Guest blog: A new dawn for schools?

Posted  14th August 2018

A new dawn for schools?

Guest post from Julie Cordiner, School Financial Success

Changes in the air

Listening to the experiences, views and concerns of headteachers, SBLs, governors and other speakers during the education leadership conferences in recent months, it’s occurred to me that we are starting to see a slight shift in the way the sector is responding to the many challenges currently being faced. It’s good news; I think we are on the threshold of some positive changes that will get the profession into a stronger position, most notably through a more collaborative approach. I have seen some evidence that this move towards collaboration and interest in policy development is already starting to happen across the whole education sector. Leaders are fed up of things being done ‘to’ them. They do want to use their expertise to support other schools, as evidenced by various surveys. They are now quicker to speak out against perceived waste by central government. The F40 group of the lowest funded LAs is teaming up with ASCL, to continue campaigning for further improvements to the NFF. We’ve recently seen in TES that the leading headteacher in the ‘Worth Less?’ funding campaign has been complaining about the benchmarking report card, saying that ‘The quality of the information provided is superficial at best and insultingly pathetic at worst’.

Seizing the initiative

We can use this closer working relationship to start seizing the initiative, particularly in challenging the government to provide the resources we really need to enable schools to thrive educationally and financially. Getting health and other partners to carry out their roles and contribute funding consistently would also be helpful. However, it won’t all be plain sailing. The sticking point in relation to sector-led improvement that’s been noted in the conferences is the financial risk to a trust taking on either a school in difficulties or an academy that is being re-brokered. It’s a real concern. LAs also face substantial risks, particularly since their ability to manage high needs pressures has been severely compromised by DfE’s decision to restrict transfers from the Schools Block to 0.5%. They also have to write off deficits of schools that are forced to become academies through intervention. When funding is so tight, these risks are unacceptable, no matter which part of the system you are in.

Agile leadership

Another observation I’d make is that it feels as if school leaders are permanently on high alert, waiting for the next ‘new thing’ to arrive. That may be due to the relative instability we’ve seen in the tenure of Secretaries of State in the last three years and the corresponding swings in policy. These have included the back tracking on the ‘all schools will become academies’ declaration, delays in the National Funding Formula along with the finding of an extra £1.3 bn, and the new focus on larger MATs rather than academies having a free choice about being a standalone SAT. With the withdrawal of the academy Education Services Grant and MATs carrying out top slicing of grant just like de-delegation from LA maintained schools, there is no real financial advantage now to being an academy; LA schools can also be in trusts, sharing services and aggregating procurement. It feels as if there is a wider recognition now that an academy trust is simply a legal vehicle, and a school is a school is a school… in other words we are less bothered about organisational status. There are much more important things to worry about, notably whether you have a sustainable budget.

Funding dilemmas

We always knew the NFF would involve a redistribution of funding, and that this would be phased in. For some schools, increases in pupil numbers have softened the blow to a certain degree, although that’s only of help if you can educate the extra pupils at a marginal cost rather than full cost. The real problem is two-fold. Firstly, the quantum is insufficient to catch up with three years of unfunded cost pressures and is also unlikely to provide for all the roles schools are expected to perform, amid rising special and additional educational needs. Secondly, there is absolutely no information about available funding after March 2020, because it heralds the start of a new Spending Review period and even DfE doesn’t know how much money it will get from the Treasury. While ESFA and LAs ask for three-year budget plans, they can’t even guide us as to the assumptions on future funding. That’s why we are busy writing our next book, ‘Forecast your School’s Funding’, to guide you through the development of best, middle and worst-case scenarios for future funding and a process for developing a Financial Sustainability Plan. It will help to stimulate a debate with your SLT and governors about how you would respond to funding at three different levels over the next three years. It would be tempting for everyone to continue to hunker down and continue snipping away at the budget, reducing their offer until they get down to the bare statutory minimum. Some schools might not even survive, because of small size, geographical remoteness, failure in standards and/or parents voting with their feet. We’ve seen some high-profile failures which reinforce how any school can quickly decline and be on a knife edge. We believe a more strategic approach is needed.

The power of collaboration

So, what specific responses have I observed? Firstly, there’s been a willingness of school leaders to share information, problems and solutions, providing moral and practical support. We reminded ourselves that schools are rich in hidden talents and ideas, that there is plenty of goodwill to be harnessed for a united effort to improve facilities for learners, and that we can be more entrepreneurial, offering facilities that appeal to the community and engaging businesses to provide support. The key is identifying where the school’s needs and the community’ needs coincide. Just as DfE is realising that now smaller primary schools are involved, the model of thousands of individual academies is not the most economic or efficient model, it seems that leaders in every corner of the sector are realising that collaboration is essential both for personal resilience and for survival in the face of funding challenges.

Fasten your seatbelts

It’s been a roller coaster of a year, and no doubt the challenges will continue. But there is the potential for school leaders, including SBLs and governors, to step up to the mark and use collaboration as a means of strengthening the challenge to government.

About the Author, Julie Cordiner

I’m a qualified accountant and independent consultant with over 30 years’ experience specialising in school funding and education finance. I advise schools and local authorities on managing their budgets and achieving value for money in order to support better outcomes and enable children and young people to maximise their potential, something I’m passionate about. Everyone deserves the best possible education and we all need to use taxpayers’ money wisely, to achieve a fair chance for every single pupil. This blog was originally published on School Financial Success Click here to view Julie and her colleague, Nikola Flint, have written two books, available from Amazon:
School Budget MasteryView & buy! ➝
Leading a School Budget ReviewView & buy! ➝