Getting fit for finance
All schools will be expected to meet the new DfES financial standard by March 2007. Maxine Adams, business manager at Newbridge High School, which achieved the standard in September, looks at the advantages and many challenges of implementing the FMSiS.
There is a misconception amongst some school leaders, bursars and business managers included, that the new DfES Financial Management Standard in Schools (FMSiS) is yet another audit. With hands-on experience of implementing the standard, I can assure that it is not!
The standard is much more than a focus on processes - what we are all used to with audits.
There is a heavy emphasis on leadership and management at all levels, including governance.
The FMSiS is split into five sections:
leadership and management
policy and strategy
partnerships and resources
Newbridge High School, in September, was the first to be judged as achieving the standard by a DfES external accredited assessor. When we embarked on the process all those months ago, I can remember thinking what a good idea it was. After all, it is public money; of course we should all be working to a national minimum standard.
That was before I began reciting a strange new language in my sleep consisting of numbers and letters such as R31 and G4...
Then, once I had waded through the toolkit on the Teachernet website (which is actually very good and detailed, with examples of good practice), I began to reconsider, thinking, haven't we got enough work without yet another hoop to jump through?
I had only just caught my breath from job evaluations, remodelling, restructuring the workforce, local authority audits and self-evaluation.
The workload was a challenge. I said goodbye to my summer and watched the hazy days pass from my office window with my new best friend, the FMSiS toolkit, having rather rashly promised the headteacher that we would meet the standard before Ofsted arrived sometime in the autumn.
Whilst everyone else was returning to school talking about their holidays, I was asking staff and governors to approve new policies and spending days going through the FMSiS self-assessment tool.
In fact, I had started work on the standard in February and had ticked some of the boxes by the end of the summer term 2006. However, I still needed to address the issues of a formal governor induction pack, the governor and school competencies and overhaul of the Financial Regulations Policy.
Choosing an assessor
Schools can usually choose to either be assessed by their LA or go for an external assessment by a DfES-approved assessor. Our authority, Leicestershire, has decided not to offer a formal external assessment and agreed a 'light touch' approach.
I decided that, if I was going to go through all this work, I wanted the certificate and logo, so I set upon the DfES list of approved assessors.
There are seven nationally accredited assessors, many of whom I had not heard of. How would they know what it is like to work in a school? What knowledge and experience did they have of schools?
We are far from FE colleges, where many of the approved assessors had gained experience. Do they know what it is like trying to run a school on a shoestring? Have they any idea what heads juggle with on a daily basis?
I decided on Tribal Consulting simply because I knew that they had experience of Ofsted and, as it turned out, we chose wisely.
I finally committed the school to an assessment at the end of September (after reassuring everyone: "No you do not need valium; it's Tribal FMSiS not Tribal Ofsted."). It went very well, with minimal disruption to the school.
Importantly, the assessment was carried out on site. I cannot see how a school can receive the same quality of assessment without the assessor visiting the school.
The burden on the school would be greater if we had to send the evidence to an assessor and, more importantly, pieces of paper cannot replace actually seeing the school in action and meeting the financial staff involved.
David Nolan, managing director of Tribal Consulting, said about the assessment: "Being the first to carry out a FMSiS external assessment was a great opportunity to establish a number of benchmarks.
"We have committed to being on site and this reaped rewards in that we could iron out issues as they arose, avoiding lengthy delays. It also made the process more efficient as we had direct access to our evidence base.
"We are looking at the way a school manages public money and the FMSiS is more than an audit. The breadth of the standard, along with the depth of the assessment required, means that it is really a full business review."
One advantage to the school of going through the process of meeting the standard is that it has definitely sharpened our practice and increased awareness of the importance of good financial management throughout the whole school, especially at governance level.
The standard made me look at our practice in a more holistic way, including induction of key staff to the school, and made me consider what further support I need to give key staff involved in managing budgets.
Tribal has also given us recommendations which we will take on board.
Value for money
As a school in a deficit budget position, in one of the lowest funded authorities, I wanted to ensure that if the school had to pay for an assessment, we would receive value for money.
Meeting the standard has not been a paper exercise for us and nor should it be. I can see some mileage in the re-assessment (in three years' time) being done via paperwork but I feel strongly that a company assessing a school should be on site.
Meeting the standard was not without challenges. The need to evaluate governor competencies was particularly tricky. I felt awkward asking governors to complete a CV when they are volunteers giving up their own time to carry out what can be a very demanding and responsible role.
Many of our governors had been with us for years and their expertise and ability has been demonstrated very well, but this would not be sufficient evidence for the standard.
Some of the documentation was new to us. Maybe other schools have already created best value statements and sent them to their authority; we, however, had never done one - and certainly the authority had no idea to whom I could send it once it was written and agreed.
So after finally receiving the letter from Tribal confirming we had met the standard, was it worth the effort? Yes, definitely - not only because it sharpened our practice but because meeting the standard enabled us to bring together so many other areas of school leadership and management. The synergy between the self-evaluation agenda and FMSiS are clearly evident.
Concerns for 2007
Newbridge's headteacher, Pat Young, was of course very pleased that we were judged to have met the standard. However, she has two concerns about the standard being rolled out to all schools.
She says: "One relates to the role of LAs: if they want the schools in their authority to meet the standard, they need to provide the support and training to see them successfully through these assessments. Leicestershire provided excellent guidance on writing the SEF and similar support is needed to help schools get through the FMSiS.
"My second concern is for primary schools. Although Newbridge is not a large secondary school, we have a business manager, and the burden of the assessment and its preparation was lifted from my shoulders by her.
"Primary schools often rely on a one-day-per-week bursar service, have minimal administrative support and smaller senior teams who teach virtually full time. The demands of preparing for the assessment will cause real problems for them."
There are also implications for inspection. There had been talk in 2004 of secondary schools failing their inspection if the standard had not been met. Now it appears that this is not the case.
However the DfES states that: "In discussions with Ofsted, it is our intention to seek assurances that schools comply with meeting the standard. We are looking to see whether schools have met or not met the standard by way of a tick box."
"By March 2007 (or later, when LAs submit their figures) we will have a fair idea of the number of schools that have met the standard. Currently, the only statutory requirements are included in Part C of the SEF. Consequently, FMSiS cannot be included. However, the tick box will indicate a school's achievement, or otherwise, and will allow inspectors to make judgements and comments in the report on this basis."
Whilst I appreciate that we do not want Ofsted inspectors imposing yet another measure on schools, I do hope that the new standard carries some weight. The introduction and requirement of FMSiS is a welcome opportunity for all secondary schools to at least ensure that a national minimum standard has been met.
Maxine Adams is Business Manager at Newbridge High School, an 11-14 school with about 500 pupils in Coalville, Leicestershire.
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