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Taking a day out to examine where the school or college could save money on its practices is a luxury many leaders feel they cannot afford but a free service, courtesy of the DCSF, may be able to help. Emma Mills reports.

Most schools and colleges are adept at getting the maximum value from their budgets. Even so, as with any business, it is good practice for all schools and colleges to step back and review operations from time to time. You might be doing things well but could you be doing them better?

Taking a day or so to focus on working practices and identify where you might make improvements may seem like a luxury but, used properly, it can be time well spent.

And for maintained schools in England there is added incentive: the DCSF is currently offering them a free 'value for money' consulting service which provides a day's worth of independent advice to address any issues they might have or areas they are uncertain about.

For some institutions, what is needed is very specific, practical ways of reducing spending. At one school which had issues achieving value for money, solutions were found in places the head and business manager had not expected. As a fairly small school with large overheads and excellent teaching standards, the cost per pupil was almost double the national average. Reducing costs was vital so was maintaining standards.

An idea that came out of the consultation was to reassess working hours. The first step was to introduce family friendly hours and shorter days for a number of teachers, which meant the school managed to reduce its costs quite considerably and gave staff who wanted it a more flexible working day.

By reviewing its timetabling, the school realised that certain staff who provided out-of-hours services could be used to cover some of the curriculum. Sports coaches coming to the school in the afternoon for extended school classes were able to take over the last PE lesson of the day, freeing up a full-time member of staff and sometimes reducing their hours.

The same was true with music teachers who started to run group music lessons with the pupils, instead of individual classes, at the beginning of the school day, which allowed some teachers to come in later or spend time on admin. The school also managed to get a grant towards the running of morning drumming classes, which made a substantial impact on value for money.

Whole school approach

One way that a consultant can help is by providing an independent perspective, helping heads and business managers step away from the day-to-day and look at the bigger picture.

Churchill Community College in North Tyneside used an external consultant to help explore issues of value for money in a wider context.

"We were fairly far ahead in benchmarking and financial planning but thought there was merit in getting in a fresh pair of eyes to check that we were doing things correctly and identify any areas where we could improve," says business manager Gillian Allen.

Along with Gillian and headteacher, three mid-level leaders and a governor attended the consultation session because the school wanted to focus on how responsibility for best value could be delegated across the school.

Gillian says: "Having our middle leaders there meant they were able to explore value for money from a wider viewpoint and understand how their budgeting and purchasing decisions affect the rest of the finances throughout the school. The governor who attended was also able to consider the finances from a best value point of view, rather than simply looking at our spending plan."

The school has now developed a 'wider leadership team' in which managers and leaders are taking more responsibility for value for money. Gillian and her team are also working on support staff roles, looking at how they are deployed, whether roles are being duplicated and considering how various skills can be better used across the school.

"Even if you are doing something well, it's important to not be precious about things, and get a second pair of eyes to give you a new viewpoint or suggest alternative ways to do things," says Gillian.

Special attention

For some schools, an informed and independent point of view can be absolutely vital. At a school in south-east England which has been in special measures since December 2007, getting help to focus on the areas that needed the most attention, including workforce and strategic management, was a key priority.

During the consultation the first step was to carry out a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) review of pastoral and support roles to clarify responsibilities, which helped establish how the school would move forward. From here they aimed to develop career and training opportunities for support staff to attract better candidates.

From a financial point of view the school examined the links between the self-evaluation form (SEF), school improvement partner (SIP) and budget. They also spent some time reviewing financial management capability, considered the benefits of creating a senior finance position and reviewed the duties and activities of the governing body, identifying key areas for intervention.

For this school, the key element was the very bespoke nature of consultancy, which meant that their specific needs, in particular the effects of being in special measures, were addressed in a way that worked for them.

A new start

Outside support can also be invaluable in a new school. Karen Harfield at The Petersfield School in Hampshire started her new job in September 2008 and was not only finding her way around a new school but dealing with a deficit budget.

"There were several things that needed to be addressed quite promptly, but working out which was a priority was difficult," she says. "I felt that someone who could comment objectively on the situation and help me establish key areas that needed my attention first would be very beneficial."

What Karen discovered through the consultation process was that while the deficit was a concern, there were simpler, more pressing issues to focus on which would then support her in dealing with the deficit.

First, she established a clear set of financial procedures and liaised with individual departments about spending limits and processes. She then drafted financial procedures for the governors and is now researching new financial management software options to allow her to analyse and plan for the future more effectively.

The aim for Karen is to work steadily through the various steps that she and the consultant set up which should provide a clear path through the issues she faces. Doing a number of diagnostic analyses of the school improvement plan also helped her to focus on the areas that most needed her attention.

"Taking some time out to look at the bigger picture has been invaluable," she says.

Faced with numerous initiatives, government objectives, yearly targets, funding streams and financial challenges it is always difficult to find the time to review and plan. Dedicating a whole day to re-evaluate practices, look at ways to improve and target problem areas can seem like an unnecessary luxury, but by making the investment of time, it can pay dividends in value.

Emma Mills is a freelance education writer.

Healthy, wealthy and wise...

The Schools Value for Money Consultancy programme is provided free through the DCSF for all maintained primary, secondary and special schools in England. It is managed by consultants Avail who specialise in working with the public sector. The consulting is independent and confidential and designed to help schools identify areas to improve. The consultancy is provided over one day but can be split into two half-day sessions.

Consultants delivering the support are experienced school leaders - ex-headteachers, deputy heads or school business managers (SBMs) - and local to the schools they visit. Schools fill in an online questionnaire prior to the visit and then designate key areas they would like to focus on.

For more details see http://schools.tribalavail.co.uk/vfm/index.html

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