My role as chief operating officer is to look after the business operations for all of our schools. We have moved away from having individual business managers working within each school towards a centralised service for the key business functions such as finance, HR and estates management.
We have the same challenges as any other school or academy trust - in that we have faced increased energy costs and an expectation that we will absorb unfunded increases in staff costs. The extra funding announced by the Chancellor in November will help, but it is not clear how much that will benefit us with energy costs expected to rise further.
We also have the challenge of retaining our existing staff and maintaining our provision for our young people with reduced resource.
The pandemic years gave us a chance to structure our central MAT services in a way that would create maximum efficiencies at school level and take away some of the operational burden from them, and allow the headteachers to focus on school improvement.
What all this means is that it is vital that we maintain our level of financial management expertise within our organisation. We can’t afford to have large gaps of time when we are missing key personnel, especially when budgets are under so much pressure.
1 Starting out with interim support
Some of the changes that we made within our central structure meant that we didn’t have the expertise of a management accountant within our team. We asked School Business Services, a global specialist providing support services and products to the education sector, to support us with interim finance support into the new year while we were recruiting to fill the CFO role.
They put me in touch with other MATs that had used their service, which helped me understand how the interim approach could help us. Those conversations informed my expectations, giving me a clear picture of what I could and couldn’t expect from interim finance support.
We worked with two consultants - one focusing on our management processing, with a more senior consultant in an oversight role. Our finance team had a weekly catch-up call with the consultants to steer them on what needed to be done.
2 Meeting key challenges
School Business Services very quickly got to grips with how our organisation runs financially and were able to quality assure some of our processes for us, as well and recommend improvements.
They started supporting us just before we were due to submit our budget forecasts to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which was a process I had not supported in detail before. The consultants were very thorough, however, and put together a shopping list of every piece of information that they needed before holding a virtual meeting to pull everything together and to talk me through what they had done. That gave me confidence to put my name on the submission and to send it to ESFA.
They also supported us through our year-end audit, detailing the areas in which they could help us and advised us what we needed to do. Management was through email and virtual meetings, which seems to be second nature to us nowadays. It is easier than in-person meetings and fits in with our focus as a trust on sustainability.
3 Managing the return to normal
Our new chief finance officer starts with us at the beginning of February, but we have maintained the external support for a few additional months so that there can be an effective handover process.
The CFO is a qualified accountant who has worked in education finance at a local authority level, but not in an academy trust. The handover process will involve them working side by side with our interim support staff, so that the new CFO can develop a clear understanding of the accounting processes our external resource has been using. That is helping her run with things until she understands enough about our organisation to move forward in her own way, and to implement her own processes and procedures.
4 Make clear your requirements
My advice for school leaders contemplating using interim finance support is to try and be as clear as you can in terms of the gaps that you need to be filled, so that any external provider can understand your requirements. Don’t be afraid to seek advice or clarification yourself. Questioning the people who have more experience of this approach than you will help to assuage any concerns you might have.
It can be quite daunting to put your trust in an outside organisation, but if you recognise that there are people out there who have used this approach really successfully, that should give you confidence.
Alison Powell is chief operation officer at Severn Academies Educational Trust