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Howard Jackson

Here, Howard Jackson, founder and head of education at HCSS Education shares his top tips for producing refreshed budgets for this year while effectively planning ahead for the long term. He also shares advice for budget managers in schools and academies on how to forecast effectively and spot opportunities for substantial savings to be made.

With the autumn term well under way and the end of the calendar year fast approaching, there comes an opportunity for financial directors to review budgets for the year ahead.

Howard Jackson

Howard Jackson

I speak to finance colleagues at schools and academies on a daily basis in my role and I see how the same challenges crop up across the country. In these uncertain times, those working within both maintained and academy schools need to be thinking more commercially and looking at the budget with a fresh perspective to help deliver even more with even less.

We can’t deny that these are challenging and uncertain times for schools and academies in England, but I like to see this as an opportunity for finance directors. It is a time to demonstrate the positive effects a refreshed and fully comprehensive budget can have on the entire school and its ability to deliver high quality education.

Make sure your biggest asset is covered

Taking up about 80% of the budget, it is paramount that staffing costs including pay rises and pensions are correctly factored in, as this normally accounts for about 80% of total. If any cost savings need to be made, unfortunately this is the first place that budget holders will need to scrutinise.

Teachers receive an annual pay rise each September, so this will never come out of the blue, however it is important to plan way in advance for this. I would always recommend planning for a 1% increase at the very least.  While many school leadership teams are now linking pay rises to performance rather than providing rises across the board, it is safer to assume that everyone who is eligible will receive the raise.

Check the long range forecast

It is so important to forecast expected income for the next five years in order to plan effectively. This can often be a challenge with more decreases in funding likely and fluctuating pupil numbers. If numbers are likely to go down, it is important to take steps to counteract this as soon as possible. For example, will the current staff numbers be required in future or will more teachers need to be recruited?

It is also absolutely key to work hand in hand with the school leadership team to ensure the budget is correctly allocated to support the priorities and values of the school. There is no one size fits all approach to budgeting in education. For instance, if academic performance is lower than expected in a certain subject, more investment may be needed in this area. Or there may be essential building repairs coming up to ensure pupils are safe.

Review historical data 

It’s easy to fall into the habit of allocating budgets in a formulaic way year after year. While this can work well in some cases, there is a danger that some unnecessary costs are added in without a second thought. It is worth looking at long-term contracts that are reviewed annually. Could you shop around for a new supplier? Or look at a reduced service? Systematically reviewing all service level agreements and contracts is a sure fire way to ensure any unnecessary spending can be reduced.

The right tools in the box

There are tools designed to make it easier for education finance directors to plan effectively. Specialist school budget forecasting tools will automatically update with any nationally agreed increases like pay rises, national insurance contributions and pensions.

An accounting tool such as HCSS Accounting that is built for the education sector will make interim budget monitoring easier and will act as an early warning system if overspend is likely.

The end goal 

Finance directors are responsible for a delicate balancing act to ensure their school or academy doesn’t end up in the red. Setting money aside for contingency funding has gone from being a necessity to a ‘nice to have’. But, by going through budgets with a fine tooth comb there are always savings to be made. My top tip? Always look at staffing costs first.

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