Kim Sparling, headteacher of Oldfield School in Bath, explores the concept of ‘value for money’ in a secondary school context and outlines some suggestions on ways to achieve it
In the days before schools received their own budgets and virtually all financial control was maintained by the local education authority, few headteachers would have heard of the concept of ‘value for money’. Nowadays headteachers ignore it at their peril and it is perhaps disappointing that the NPQH course does not yet consider it a focus area for study. The principle behind ‘value for money’ is simple – it’s about getting an appropriate balance between economy, efficiency and effectiveness. On a practical level, ‘value for money’ must mean getting the most out of a school’s limited income and ensuring that finances are spent wisely on appropriate expenditure. It means being certain that the school doesn’t pay too much (or too little) for goods/services/staffing etc. The way to achieve this is not a mystery. It is about old-fashioned ‘good housekeeping’. Where to start? If you seriously want to achieve value for money this concept must be at the forefront of the school’s ethos. At my school in the annual school development plan we set out our aim for each area of the school, whether it is staffing, finance, curriculum, buildings etc. For finance, unsurprisingly our aim is to achieve good value for money. This aim is shared with all those who make financial decisions, eg the leadership team including the bursar, governors and heads of faculty. It is both obvious and essential that headteachers know what the total income for the school is and whether any of sources of expenditure are likely to go up or down in the next few years. A school must be ready to cope with any changes in income. The largest part of a school’s income is based on student numbers. This means that if there is a fall in student numbers a school needs to be prepared to make changes in expenditure. Equally important, a school must fully understand its pattern of expenditure.
Costing the staffing structure
The most important area to consider when seeking value for money is staffing because this makes up around 80% of most schools’ expenditure. When schools make decisions about their staffing structure (members of the leadership team, heads of faculty or department, what TLR will be paid for each position of responsibility etc) it is essential these decisions are made within a financial framework. When my governors considered the staffing structure prior to publication of a new structure in January 2006, they were fully aware of the cost of the existing structure and the financial implications of the different options put before them. It is self-evident that a school must be able to afford its staffing structure. For example, a school of 500 will not be able to afford, nor should it support, the size of leadership team which is needed at a school of a thousand students. A new, inexperienced headteacher may wish to put into place an exciting new staffing structure but it is usually unrealistic to simply create new roles without removing redundant roles first. In common with many other schools in recent years, and in part resulting from the need to take non-teaching tasks away from teachers, we looked critically at which roles needed to be performed by teachers and which could be better filled by support staff.
Difficult questions had to be asked, such as ‘how sensible is it to have a member of senior staff undertaking the role of examinations officer?’ The answer to this kind of question was, in many cases, that it happened only ‘by tradition’ and wasn’t necessarily the best course of action. This sort of analysis results in difficult decisions. In my school we decided to reduce the leadership team by one to create a support staff role of examinations and data officer. This kind of decision has saved money and made an improvement to the efficient running of the school. There are other examples. When a member of staff resigns it is essential that time is taken to evaluate what kind of replacement is needed. If a modern language teacher resigns do you still need a full-time teacher, do you need the same subject specialisms as before, or is this an opportunity to branch out with a new language? If a science technician leaves do you need an exact replacement? Often this is an opportunity to re-evaluate the needs of the role, draw up a new job description and think more creatively about the hours he or she worked. When support staff are employed, many schools automatically employ them all year round. Why? Many of the roles performed by support staff cannot be undertaken during the holidays when students are not in school. We rarely have a problem with staff recruitment – we have discovered that ‘term-time only’ is a big incentive in terms of recruiting new staff.
The cost of choice
Schools have to make tough decisions about which courses they will run. At Key Stage 3, when all students follow the same curriculum and most classes are taught in tutor group-sized classes, this facilitates good value for money. However, at Key Stage 4 there are difficult decisions to make. Most schools would, in theory, support the idea of a broad curriculum, which allows students maximum choice. But schools must work out the costs of ‘choice’. If only six students opt for GCSE music does it run? This is an individual decision for each school but clearly a school can only support a certain number of ‘small’ classes; in effect they have to be subsidised by large classes in another subject. When Ofsted evaluates value for money it expects that income received from the Learning and Skills Council for sixth formers will be used exclusively for their education. This means that this income should not prop up KS4 courses and vice versa – income from KS3 and 4 students should not subsidise sixth-form courses. We have found it useful to calculate the total cost of putting on the KS5 curriculum (working out an average teacher cost per period), and ensure that it is matched by the probable income from those students in the sixth form. When new initiatives are being developed, or special one-off projects are undertaken, it is essential to consider the time frame, ensuring that where appropriate the staffing contract is ‘fixed term’ and for the appropriate time, which may not be a full school year. Schools must be careful to ensure that where staff are employed from a specific source which can be time-limited (eg specialist schools’ funding) or used for a specific purpose (eg statement funding for children with special educational needs) the contracts are carefully worded. Many schools have inadvertently offered permanent contracts to staff and had their ‘fingers burnt’ when the funding source ended.
