Curriculum-Led Financial Planning: An Innovative Solution for a Time of Challenging Budgets

Stuart Gardner

Stuart Gardner is chief executive of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, which takes a cognitive approach to education across its 17 high-performing schools in the South East. He has over 20 years of experience in the education sector, having previously been headteacher and executive headteacher at a number of schools.

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The vast majority of school leaders will be familiar with the balancing act of reducing costs while still ensuring that we provide the highest possible quality of education to our students. In the 20 years I have spent working in the education sector – first as a teacher and then as a headteacher, before becoming the Chief Executive of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust – this challenge has been a key focus for me. I have seen much in the way of innovation and creative thinking to address it – but it is the model that we have introduced at Thinking Schools which I am most proud of.

Developed 3 years ago, our curriculum-based financial planning model has made great leaps towards solving some of the most frequent financial challenges faced by both multi-academy trusts and individual schools. It has proven invaluable to headteachers and school leaders by acting as an effective, yet flexible, tool to ensure that the right staff are in the right place at the right time.

As a result, we have seen a huge increase in effective cost savings, whilst still maintaining the excellent educational standards we are known for and proud of.

This is a model we believe can be adapted and adopted by any school. Under a curriculum-led financial planning model, school leaders evaluate their curriculum using accurate staffing forecasts for the next academic year. Through the creation of curriculum maps and staffing structures, it is possible to see whether the current staffing levels are adequate to deliver effective and inspiring teaching at the agreed teacher-to-student ratio.

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All schools send the central leadership team their staffing forecasts for the upcoming academic year, and this allows us the time to intervene without it being at short notice; to look into whether it would be most beneficial to recruit; and if so, what kind of contract would be best for us to recruit on. By allowing leaders to see whether staffing levels are efficient, or under- or over-resourced, school budgets can be used in the most effective way possible.

One of the major benefits of the model is that it is flexible enough to be adapted across different schools that may be facing very different circumstances. It is essentially based around a programme of eight clear steps, to be implemented in the autumn term ready for the following September. We recommend that where possible, leaders model three years in advance – to assist with staff planning decisions and to ensure that staffing decisions are linked to the delivery of the curriculum. We are now developing our own framework for primary level, too, and are looking forward to sharing best practice at primary level as well as our current secondary plan.

This financial model has been a key part of our ability to transform outcomes at schools which have joined our Trust, with several of our schools having seen exceptional improvements since their re-brokerage. With staffing structures that meet the needs of the curriculum, money is saved, teaching staff are retained by ensuring that workloads are manageable, and students are able to access an excellent standard of education.

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A key example of this is The Victory Academy in Chatham, Medway. We have managed to achieve great financial efficacy through rigorous planning, alongside a rapid transformation of the standards of education at the Academy. When the school (previously named Bishop of Rochester Academy) joined Thinking Schools in September 2015, it had been issued a financial notice to improve, and was rated ‘Requires Improvement’ by Ofsted.

We soon found that the financial notice to improve was almost entirely caused by a staffing structure that did not match the school’s curriculum, and so set about implementing the principles of curriculum-led financial planning. As a result, over the last three years we have achieved a reduction in costs of more than £2m, and our concurrent improvement of academic standards saw The Victory Academy rated ‘Good’ at the school’s most recent Ofsted inspection. This is a result that we are incredibly proud of, and which would not have been possible without our very own model of innovation on a budget.

Our model of financial planning may not be the exact path that other academies and trusts choose to take – we know as well as any school leader that different schools have different priorities and circumstances that need to be considered. But the flexibility of the model, in giving trust leaders an overview of the staffing requirements and curriculum needs of their various schools, is something we hope all schools might be able to draw some inspiration from.

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