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How curriculum-led budgets optimise staffing resources

Given their significantly reduced budgets, academies need to be well-placed to make the most of available resources, says Access Group's Jane Gibson

Posted by Julian Owen | April 24, 2019 | Law, finance, HR

Anyone working in an academy will be well-aware that managing budgets is an ongoing challenge, especially as funding becomes more complex and figures show a worrying number of significant shortfalls. 

The latest Department for Education accounts, published in November, show the academies sector incurred an annual deficit of more than £6bn, while the amount held in reserves and assets dropped from £43.4billion to £42.6billion. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, Lord Agnew, has said in no uncertain terms that academies are capable of driving further efficiencies - the question is, how do you maximise already-lean budgets without compromising pupil attainment? 

Lord Agnew is a strong advocate of curriculum-led financial planning, a way of allocating staffing resources to deliver a curriculum that ensures positive outcomes and value for money. 

This method provides a roadmap for schools to set goals and then work out the steps they need to get there. It means they can deploy staff to ensure optimal class sizes and pupil-teacher contact time, taking into account factors such as the average cost per teacher and number of special educational needs pupils per class.  

The real value of curriculum-led financial planning lies in its focus on outcomes, thereby driving up overall performance

Curriculum-based financial planning offers tangible benefits to any school, nowhere more so than in new academies and fast-growing multi-academy trusts, where funding tends to be more nuanced and there is more flexibility in the curriculum. Unless the school can first establish the cost of every staff member, including supply teachers, there is a risk of either overspending or under-utilising valuable resources. 

One reason for this is an over-reliance on manually collated and potentially inaccurate information, preventing schools identifying opportunities and reacting to change. 

Without an education-specific resource planning platform, finance teams could spend as long as two days costing an alternative curriculum model; this hardly allows schools to be dynamic. Those who have implemented digital systems, on the other hand, can build effective curriculums and forecast costings in a matter of minutes, basing decisions on the most up-to-date information. As a result, senior leadership teams are able to discuss and test different curriculum options to speed up the planning process.  

Curriculum-led financial planning provides a roadmap for schools to set goals and then work out the steps they need to get there

The real value of curriculum-led financial planning, of course, lies in its focus on outcomes, thereby driving up overall performance.

One converted Chester-based academy we’ve worked with, the Catholic High School, plans budgets far more effectively now by looking at the impact student numbers or funding changes have on staff loading; this, in turn, drives recruitment strategy. 

Rather than delving into different spreadsheets, the senior team can immediately see whether targets can be delivered by looking at an easy-to-view dashboard showing available resources. After the system was adopted, the school went on to achieve its best ever GCSE results, and has been praised by Ofsted inspectors. Of course, such achievements are down to the hard work of staff and pupils but, according to the assistant head, Stephen Gauller, good planning and decision-making also played their part.   

There is no doubt that academies will have to be more innovative if they are to balance their books, whether by joining forces with other trusts, generating additional revenue, or using government funding more effectively. If staffing costs account for an average of 80 per cent of a school’s revenue expenditure, it is paramount that they deliver on value. To achieve this, school leaders will need to develop robust planning processes designed to forecast costs, while being ready to adapt to change. 

Jane Gibson is an education technology specialist at the Access Group

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