An ex-colleague researching the current issues in education recently asked me for a non-teaching SLT comment on the key issues/priorities facing the profession at present. As an experienced school leader whose remit sits beyond the classroom and with an objective, perhaps less emotional, view of teaching today, here's my response:
Yes, school funding is in a miserable place right now, but we've seen this coming for years. Financially astute schools have been surviving the withdrawal of adequate funding by opening their war chests and selling the family silver piece by piece. Now, having been forced to clear out our rainy day pots, spend our contingencies on the gas bill and abandoning all hope of any preventative or strategic planning, we've reached the start of the financial year where even the wealthiest maintained schools and academies are shaking their purses for the last coppers and nothing is coming out. The transitional protection of phased withdrawals of funds have ended, real time cuts have bitten and the impact of those non-funded hidden pension and cost of living increases have taken their full toll.
I have a wide network of Bursar/Business Manager/Finance Director colleagues and I don't know a single one who has been able to balance their in-year budgets this year. The education industry is now fully realising what we, as a profession, have been telling them for half a decade, and the powerhouses of the NUT, ASCL and the Education press are now unleashing their armory at the DfE to fight the funding battle. Good stuff. Good luck.
Man the Lifeboats
In the meantime, the SBMs and their non-teaching teams still have to keep their leaky ships afloat as best they can. And this is where we need to lift our eyes from our spreadsheets, put aside those entrenched prejudices and fears of local competitors, rankings and league tables and start collaborating with like-minded schools sharing the same problems. Collaboration is the absolute opportunity and the only real current solution. As schools, we share the same agenda, the same local problems, the same judgements, and ultimately the same ambitions, so let's work together to stay afloat. After all, the best way to secure a small leaky raft is to lash it to another one to make both stronger and more stable.
The Circle of Life
The absolute crisis we all share is in recruitment. At all levels. Setting aside the reasons why and the implicitnmorality, but looking purely at the budgetary issues- the most effective and sustainable financial model is one where staff enter the school as NQTs, progress up the ranks, spend a while at UPS then move on, being replaced by a new recruit at NQT level. Schools can no longer afford to have those long-serving HoDs who have reached the top of their game and who don't intend to move up to Leadership roles,who may have remained on UPS 3 with a large TLR for many years. Regardless of the skills and dedication of those essential and experienced colleagues, financial sustainability relies on staff turnover, as does effective CPD programming, progression planning, innovation and professional interest.
What we find now is that some HoDs are not moving on, some preferring to stay in a relatively safe place awaiting retirement, rather than test the turbulent waters elsewhere, causing the upcoming rising stars to move on elsewhere. Combine that with the absolute famine that is the recruitment market at the moment and you have a stagnant, expensive and ineffective staffing model which cannot be sustained. Many schools are struggling to appoint to fundamental roles across all core subjects, instead relying on mediocre supply and a band-aid approach to timetabling to get them through a term at a time. Schools and HoDs are unable to operate strategically because of the basic lack of skilled professionals., Firefighting is a constant.
Schools must reduce costs but cannot afford redundancy payments. They cannot recruit so are massively overspending on advertising and supply, both budgetary areas which add no value to the school’s strategic aims and certainly do not drive forward school improvement.
So what can we do?
Now there’s the question. Aside from the obvious efficiency savings that any decent SBM/Bursar/FD will already be making, schools need to rethink their timetables to make sure they have fully maximised their resources – so no ‘trapped’ free periods, deploy staff to their full allocation, teach out of subject area if necessary (at KS3). Teach 2nd subjects, re-jig class sizes - all decent Heads are already doing all of these things, that's Strategic Financial Planning 101.
But the real solution lies in local collaboration with other schools. A proper joined-up approach to sharing staff, CPD and timetables will allow for a much leaner model, creating opportunities for joint CPD, cross-campus working, greater career progression routes, shared best-practice, allowing for minority GCSE subjects to be timetabled together to allow for students of 2/3 local schools to combine to form a viable group, along with an extended offer (e.g one school runs German, another runs Latin, another runs Spanish), etc.
Cover supervisors, pastoral staff, site staff, IT technicians are shared across sites, deployed where needed; advertising is across schools so one advert for a consortium rather than 3 or 4 for similar posts. It works across models, so just for formal MATs but anywhere where local schools are easily accessible. As the ability of Local Authorities to deliver support services to schools diminishes into invisibility, so alliances and partnerships between schools are springing up. And no there is absolutely no need to academise if that's not the right model for you, there are a whole host of other models where informal, semi-formal or make-it-up-as-you-go-along models can work just as well. How many Primary Heads spend time on the phone to the local plumber, or signing low value checks, or trying to work out if they're being ripped off by a local IT provider? All time spent out of classrooms, when there is a whole team of dedicated professionals doing an efficient and skilled job at managing all of those areas in the local secondary school up the road. Secondaries can support primaries with support services at a fraction of the cost of buying it in, and that's not to mention the economies of scale that are achievable through the bulk-procurement options of local collaboration.
Trust me, I'm a Business Manager
It’s a difficult sell though, to SLTs and Heads who are naturally protective of their skills base and might feel threatened by 'other school's staff' working in their offices. And perhaps more so for Governing Bodies, who have been trained, after years of league-table conditioning so see their local neighbours as rivals rather than colleagues. But if the industry can come together to rally for more funding, it can also come together to create its own solutions.
On a final note, spare a thought for the impact of all of this on non-teaching staff. Most schools facing budget cuts will be looking to reduce their support staffing before they take teachers out of classrooms. Support staff know this and are waiting to see if they'll still have jobs come September. (Well, some are waiting, some are leaving education for the security of the business world). Already working for significantly lower salaries than they would attract in business, with most only getting paid for 39 weeks out of 52, our dedicated and equally committed school support staff feel forgotten and sidelined in the national teacher stress/workload discussions.
Most schools operate a very pyramidical support staff structure, with almost no progression opportunities beyond middle management. Imagine, then, the opportunities that cross-school collaboration could bring to the dedicated and talented Network Manager who might now have an chance to create and mastermind a network and IT infrastructure over multiple sites, or to the fantastic but frustrated Catering Manager who might now be able to roll out a profit-sharing, high quality catering service to local primary schools. That is how schools will retain their finest professionals, and also attract expertise into education from business. Income generation isn't just about selling school ties, it's about a fully co-operative approach to local delivery, developing skills, nurturing talent and turning threats into opportunities; taking those DfE lemons and turning them into fair-trade, locally sourced, organic lemonade.