Government initiatives regarding financial management should be accompanied by more training and support, says Geri Skwarek

Anybody working in education has to get used to the idea that initiatives of all types are constantly being introduced by the government. A recent major reform within the education sector has been the legislative application of the agenda to remodel the workforce in schools.The introduction of the National Agreement on Workforce Remodelling (NAWR) has had a huge impact on the administration departments of many schools nationwide, in that it is the members of these teams that have inherited the bulk of the 24 tasks. There has been no additional funding made available by the government to assist in accommodating the additional workload and yet there is an ‘unspoken expectation’ that each individual will satisfactorily fulfil their job role and its connected responsibilities. Many administrative workers in schools work over and above their directed hours on a regular basis and are again about to feel the onslaught of a further initiative, namely the Financial Management Standard in Schools (FMSiS).Following The Spending Review (led by Sir Peter Gershon) in 2004, a target for efficiency gains across government was set at 2.5% per annum and the implication for the DfES was delivery of at least £4.3bn of efficiencies and productivity improvements by 2007-08. A pilot study was undertaken based on the audit and accountability framework for schools, involving 175 schools from 11 LEAs, and resulted in the DfES publishing FMSiS in May 2004.The study undertaken had concluded that schools would benefit from help in evaluating the quality of their financial management and in training staff to become good financial managers. The standard is accompanied by a toolkit, developed by the DfES and the Institute of Public Finance, which is intended to help schools achieve the foregoing conclusion.Good financial practice in a school will be analysed under five headings, namely: Leadership and governance; People management; Policy and strategy; Partnerships and resources; and Processes. I welcome the financial scrutiny to ensure complete probity of the spending of public and other funds, although I believe that a local authority audit already meets this requirement.Upon initial inspection of the FMSiS toolkit provided, I was quite overwhelmed at the sheer volume of criteria required to meet the standard. However, never one to be daunted, I drew up an ‘action plan’ which, admittedly, relied quite heavily on the school receiving local authority support to ensure successful attainment. On approaching the local authority I was informed that there was no such support available and that it was the individual school’s responsibility to ensure it was up to scratch! In one short sentence it had suddenly become ‘my responsibility’ to ensure members of the governing body and the senior leadership team were totally au fait with the financial controls and procedures in place, as well as ensuring members of the finance team maintained the designated financial protocol. Whilst the required procedures and supporting documentation are largely in place, collating them into one central resource will put severe constraints on my already limited directed hours.I have noted that the amount of training and support offered to school financial staff by the local authority appears limited to ICT software development, and following independent research it is becoming rapidly apparent that this is not just a localised or recent issue of concern. Indeed O’Sullivan, Thody and Wood (From Bursar to School Business Manager , p191) identified that ‘In the 1990s… training (provided by LEAs for bursars) was mainly functional in character and usually included familiarisation with software packages.’ Despite the introduction of countless government initiatives in the last 16 years that have impacted on the roles, responsibilities and expectations placed upon school administration staff (with a concomitant expectation that they will be successfully completed), it would appear that the level of training and support offered by local authorities to this section of the school workforce has not kept pace with the evolution and changing demands of the role.New systems and procedures are constantly being introduced, ie the thrice yearly School Census (formerly PLASC) effective from 2007, three- to five-year annual budgeting, new financial reporting procedures consisting of producing countless reports from the FMS system to ‘back up’ one summary financial statement, to name a few. As regards the census it is my opinion that local authorities seem to get caught up in a typical ‘Beaujolais run’ – which authority can get all their schools’ data into the DfES first?While I personally derive great enjoyment and pleasure from being successful in the diverse and demanding job I undertake to ensure individual student achievement, there are times when I critically evaluate my own work/life balance. I adore the role and its responsibilities but it is my opinion that somewhere, sometime, something has to give and I wouldn’t want it to be either my personal health or the health of the school I serve. So could the decision makers please consider, when introducing future initiatives for implementation, what constructive training and support will be put in place to ensure that those who have the responsibility on the ground have the necessary skills and competences to implement the same, and in doing so alleviate the stress levels currently being experienced by many school business managers and other school administrative staff. People should not be expected to successfully fulfil their roles and responsibilities without being given full support and appropriate training.

Geri Skwarek is school business manager at Miriam Lord Community Primary School