Finding in-school efficiencies

Written by: Josh Greaves | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

New ways to drive efficiencies in a secondary school – five important things to consider. Josh Greaves talks about the challenges schools face in the current economic climate and offers his advice

School business professionals were a relatively new breed when I left Nottingham University seven years ago with a degree in politics. Many schools were still reliant on support from the local authority and the role of a school business leader was still emerging.

I studied for a series of post-graduate school business director qualifications run by the National College, including the Advanced Diploma in School Business Management. While working on my dissertation I found that the National Association of School Business Management (NASBM) provided a professional competency framework for the role.

As time has gone on, NASBM has developed a comprehensive set of professional standards and these help schools to understand different job titles, the standards and responsibilities expected of different grades, pay structures and routes for progression.

Many school business leaders come from a strong financial background but the skills that you require are largely driven by the needs of individual settings. It is true that business leaders will need to have an astute financial mind, but they do not necessarily need to be a trained accountant. There is a divide between strategic and operational financial management but in a world where government cuts are a fact of life, both sets of skills are vital.

At the Wellspring Trust I am directly responsible for eight technical officers and we have a centralised budget of £45 million. The CEO and the board operate one central bank account and I am one of three signatories. However, the majority of the budget is delegated to schools, in keeping with our model of empowered and supported local autonomy wherein many key financial decisions remain with the principal.

Some schools have joined us because they have faced considerable challenges and need to focus on raising standards in teaching and learning. Our role is to be a supportive partner in their journey to improvement. The principals know their schools and their community and will have different priorities. Nevertheless, there are certain common approaches which we have found to be effective.

Negotiating contracts

These days there is so much information on the internet that it is quite easy to compare the deal you have with existing agreements and frameworks. One useful source of information is the Crown Commercial Service, which has identified preferred suppliers so staff don’t have to do all that initial leg work.

Often schools are tied into expensive agreements but it is now quite possible to get companies to audit your equipment and needs. Look closely at catering and photocopier contracts. Some companies will install new more modern equipment, and set up a maintenance and upgrading schedule for less than you are paying now. For example, a number of our academies were locked within legacy agreements and thought they could not enter into new contracts.

In fact, our preferred suppliers often renegotiate existing contractual liabilities, buy our academies out of these contracts, and provide new equipment. Always make sure you are negotiating some capital investment and not just realising revenue savings.

Review travel costs

Mileage claims can mount up to a tidy sum. We have 15 academies spread over 33 sites with staff travelling from one to another while staff from some of our special and our alternative provision academies may need to make home visits. They have to insure their vehicle for business use and it is time-consuming processing these relatively small claims so it is worth considering a minibus or pool cars, clearly within tight control frameworks, and on operating rather than finance leases.

Staffing costs

Staffing is of course our biggest expense. We have special, mainstream, primary and secondary schools and there is no one single model which would suit them all. To this end, and in keeping with our commitment to local autonomy, we feel that decisions about individual staff posts are best left to the individual principal.

In some cases we share specialist staff across schools. Careers specialists, some musical instrument teachers and behavioural outreach support workers can earn more and become full-time staff spread over several academies. We procure support from educational psychologists and each academy gets a day or two per week, according to their needs.

Wellspring is also commissioned by local authorities and NHS areas to provide initial and intermediate Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services to the wider school system. This work provides extra capacity in schools and their communities. It reduces waiting lists and supports leaders to meet on demand need. The external income generated by this team means our schools can offer enhanced welfare and therapeutic interventions to students and their families, without the costs which would usually follow.

Reduce cover and training costs

We have just set up our own internal supply agency. We have developed an internet-based and mobile app where those interested in agency working can register. Schools can check availability and contact them directly.

They build a better relationship and our supply staff have the same entitlement to CPD as permanent staff. It is early days yet but we are quietly confident that this will represent a considerable saving, reducing management fees to an absolute minimum compared with private firms.

We also deploy our specialists to deliver training. We face significant costs supporting children with challenging behaviour. We have advanced teachers who can provide training in-house so we are not employing external consultants. This shows that we value the expertise that our staff have and we can tailor the training to match different needs: what works in rural Lincolnshire may not be appropriate for inner city Leeds, for example.

Cut maintenance costs

Long-term there are parts of buildings where money can be saved, especially if you can combine forces with other local schools so there are economies of scale. For example, most principals do not have strong views about which company should provide maintenance for CCTV, alarm systems, fencing, double glazing. We have just six contractors covering every aspect of building repairs for our 15 schools, on call if works cannot be completed in-house.

Trust

The relationship between school business leaders and the headteacher is vital. There needs to be a level of professional trust and mutual respect. There is a danger that the business professional is seen as an impersonal bean counter, far removed from the human problems faced by teaching staff.

My solution to this dilemma has been a clinical focus on both the detail in our academies, but also understanding the leadership dynamic and wider organisational culture. I spent six months getting involved with the academies from the ground up.

At Wellspring, the central support team and business leaders in academies work hard to add value and represent a key part of the educational system. This is seldom less than challenging, but is essential work if we are to enable our settings to rise to the challenges and opportunities ahead.

  • Josh Greaves is chief operating officer at Wellspring Academy Trust in Barnsley, responsible for 15 academies that include primary, secondary, special and alternative provision.

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