Since the DfE’s announcement, no not ‘announcement’ more ‘veiled conditional clause’ that CIF funding will be dependent upon the recipient school receiving an SRMA visit, there has naturally been some discussion as to whether or not this is an appropriate use of the SRMA programme, and indeed, a just condition by which to refuse paying out cash for academies who have been successful in bidding for Condition Improvement Funding.
I've spoken publicly about my concerns surrounding the SRMA program in the past, here,
and it’s potential to devalue the role of the school business leader and lose or threaten the autonomy of Academy finances. However, that absolutely does not mean to say that the SMRAs who have been appointed and deployed are not doing excellent supportive work, although we have not yet been given any evidence to support that. They are, in the main, highly skilled professionals and confident school business leaders. My concern has always been the underlying agenda behind the SRMA program, not the concept of school business leaders supporting other school professionals in the efficient management of school support services - that has always been my mantra.
The DfE Agenda
I never really believed that, when the SMRA program was first announced, the sole purpose of the program was to recruit brilliant advisors to go into schools for free, to deliver advice for free, and then come away again. That would be somewhat unbelievable and held the lavender scent of fairy godmothers and sparkle of genie lamps. I suspected that this was a way of the DfE sending recruits (remember the original plan was for these advisors to be from outside of education) into academies to fulfil the scrutiny functions that Local Authority finance teams used to complete.
Several years on, it has become very evident that the academies agenda lacked the section on high-level scrutiny of internal finances, and academy financial probity was more or less reliant on Responsible Officers, the financial governance skillsets of trustees, and the CEO’s skillset and moral fibre. The value that the pre-academy LA school finance function added to the process, was scrutiny, and the consolidation of accounts in regional chunks which made life in Whitehall much easier. So would a team of post-modern LA officials, rebranded as SRMAs, be the solution? Perhaps.
SRMAs as Gatekeepers
But now we hear that SRMAs are to be used as compulsory gatekeepers to accessing CIF funding - a process where academies submit already detailed and costed plans and submissions to a panel of (assumed) skilled assessors who determine the need for infrastructure repairs and expansion to the fabric of school buildings. Not a natural link to the advertised budget scrutiny and ICFP skills of the SRMA army.
And don’t forget, that CIF bids are only open to single academies and small MATs - any MAT with more than 6 academies receives capital funding via a formula model, so this new twist will see compulsory SRMA visits, but only to single academies and small MATs - large MATs and maintained schools are excluded. Odd.
A Financial Ofsted?
There’s also the argument as to why wouldn’t an academy welcome a free review from a skilled professional. Schools regularly use external and peer review to evaluate performance so why is this any different? The difference is simple; this is a compulsory review, led by individuals paid directly by the DfE, who report back to the DfE on their findings and who then give the DfE the evidence to subsequently take action against the school. That is not an informal review, that is a government inspection. A government inspection which sounds very much like the precursor to a national system of Financial Ofsteds for academies. There is currently no grading given by SRMAs but it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that this could follow. I’m sure the DfE would respond that there is no such agenda currently, but in the absence of any other transparency regarding this latest swerve into CIF inspections, you do have to wonder.
A ‘free’ service?
The argument has also been made that the SRMA program is a free service and therefore should be welcomed, but as per the adage, there really is no such thing as a free lunch. The SRMA programme comes at a significant cost, funded by the DfE, charged to the education pot, so one way or another, all schools are paying, even those who aren’t able to benefit from the service.
But I’m really not criticising the idea behind the plan, however much I might deride the clunky and ill-judged delivery of it. The concept of using the expertise within the sector to further inform and support school’s financial management is sound and based on collaborative theory. But I absolutely don’t agree that the DfE should be rolling out a programme that squeezes the last pennies out of schools by normalising and accommodating shocking funding cuts. Nor do I agree that post-contractual conditional clauses can or should be added to a national bidding process once the process has been launched.
If you’d have asked, we’d have told you
Had the DfE consulted with the sector, the system leaders and school business professionals before it launched this agenda, it might well have received some feedback along some very different lines.
Instead of a ‘done-to’ programme of external review, a more supportive use of £2m+ might have been to fund free training for all school business professionals in ICFP and advanced resource management. The ISBL would be the natural providers of what really could have been a groundbreaking and self-supporting strategy. Instead of a programme blighted by ill-judged comments about photocopier cuts and champagne promises, why on earth wouldn’t the DfE support the upskilling of a beleaguered and battered profession, by providing it with the free training, tools and resources to support a truly self-improving system of financial efficiency? That, to my mind, would have been highly impactful and welcomed by the profession and the sector.
Unless of course there is another agenda.