When you ask a member of school staff why they entered the profession, it’s a fairly safe bet that the answer won’t involve managing budgets.
And yet middle leadership roles often come with a requirement to look after some financial elements. So, what do you need to know to do it well?
A well-managed budget can be a thing of beauty in a school, helping a department (or other area of responsibility) access the resources they need to provide the best possible education for their students.
But they take work to create, particularly for new middle leaders who may never have had to think financially in their work before.
That needn’t be an overwhelming proposition, though: there are some simple principles to follow to ensure that any budget, even one managed by a beginner, is efficient and effective in supporting the school’s goals and maximising student achievement.
What we know about what works
Stefano De Cesaris is an adjunct assistant professor of accounting at London Business School. He says the simple way for new budgetholders to think about the process is to look at it as “a short-term financial plan, essentially a list of revenues and expenses”.
“It is a future forecast,” he explains. “The numbers are not necessarily set in stone because it is about the future, not history, and it is often subdivided into periods like months – or, for a school, it is likely to be the academic terms.”
To understand the components of the budget, he continues, there are some simple questions to get to grips with, such as what measurements will be used to monitor the budget as the period progresses.
“Another element that is absolutely key to appreciate is that the numbers in the budget are seen by the people that set the budget as a control mechanism. In other words, ‘This is how much money we have and you’re authorised or allowed to use up this money but no more than that.’”
This raises the question of limits, he continues, particularly: what happens if your area of responsibility comes in under the projected budget – does this mean that you will have less to spend in the next period?
“That’s an important question because it takes us to the way that the budgets are set,” he continues.
“The traditional way to set a budget is to roll the budget over from the previous year, basically a copy-and-paste exercise.
“If budgets are unutilised then the administrator may reduce the amount, so there is a bit of a tension in making decisions about budgets. It is good to be cost conscious, but that may end up actually penalising the better-performing people.
“It’s not that you shouldn’t necessarily aim to utilise all your budget. If you can deliver your activities spending less, people are going to be happy with that. But it is helpful to know what happens if there is an unused portion of that budget.”
And when it comes to managing staff expenses, there is one thing to remember, he continues: organisation, organisation, organisation.
“You need to have a system in place: as a minimum, a spreadsheet where you have the dates, the names of the people, the amounts, the explanation for the expenditure,” he says.
“Being organised is absolutely essential. Hold the receipts in a dedicated place. Make sure that if you haven’t received them, you chase the teachers for them.
“And definitely ask for the support of the school because they will have their own finance people that deal with those aspects and can help.”
And, he says, being a part of the conversation around the budget at the planning stage can be very powerful.
“Work with the person who sets the budget as much as possible,” he says.
“If you are going to be responsible for at least some of those decisions about how the money is utilised, it is going to be very useful for you to contribute to the process of the budget setting, making them aware of how much you need and what you think the changes may be. Then they can set the budget in a way that – hopefully – adapts to your needs.
“Also, it can help you to feel that you have some form of influence on the process as opposed to just being given these numbers.”
The experienced leader view
Jon Hutchinson is director of curriculum and teacher development at the Reach Foundation. He writes:
Your available budget, and how much control you have over it, will vary widely depending on your middle leadership position and school size.
If you’re the head of a large maths department, there may be a sizeable chunk available to you; pastoral leads and primary subject coordinators tend to have much smaller pots, if there is anything in the coffers at all.
So, the first thing that you need to do is get clarity on exactly how much you have available to spend over the course of the year.
It may well be that money is already being used from your budget, as the school has a rolling subscription to a platform or service. It’s worth asking your school business manager (or equivalent) for a review of exactly what is being currently spent, and then doing a quick check on the impact that money is having.
It is not uncommon to find annual subscription payments going out to companies for platforms that nobody uses any more. Your role is crucial here: teachers don’t know that the subscription is live, and senior leaders don’t know that it isn’t being used. You hold important knowledge on both sides. Cancelling any defunct payments could free up some money that can be put to good use.
However, rather than starting with how much money you have and then thinking about what you can spend it on, it’s better to work out what the specific needs are of your area of responsibility.
Maybe you are a head of year and you’ve noticed that the influence of certain social media personalities has resulted in a big increase in misogyny among pupils. Making a request for a few hundred pounds to book an assembly speaker specialising in that area will be a much easier pitch, especially if you have the data (for example, behaviour points relating to sexism) to back up the need.
Even with tight budgets, money can often be found for pressing concerns affecting pupils.
In short, then, you should start with the problem that you are trying to solve, rather than beginning with solutions in search of problems.
I’ve seen too many times requests along the lines of “I’m history lead and I’ve got £500 to spend – does anyone know any good resources?” That’s way too vague and impossible to answer without a deep understanding of the needs and priorities of the school and subject.
Of course, you’ll also now find yourself sending those emails that used to have you rolling your eyes, urging everyone not to print in colour. But if you develop a habit of starting out with a clear sense of current pupil and teacher demands before directing money to resources that will meet them, you’ll soon build a great track record of managing budgets effectively.