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May 21 BigDug
May 21 BigDug

School budgets – Do you have your finances in order?

June 1, 2021, 9:26 GMT+1
Read in about 10 minutes
  • Anthony David looks at development planning as we move out of the Covid-19 pandemic...
School budgets – Do you have your finances in order?

It might be too soon to start talking about a post Covid-19 world but, in many ways, it might be safer to suggest that we are no longer looking at a time of long closures.

In truth, while most of us predicted that we would have to close again (it didn’t take a SAGE specialist to work that one out) I doubt many of us predicted how long we would be closed for.

Undoubtedly, we were better prepared the second time around but it would be foolish to suggest that we were able to maintain our school development priorities in quite the same way as before.

In some cases, the priorities were literally thrown into the wind. So what now? There are clear changes and opportunities available but before you ‘view the educational landscape’ look closer to home.

We will have been open for two terms and you will have acted upon aspects of your school development priorities, albeit maybe slower than anticipated. It is likely that you have had priorities for 2020/21 along these lines:

  • Pupil wellbeing following an extended period away from school
  • Accelerated progress to catch up on lost learning
  • Refine blended learning
  • Finance strategy reviewing the impact of closure

Admittedly, of these four, the fourth bullet is likely to be an unwritten development area but actually drives all other aspects of school life. No money? Dramatically reduced capacity to address anything else. Simple equation.

In this article I will suggest an approach to how you can set out your agenda for the foreseeable future. This will consider the following aspects:

  • Finance
  • Timing
  • Wellbeing
  • Standards

School budgets 21/22

Before you can build you have to understand your foundations. Helpfully, the Government has allowed schools extra time to set budgets for 21/22 (end of May rather than March).

For many, this will be invaluable as Covid-related grants were still being given to schools in March and could change the fortunes of a school from deficit to surplus.

Without question, there has never been a more complicated year than this. While schools will have seen a two per cent increase in budgets, we have also been affected by loss of self-generated income.

Over the last decade, schools have become increasingly reliant on this source of income to set balanced budgets. Long gone are the days when the school summer fair raised money for the little extras.

Earlier this year the Government launched its national schools finance benchmarking website. It allows schools to benchmark their finances against similar schools (schools-financial-benchmarking.service.gov.uk).

It also allows you to look at any school in the country and their associated finances. The picture is telling. Increasingly, schools are raising not just a few thousand but tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds through self-generated income.

Increasingly, schools now see this as a critical aspect of school finances. We have become very good at managing our own wraparound care, letting out sport spaces or hiring out expert members of staff to support other settings.

We were encouraged to do this but when we have a year like last year the impact can be catastrophic when this income stream dries up.

Equally, other schools (who had not invested as much into self-generated income) may find that by being massively reduced operationally provided an opportunity to save money; these schools may be better off than expected.

In truth, it will be a balance of the two scenarios for most of us. Coupled with funding increases it is essential that you understand how your budget has shaped up for this year and the medium term.

That said, fundamentally finance is a tool that serves to support the school (it is no great surprise that school’s manage to find the finances if there is a real need) but let’s not be naive; less money equates to reduced opportunities.

How the pandemic and school closures affect things

There is a real temptation in schools to echo the school year. Unlike almost any other business, schools have a clearly quantifiable ‘start’ and ‘end’ date.

This makes it hugely attractive to align most school-based actions against, with school development being no exception.

However, one thing that this year has shown is that this natural pattern can be shaken. School timing, holidays and even weekends have blurred as we have reacted to demands placed on us as a result of the pandemic.

Your September priorities may feel quite out of kilter from where you are now. However, I urge you not to dismiss those priorities. Yes, we have lost nearly half of this academic year but you will have made progress in many of these areas.

What I would suggest (and what we are doing in our schools) is reviewing these priorities and creating a school development plan that covers two academic years (20-22).

The reality is that this year’s priorities are most likely to be very similar for next year and rather than waiting until September to present the new action plan we are drawing it forward to May/June.

Typically it is SATs that cause minor adjustments to any SDP and with those removed there is no real reason not to adjust timings and tweak actions to review the SDP earlier.

Student wellbeing

Core to your SDP will be wellbeing. Sadly, predictions of increased toxic stress for young people are coming true. I am sure you will have your own examples of higher than normal parental separation, increased neglect at home, domestic violence and alcoholism.

Aside from maintaining high standards of safeguarding it is critical that your staff are able to support their pupils where their well-being has been compromised.

Equally, as a school leader, you must also consider the well-being of your colleagues. It is likely that you will have at least one colleague who has been deeply affected by the last 12 months.

There is a good reason why early retirement plans have dramatically increased as people review their priorities.

This may also go for you.

I am aware of two outstanding headteachers who have decided to take early retirement. These are exactly the people that education cannot afford to lose. Place2Be offers a very helpful (and free) on-line course that may be of use as we grapple with this issue.

Recovery curriculum

Last September we were told that it would be a hill to climb to catch up on the lost learning from the previous term. Although nobody has said it, I am guessing that hill has grown into a mountain.

Critical to any strategy will be to understand what the real issues are. No doubt your colleagues will have been assessing learning and, possibly, have seen that with improved blended learning this time round the gaps are less severe as last summer. But they will exist.

On top of this, we are now in a position where schools are stuck with league tables that are now woefully out of date. In 2019 I started leading a new school but will have no concrete evidence to demonstrate impact until the league tables are published in December 2022, assuming SATs go ahead next year.

Even then, it will not be possible to demonstrate a trend of improvement. So, as school leaders we need to go back to basics. Understand the gaps, use the resources that surround you (including government grants or strategies such as the tutoring programme) and be confident in your long-term plan. Now is a rare time to go against traditional school time-frames.

It is arguably necessary to do so if we are, in any way, able to return what was once considered normal.

Budget planning – What to ask

Recovery takes time and not achieving this year’s goals is understandable – all agencies accept this. But planning for the next 18 months you may want to consider the following questions:

  • We have all been affected by this crisis, some more than others. Are you considering the wellbeing of your whole school including staff, pupils and yourself?
  • Have you taken into account any possible changes to staff, possibly driven by earlier than expected retirements?
  • Are subject leaders in a position to plan and evidence development? Have they considered what are priorities for the next coming 18 months?
  • Have you put in place a strategy that will support all learners?
  • Underpinning all these areas, have you fully reviewed your budget in terms of closure impact and possible windfalls from Covid-related grants?

Anthony David is executive headteacher at St Paul’s CE Primary School and Monken Hadley CE Primary School.