James Paveley joined Matravers School in 2012 after a successful career of 29 years with HSBC. His previous experience as a relationship manager helped him to quickly understand school finances and identify where he could make improvements.
James joined ISBL (formerly NASBM) after starting work as an SBM and achieved fellowship in 2018. He is on the ISBL Advisory Panel allowing him to support the excellent work the Institute does.
My responsibility, as SBM in a mid-sized Secondary, is to ensure the money we spend is used in the best way it can be. Within the finance department of the school this means having procedures and systems which are quick and easy and have a strong finance outcome. In this context I have defined “strong finance outcome” as a combination of good financial practise, achieving value for money, reducing risk and having a clear view of the school’s financial position
In the six years I have been in my role, there are many things which we have changed and improved; some were an instant success, some didn’t improve things as expected (so were cancelled) and some took longer than expected to work. To ensure any new financial administration systems are improving you need to consider four factors - whether it will save money, whether it made a task easier, whether it will save time and whether it will make things “better”. Better could mean reducing Fraud risk, clearer MI reporting or more robust record keeping.
The table below shows some of the changes we have implemented and the impact each had on these four factors.
You will see most of these were not about saving money, but all were helping us to do things better. For me the starting point of change is a better process – saving time or money are a “bonus”.
As well as changing processes there are other things you can do which may help you improve the general administration within the finance function.
Listed below are ten “best practice” ideas. I hope you will find at least some of these useful within your own school.
- Register with a credit checking agency to monitor how your key suppliers are doing. For £200 a year you can monitor and check the status of 100 companies. You can be alerted to when an existing supplier is in difficulties and vet prospective new suppliers.
- Think of the school not just the finance office. In 2017 we put a system in place that increased the work the finance team took to monitor and track trips. We put the students who were going in a “group” in our customer management system. The reason we did this was because the rest of the school benefited. The small amount of extra work in one department created savings across the rest of the school that more than offset this. We saw reduced work in a number of other areas including time updating attendance, contacting parents about the trip and running medical reports.
- Take time to understand what your financial system can do. There is often a lot of features that you might not be aware of that could save you time. Joining the supplier's forum group is often a good way to see how other schools are using the system. The people contributing are very experienced and knowledgeable users who are great at finding ways to do things you might not have been aware of.
- Don’t forget your time costs money. Spending half an hour to save £20 probably isn’t worth it. I want any saving to be at least three times the staff costs (including on-cost) of the person. Where this is interesting is around fundraising events. Does the amount your raise really reflect the cost of putting the event on? If you are doing it for the enjoyment of students, parents or staff that is fine. But be honest about the real cost to the school.
- Try to use budget planning software that imports staffing cost from your CMS into your budget. This can save considerable time and reduce the chance of mistakes. Ideally it will then export the budget back again into your financial system, so you do not need to manually input budget figures.
- Use Purchase Orders (PO) in all but exceptional circumstances. Insist that invoices you receive have a PO number on them. If they don’t, explain to the supplier you will need to issue a PO (subject to approval) and once received the invoice should be re-issued quoting it. By encouraging our suppliers to insist on a PO we stop orders being placed without the Finance office’s knowledge.
- For those using Office365, invest time in understanding “SharePoint” and “Power BI”. Creating a SharePoint site for the school Intranet can be quick and easy. This can help with financial administration by directing staff to frequently used finance forms. Power BI has some good tools for analysing data and displaying in various charts. Great for understanding spending.
- If you still use paper, considering ordering bespoke “rubber stamps”. As an example, we have a stamp with 12 boxes on it which we use to process credit card payments. It is so much more efficient to stamp the invoice rather than write what needs to be done.
- Encourage Governors to understand how your systems work and the relationship between CRF codes, Ledger Codes and Cost Centres. As part of our sampling I often encourage them to challenge me on how ledger codes link together and how overspends on one CFR line are often offset by underspending on another. By allowing them to see how FMS links the data together really helps them understand my reports and validate my comments.
- When setting a budget try to only give departments a budget they can influence. For example, if PE always have equipment serviced each year why give them the budget. We have a system of allocating most non-optional expenditure to a cost centre called “Running the School” we use it for things we have no choice over. This is where you aim to save money and spend as little of the budget as you can. For one off expenditure we use our “Improving the School” cost centre. We would expect to spend most, if not all, the money allocated. At the end of the year, we review what we have done to make sure it was money well spent.
Thank you for reading this article and I hope the investment of your time was a good one. Try the ideas you like, think about trying those you don’t. Finally, if you try something that doesn’t work for you remember that just because it didn’t work today doesn’t mean it won’t work tomorrow.
Introduction from Stephen Morales, CEO of ISBL
In this series of case studies and school business leadership experience we’ll represent a flavour of the various iterations of our profession and the responses to a variety of contextual challenges. ISBL is not endorsing or rejecting any version of SBL practice described in this article.
The idea is indeed to avoid prescribing a one size fits all solution to school business leadership and thus celebrate diverse and innovative practice with the caveat of any approach being legally compliant, rigorous and sustainable.
You will see from the various examples that there some very interesting, new and creative solutions being deployed alongside some traditional tried and tested approaches.
By sharing experiences and different versions of school business leadership we hope that we can learn and grow as a community. This is true system leadership in action all working together to support a self-improving system.