September 2012

Features

  • SENsory perception
    The upcoming shake-up in special needs services is said to be the biggest for 30 years. But some leaders fear it is being rushed through and others are concerned that a simplistic view of special needs means that some children could be left behind. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
  • Aiming higher
    In light of recent changes to national careers provision and to statutory regulations, the onus is now on schools and colleges to provide timely, well-informed and impartial careers information, advice and guidance. Lucie Carrington looks at how this can be achieved when schools and colleges work together in the best interests of young people. More
  • Out of Africa
    There has been much talk about international comparisons and how we should look to South Korea and Finland to inspire our education system, but are we really looking in the right places? Dr Allan Sigston explains how Africa could have a profound impact on secondary education. More
  • Power in numbers
    How do you ensure that you are getting good value and high quality in these challenging times? Business Manager Sandy Woodcock talks about the benefits of a good local network as a support mechanism and a way of achieving significant. More
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How do you ensure that you are getting good value and high quality in these challenging times? Business Manager Sandy Woodcock talks about the benefits of a good local network as a support mechanism and a way of achieving significant savings.

Power in numbers

I am sure I am not the only business manager who is starting to appreciate that we are working in a rapidly changing landscape. During the last 12-18 months, the whole nature of our role in whichever 'type' of school has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride.

Following the spending review in 2010, we have all had to think carefully about long-term savings. Although education has been largely protected during this round of cuts, it is all too clear that our time will come. There is a clear expectation that schools can and should be delivering 10 per cent reductions in their budget spend with more careful procurement and collaboration.

You may be a business manager in a recently converted academy or may be in the process of converting or setting up a free/studio school. These are sold as wonderful opportunities for new freedoms and flexibilities on the education landscape that are exciting both headteachers and governors. It is the business manager, however, who rapidly understands that there is a little more to it. With a much greater responsibility for financial management and reporting, the idea of a finance director is not as unlikely as we may have once thought. I am sure that I am not alone in recognising that the finance team I had as a foundation school does not meet the needs of a multimillion-pound limited company and the levels of financial returns this seems to require.

For those who have not been persuaded along the academy route, every local authority is encountering its own levels of pressure, either from the number of schools converting or not converting in their area, or from their own financial restraints. The knock-on effect for schools is that, academy or not, the centrally provided services are becoming a thing of the past.

Collaboration is key

In Gloucestershire we have always had a very active group of bursars and business managers across the county. Originally, it was mainly secondary schools, but as the role of the business manager became more frequent in primaries, our membership grew. In 2006, we had a membership of 65, and in 2012, it has grown to 186, 45 from secondaries and 141 from primaries. The group recently ran its own conference at a prestigious local venue, where 60 sponsors and exhibitors were joined by 200 delegates.

The group benefits from three meetings a year where relevant local issues are discussed, speakers are brought in, and individual sectors break off to discuss their own concerns. Over the last two years, we have noted how difficult it is for business managers to take time out of school for training courses, particularly in primary schools where they may wear many hats, and where funding is limited.

As a group, we have provided local venues for training sessions run by various external providers, including ASCL. This gives many local business managers the opportunity to take part in training sessions that they would normally not be able to access, at minimal cost and travel time.

In Gloucestershire, we are in quite a unique situation. We had quite a few early academy converters in 2010, and since then a steady flow has meant that, for secondary schools the majority have now converted. Primary and special schools are gradually following suit.

Advantages of joint procurement

When we saw how many schools in Gloucestershire were wading through the conversion process at the same time, there were some definite advantages to be gained in joint procurement. We got together as a group up to 15 of us at times to work through the conversion process as a team. First stop was the, sometimes tedious, accountants, lawyers and financial software companies' 'beauty parades', made much more interesting when approached as a team. This had various advantages:

The supplier only had to make their bid once, so was more inclined to bring a high-level team to make their presentation, who could answer all our questions.

By having a larger group of business managers present, there was a far more comprehensive level of questioning.

We were able to negotiate levels of discount depending on take up of their product.

In the case of financial software, we could also negotiate group training as a means of making savings.

This process was very successful. At the end of the day each school made its own decision on each product there was never any intention to agree a 'one-size-fits-all' approach but we were able to make choices based on some in-depth discussion. These meetings always gave plenty of opportunity for wider discussion regarding the process of becoming an academy. In early 2011, it was new to us all and it made such a difference to be able to share our concerns and problems within a group.

Following on from these meetings and discussions, and subsequent conversion to academy, we realised that there was some real potential for building on this collaboration, particularly in areas previously covered by the local authority. Some of this provision was now not available to academies, or was available at a cost, which may not be good value for money, including:

  • payroll and HR provision
  • occupational health service
  • legal services
  • health and safety advice
  • educational psychology service
  • careers information, advice and guidance The most immediate of these was independent careers advice. 

A group of headteachers and business managers got together to look at different options:

  • each school buying in from a bureau
  • one school employing an adviser which other schools could 'buy into'
  • utilising existing staff in school who may not have the expertise
  • collectively buying in a service from one or more providers

After much discussion, the decision was taken to opt for the fourth option. We advertised for an independent careers adviser and used a small group of heads and business managers from the schools that were interested to shortlist and interview candidates. The process ran smoothly and we successfully appointed two advisers, on a self-employed basis, with an agreed hourly/annual commitment to a number of schools. Each school had a contract with the provider, and an agreed hourly rate. The advantage of contracting two was that they had differing expertise, and would be able to cover each other to a degree in cases of illness.

The process itself proved a success, and one that we felt we could adopt for other situations, for example, for an educational psychologist or work experience adviser. The 'group' of schools or academies collaborating does not have to be the same in each situation, and can be a mix of school/academy/free school.

Utilise the best resources

What we have learnt over the last 18 months is that we have a vast array of real experience and expertise within our own group of business managers here in Gloucestershire. We have all been in education for varying lengths of time and come from very different backgrounds.

There are some who can bring the experience of the private sector to our changing world and others who can temper our stresses of academy conversion by their memories of grant maintained days. What we must all do for the future is look to one another for support, advice and experience because there is none better.

We have grown from a small group using a very effective email 'round robin' system, to a much larger group with a web-based forum, where we can ask just about anything and someone will have done it , knows where to get it , or has one that they will let you have. It saves us hours and hours of research time and is by far the best resource we have. When it all gets too much, I always know a quick phone call will result in a supportive chat, some encouraging words, and more often than not leave me with a smile.

  • Sandy Woodcock is business manager at Ribston Hall High School in Gloucester and chair of ASCL's Direct Employer Schools and Colleges (DESC) Committee.

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