a variety of different budgeting software packages.
From my own experience moving into the education sector several years ago, I fell into the excel spreadsheet category having invested weeks developing a five year budget forecast spreadsheet, consisting of nine individual pages detailing; basic assumptions, income, pay scales, staff profile, capitation, and expenditure all filtering into one master forecast summary. Ultimately, it worked well and did exactly what I needed it to do and therefore, I was not interested in looking at any other methods as I felt that my spreadsheet would be more than sufficient and allow me to provide an adequate five year financial planning.
However, being new to education at the time and relatively naïve (as I now know!) I’d not fully appreciated the fluidity of how quickly things could change around funding, student numbers (Sixth Form) and impacts on staffing notwithstanding the urgency of knowing what those impacts would be. My spreadsheet soon became incredibly time consuming in order for me to present a variety of different scenarios, notwithstanding trying to keep abreast of staffing changes and having this flow through the rest of the spreadsheet into the forecast summary sheet!
After my first academic year and having gone through the process of preparing and submitting the Budget Forecast Return, the Annual Accounts Return and the Budget Forecast Return Outturn, I realised that I needed something a little more substantial in order to allow me to produce an accurate, yet detailed forecast. One which could be manoeuvred, chopped and changed as many times as I needed with relatively little effort….presently, this had not been an easy task!
Over the forthcoming weeks, I researched the different budgeting software providers to ascertain their specific product base and associated costs. It was important that I explored value for money and also to consider what else the software may be able to offer.
At this point, I would say to fellow Business Managers that being part of a local Business Manager Network is invaluable, I am fortunate enough to be involved with two, the Lancashire Academy Business Managers Network and also, the Lancashire Association of School Business Managers (LASBM), through networking via these connections, I was able to become involved with four other Academies who were also interested in reviewing their budget forecasting process. We agreed that a collaborative approach would serve best with economies of scale and therefore, we approached several of the main budgeting software suppliers to arrange demonstrations whilst providing us with the opportunity to negotiate extremely competitive deals, should we all chose to purchase the software, which we did!
There are some exceptional budgeting software packages out there, and I feel the one that I chose has certainly exceeded my expectation. From my own personal perspective, there was certain criteria that I wanted to incorporate into my budgeting process, I didn’t just want a budgeting software, I wanted a piece of software that could offer other benefits.
I knew that the spreadsheet I’d developed was acting as a broad based guide of what my total staffing costs would be, therefore, it was extremely important that the budgeting software was able to prove, that this provided an accurate reflection of total staffing costs. I also wanted to be able to use actual financial data from September through to March to enable me to accurately forecast where the budget outturn would be.
What I have achieved through this process is the ability reconcile the individual staff contracts within the budget software, month by month, to the physical payroll from the payroll reports, thus leaving minimal area for error, as it incorporates physical costs.
The same applies with non-staffing costs, I now have the ability to export a report from the finance software and import this into the budgeting software. This provides me with the ability to monitor, month by month, explain variances, carry forward narratives whilst also allowing me to make outturn projections in the current year and following four years.
There are no limitation on the amount of scenarios you wish to create and I was able to provide the Governing Body with different scenarios in relation to the three and five year budget forecast. This was welcomed particularly in light of the uncertainty around salary increases, pension increases, pay and pension grants.
During the meeting, I had the software projected on to a screen and was able to provide the Governing Body with the opportunity of a “what if” live interactive session, whereby the Governors were able to pose questions, which I filtered through the software allowing them to see the immediate impact in relation to their “what if” questions.
Whilst this was partly to demonstrate the software, it was also fun and informative, allowing the Governors to witness the impact first hand, something which they’d not had experienced of before, and which they really quite enjoyed!
Article first published in Education Executive magazine
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