Financial value of school trips
School visits are usually invaluable in terms of educational experience for students, but their financial value for money should be questioned. How many teachers are really required, for example, to take Year 7 to visit a local museum? Can some teachers be replaced by other non-teaching staff? Can governors, parents and trainee teachers assist with the staffing? Most schools delegate a budget to be spent by middle leaders to run their areas, so it is important that these staff understand how they can get value for money. When ordering textbooks and resources, there is a discount to be gained by buying in bulk. It is important that faculty heads use the best supplier rather than the one they’ve always used. Faculty heads need to have a sensible system in place to avoid unnecessary replacement of ‘lost’ textbooks. This will include issuing a numbered text to a specific student and it must be backed by the school’s charging policy, which requires parents to take responsibility for lost school resources or damage to school property. They also need to be aware of the financial penalties of poor timekeeping, for example late entries for exams cost money (we pass on these costs to faculties). Ordering textbooks too late for the start of a new course may result in wasteful interim photocopying. Some teachers have a tendency to photocopy at will. Faculty heads need to advise staff what allocation of the budget may be used for copying (faculty numbers on the copiers aid faculty heads in tracking the expenditure of their subject staff). It is good to encourage heads of faculty to check their ordering with a colleague to avoid waste. This might help avoid too many text books being ordered – sets of 32 when actually there is a maximum of 26 in a class – or furniture which is the wrong size (infant-sized chairs for a secondary classroom or a filing cabinet too large to fit in the office space). It is vital that faculty heads outline their plans for faculty expenditure in their subject school development plan. This allows school leaders to check that the expenditure of inexperienced colleagues is appropriate but it also means that expenditure can be clearly linked to faculty priorities for the year.
As part of schools’ responsibility for their buildings many schools now purchase services such as cleaning, building refurbishments and catering. In the past many of these services were provided by the local authority but while this may still be possible schools must check what they are getting for their money and compare prices with other providers. In my experience, the local authority does not often provide good value for money. Financial procedures mean that any product or service over a certain value (usually £6,000) must have at least three quotations to ensure there is value for money. Recently all maintained schools have been required to achieve the Financial Management Standard for Schools (FMSiS). While this in itself does not guarantee good value for money, it does provide many sensible checklists which assist schools in this direction and take into account the provision of ‘best value’. In addition to the ‘basic’ financial allocations, schools are able to access other funding. From one perspective it may be frustrating to need to ‘look’ for other sources of funding – the familiar argument is that all schools should be funded at a fair and adequate level. The other perspective is that all schools are businesses and as such should utilise all the resources at their fingertips.
Depending on your school’s location it may be possible to gain additional income by renting sports facilities and car parking at the weekend for a caravan club rally, running lucrative training courses for staff, renting the school hall/dining facilities for weddings/ parties, etc. The question that must always be asked is whether it is still profitable after the ‘hidden costs’ (caretaking overtime, additional wear and tear, utility costs, etc) have been included. Schools are also eligible to apply for additional funding which is linked to specific projects; some of these are national, others local, some virtually automatic, others more of a lottery. How does a school decide which approaches are good value for money as this kind of funding requires a good deal of time in putting together a successful bid? As a general rule, specialist schools’ funding from DCSF is good value for money. It requires an initial outlay of time but it brings in a considerable amount of income for a four-year period. This funding can now be used very flexibly. Other possible funding sources must be judged in a calculated way. I tend towards the view that if we are already wanting to undertake a certain project (with school funding provisionally attached) then it isn’t a huge problem to put the bid onto paper. If it is successful, it frees up the provisionally allocated money for another purpose or allows us to extend the proposed project. If it is unsuccessful little is lost. Writing a bid is an art – not everyone has this talent. Choose a bid writer who is both creative and able to ‘apply the rules of the game’.
Achieving value for money is not ‘sexy’, but it is vital if as headteachers we are to make the very best use of our finances. This is undoubtedly part of the whole jigsaw of running a successful school. Finance is seen by some as a background issue, something which others can concern themselves with while headteachers deal with more lofty concerns. However, I believe that having a strategic aim of achieving good value for money helps facilitate the very best teaching and learning. And that this is our core purpose.