Three-year budget plan helps schools to address budget deficit

Forest Way School’s headteacher and staff help other schools to improve their financial health through budget planning and staff changes.

Forest Way in Coalville, Leicestershire, is a single academy trust teaching school and national support school.

Headteacher Lynn Slinger and her staff (including specialist leaders of education) help other schools to improve their financial health, through budget-planning and staffing changes.

In some cases, their support has had dramatic results. It has helped to turn around schools with deficits of around £500,000 to a budget surplus within 3 years.

If a school’s in financial difficulties, Lynn and her team’s immediate focus is to construct a 3-year budget plan. This allows the governing body to see that they may face short-term costs before they see a long-term improvement in the school’s financial health.

Budget planning can take between 3 and 4 months to complete so that Lynn’s team can examine each element of the school’s expenditure. They will then develop savings scenarios for the school’s leadership team to consider. A key element of this is staffing costs. This involves a comprehensive review to identify which roles the school needs to deliver the curriculum and the costs of each role for the next 3 years. This often means questioning some fundamental assumptions about the existing staff structure. To address deficits of around £500,000, Lynn and her team have had to advise on some large-scale changes to both teaching and support staff structures.

The 3-year budget plan means schools can look at forthcoming retirements and staff moving on to other jobs. Projected costs in budget planning incorporate a worst case scenario of low natural wastage. This means that the school can prepare to meet the costs of redundancies if necessary. In many cases actual redundancy costs will be lower than this.

Curriculum-led budget planning at The Weald School allows it to maximise value for money while offering a broad and balanced curriculum.

The Weald School is a large secondary school in West Sussex. The headteacher, Peter Woodman, takes a data-informed and curriculum-led approach to staff planning. This enables him and his senior leadership team (SLT) to make strategic curriculum changes to help pupils, in spite of a tight budget and recruitment challenges.

Mr Woodman plans his staffing structure one year ahead, in September and October, based on SLT’s view of the ideal curriculum model for the school. To inform its judgment, SLT considers detailed pupil attainment data, which it can see quickly and easily by using a specialist software package.

To plan his staffing structure in detail, Mr Woodman uses a customised spreadsheet. This shows, by year group, the number of subject periods needed and the number of periods for which there are teachers available. Mr Woodman aims for an average contact ratio of 0.8, which he can adjust on the spreadsheet. He can also adjust factors such as pupil numbers and class sizes to ascertain the net level of overstaffing or understaffing by subject. In this way, he can work out the school’s recruitment needs for the following year.

In light of the school’s recruitment needs, Mr Woodman examines the school’s five year budget and benchmarking data. These data include teacher contact time, class sizes and staff costs. Mr Woodman often benchmarks informally with similar schools, and he also benchmarks from year to year within his own school. He then amends his recruitment plans if necessary.

This approach allows Mr Woodman to know the school’s staffing levels and recruitment needs at any given point in the year. He has therefore been able to make strategic curriculum changes to help pupils. He has, for example, been able to:

  • increase the number of maths and English periods in years 7 and 8
  • tailor the curriculum for some pupils by taking them out of lessons in which they are very strong, to give them extra lessons in subjects in which they are weaker

When faced with budget pressures, Mr Woodman aims to find a balance between SLT’s ideal curriculum and costs that the school can afford. Options he considers include:

  • increasing teacher contact time
  • discontinuing less popular subjects
  • increasing class sizes for certain year or subject groups
  • teaching year groups 12 and 13 together in certain subjects

This has led to increased class sizes for years 7 and 8 from 30 to 31, and the discontinuation of ceramics at GCSE and politics at A level. To ensure affordability in future years, the headteacher has also:

  • recruited new intervention teachers on a one year contract
  • reduced the size of SLT by 2.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) posts
  • ensured all SLT members teach some classes

The headteacher continually revises his staffing plans throughout the year. He meets his SLT 4 times a week, discussing staffing at almost every meeting. Together, they react quickly to staff turnover and to the school’s success in recruiting teachers, so an effective staffing structure is always in place.

Mr Woodman’s strategic, curriculum-led approach ensures a consistent focus on delivering the best possible curriculum in the most efficient way possible. There is virtually no overstaffing and teachers are flexible in covering for one another when there is sickness absence. Mr Woodman plans well in advance, uses data effectively, and consults regularly with his SLT to meet the school’s staffing needs. He keeps the school within budget while maintaining a focus at all times on pupil needs and outcomes.

Mr Woodman notes that: “finances have been particularly pressured in West Sussex in recent years so it has been critical that we use those we have as effectively as possible. Our proactive and long term approach to curriculum planning and timetabling means that when it comes to making choices, we can do so in systematic way that makes sure we continue to focus on those areas that will make the biggest differences to our students.”

Southend High School for Boys explains how efficient timetabling led to greater financial efficiency.

Three-year forecasts reveal financial challenges

In 2013 Simon Oxenham, director of resources and a NASBM national lead on school finance, created a 3-year financial forecast. The forecast showed that there were financial challenges ahead.

The school responded to the forecast by launching a vitality plan. The plan reviewed all current and potential areas of income and spending. The plan showed that staff costs, as a percentage of operating income for the school, was nearing 90%. This was an unsustainable position, particularly with income reducing and costs rising. This led the school to first review all support functions to see if any savings were possible without the school becoming inefficient. The school then looked at the teaching staff, in particular to see if they could make savings from more efficient timetabling.

The current timetabling process

SHSB routinely starts to plan its curriculum and staffing before Christmas ready for the following September. This process now includes modelling their curriculum and staffing for the next 2 to 3 years. The senior leadership team (SLT) reviews the draft timetable and staffing model for the year ahead in January. This review informs decisions about staff recruitment, which in turn updates the staffing model, becoming an iterative process. The staffing model lists all teaching staff by teaching department. Classroom teachers are set a target to teach 42 out of 50 one hour periods per fortnight. Middle leaders have fewer teaching periods to make up for their management responsibilities.

The staffing model shows where there is an excess or shortage of teaching periods by staff member and by department. The school holds a list of teachers’ qualifications by subject and uses excess periods in one subject area to fill a shortage in another.

This process continues until the May half term. Final tweaks are made in June when part-time teachers’ hours are flexed slightly as required.

Having a good timetabler working closely with HR is critical for the success of these reviews.

Team spirit

SHSB places great importance on staff morale and team spirit. And they work hard to maintain those values. Staff absence levels are very low and the school supports colleagues who have been ill back into the work place. There are public rewards for 100% attendance. Teachers expect to teach outside of their subject specialism and accept that there will be occasional cover periods.

Morale and team spirit are such that many of the part-time teaching staff are flexible with their working hours for the good of the school. This also extends to staff planning to retire.

The outcome

This timetabling process means that teachers deliver more than 2,400 lessons over a fortnight. This means there are fewer than 10 residual periods remaining across the entire teaching staff. This compares with an excess in previous years close to 2 full-time teachers. As a result, the school’s financial forecast is in a much stronger position.

Simon Oxenham said: “There is a level of risk with long-term absences as we don’t have absence insurance. So far we have been able to be creative.” For example, when one member of SLT went on maternity leave, Simon and his 4 SLT colleagues covered the responsibilities and teaching between themselves.

Headteacher, Dr Robin Bevan, explained: “In the first instance, schools need to become efficient in order to survive. Whilst it might be challenging, they must, at the same time, use as much of their resource as possible towards raising pupil outcomes. In every decision we make, pupil outcomes are, and will always be, our first priority.

Having an efficient curriculum offer and staffing model is a necessity in these financially testing times. Being informed and honest about those challenges, being creative and putting the jigsaw pieces together, is the key.”