Balancing academy and MAT budgets has never been more challenging than it is now. This month’s Data Trends looks at the factors affecting budgets, and what MAT leaders can do in the world of data, curriculum & IT. 

How did we get here? 

Despite school reserves being at record levels earlier this year, a perfect storm of inflation, including exponential increases in energy costs, and a well-earned but un-budgeted teacher pay rise have left many schools and MAT leaders nursing a considerable deficit in the budget. 

Teacher Tapp surveyed school leaders and summarised the current state of play on their blog. Schools Week reported on this and reflected that job cuts may be the only way to balance the books. Liz Truss appears to have promised schools help on energy bills, but following the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II, no further detail on this has been forthcoming. 

This quote from the Head Teacher’s Round Table blog epitomises the issue: 

“Our Trust of nine schools approved its budget on 12th July and then submitted it to the ESFA in good faith. Budgeted salary costs matched professional advice: a scale of between 2% and rising to 6% improvement for new graduate teachers (ensuring the 30k starting position), 4% for support staff and we budgeted for what we believed was a generous 100% rise in utility costs. We could not have anticipated what happened next. Right at the bitter end of term, a 5% salary was offered to teachers (still significantly below inflation and deserved) and utility cost estimates began to escalate to twice what we had budgeted for. As we start the new school year, we still have no real purchase on how high these costs will rise for us. Assuming that the pay rise will be 5% and that current estimates on utilities are now likely, our MAT will have to find an additional £1.2 million this year to meet these cost rises and that is a conservative estimate. We have painstakingly built up some reserves which will be all but wiped out by these rising costs and unfunded increases. It is devastating for all schools. There has to be some Government intervention, surely?” 

Caroline Derbyshire, CEO of Saffron Academy Trust in Essex 

What can you do? 

School financial management is a huge and varied field, my experience lies in data, timetabling, staffing & IT so I will focus on any advice there. 

Maximise your income through pupil numbers and pupil premium:

School budgets are allocated based on the number of students, so needless to say, it is important to ensure numbers on roll are high and remain so. Recent reports have highlighted that pupil numbers in England’s schools are predicted to shrink by 12 per cent over the next 10 years after the government revised its predictions in the face of “notably lower birth projections”.  

As we enter the crucial open evening period, it is time to make sure that the marketing of your schools to prospective parents is up to scratch. School websites are often the first impression prospective parents and pupils have. Are yours professional, welcoming and optimised for mobile devices? Open evenings play a part, for many these may be the first face-to-face open evenings for three years so make sure everyone remembers how to sell your schools in person.  

Community Brands offers bespoke school websites that can help you improve your marketing across your MAT.  

Parents and carers pay the most attention to their friend’s and acquaintances’ experiences and to what they hear and read in their local community. An undue reputation, spread by a few disgruntled parents online can have a significant impact. Ensure your schools are active on social media and take a lead. Better that parents go to a Facebook or WhatsApp group run and moderated by the school where you can be seen to quickly resolve issues than set up independent ones where you have little control. With per-pupil funding at around £6k per secondary student and £4.7k per primary student, every new student really does count. 

Pupil Premium funding can be a significant proportion of the school income for many schools. This year it is rated at £1385 for each secondary student and £985 for each primary student, and £2410 for those look after by the local authority or previously in care. Since last year the PP numbers for a school are now set based on the data you submit in the October census. It is critical that your student data is accurate and that you account for every possible student who is classed as PP. There are many ways to miss out on funding here.  

Your team should audit this in detail and in particular check: 

  • New students who are not currently eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) but were at some point in the past 6 years (FSM Ever 6). 
  • Any students with parents in the armed forces who may qualify for the Service Pupil Premium. 
  • Any student who has been adopted but was previously looked after by the local authority. 
  • Any student who has very recently become eligible for FSM but may not be claiming it yet. 
  • Any omissions made manually re-adding the PP checkmark in your MIS this year (it’s amazing how often this happens!). 
Rationalise IT expenditure by reviewing and normalising contracts:

The days of schools’ only major annual expenditure for IT services being an MIS (and support contract) are long gone. Most schools will also have annual licenses for a combination of payments, communications, websites, analytics, identity solutions, catering, safeguarding, finance and so on. It is quite likely that each school in a MAT has their own contracts for these across a myriad of different providers. Whilst the move to more modern MIS’ has reduced this in some areas, it has certainly not removed the issue and associated expense. During this period there has also been a rationalisation in the EdTech market, with a lot of smaller companies coming together into several larger groups. Now would be a good time to review your MAT software landscape. If you move to a single payment solution, single website provider, or single communications provider across your MAT you should be able to make savings, simplify expenditure and make budgeting simpler. You should also save on IT support costs. Speak to your suppliers, whether that’s us at Community Brands or one of our peers. We are experts at solutions for complex organisations. Simplifying and rationalising billing cycles and provision across multiple schools is also in our best interest, meaning savings can be found that benefit you. 

Integrated Curriculum Financial Planning:

With staffing making up around 80%+ of a school and MAT budget it is important to review this expense. ICFP is a framework for reviewing the efficiency of your curriculum. This should be an integral part of your curriculum planning at secondary level. If you haven’t conducted an ICFP review of your curriculum and staffing model, or haven’t reviewed your curriculum in general for a few years then it is probably time to do so. This does not necessarily have to result in a narrowed curriculum or redundancies. To continue to deliver the curriculum you want may mean a look at how your timetable is structured, compromises on class sizes may be needed. Over time it may be necessary to reduce staffing, with high-quality curriculum planning this can often be achieved through ‘natural wastage’. When I led on curriculum and staffing planning, we always had a myriad of plans ready to go along the lines of “If a main-scale X teacher leaves we’ll replace them with part-time teacher of Y.” When working in a MAT the possible solutions are even wider as you also have the consideration of moving staff between schools. 

Post-16 Learning Aims:

If you have a sixth form or college in your MAT you’ll be well aware that perhaps the most complex piece of school funding is based here. It is crucial that all your students have accurate learning aims, and that these are recorded in your MIS to gain the maximum possible funding. Even if you have years of experience in this area, I would always recommend getting a second pair of eyes to check it for you. In a previous school, we used to pay an expert consultant around £1500 to check ours each year, they almost always found a 5 figure increase in funding for us. It was money well spent for the peace of mind and funding that it brought in. 

Nobody wants to be cutting school trips, classroom temperatures or teaching assistants. I hope this post gives you some ideas for areas of your budget to review that may help avoid this. 

Data Trends – News & Articles you may have missed: 

  • The number of academies switching trusts has fallen to its lowest level since 2016, despite a government drive for standalone schools to join larger trusts. New Department for Education figures show only 176 academies moved to a different trust in the 2020-21 financial year, making up 1.8 per cent of all academies. 
  • FFT Datalab: DfE statistics show that the percentage of pupils who achieved this standard nationally fell from 65% to 59%. Among our sample of schools, the respective figures were 65% and 60%. Not all schools experienced a dip in attainment. In fact, 31% of schools are plotted above the dashed diagonal line indicating that attainment improved between 2019 and 2022. But half of schools experienced a fall of 6 percentage points or more. 
  • Schoolsweek: Schools will only be allowed to hire tutoring organisations pre-approved by the Department for Education under the National Tutoring Programme from September. 
  • The Guardian: Union leaders have warned newly appointed cabinet ministers that many teachers and nurses will quit their professions in the coming weeks if public sector pay deals are further delayed by chaos at the top of government.