These were the findings from a recent focus group held by national audit, tax, advisory and risk firm Crowe, which brought together a number of academy leaders, lawyers and bank managers to discuss and analyse the impacts of funding and its long term effects.
Despite significant successes in reducing expenditure, many academies believe the current on-going cost-cutting model is unsustainable and is starting to impact on both children’s education and staff morale. This in turn is leading to a knock-on effect, which can result in the loss of good teaching staff and a further detrimental impact on the quality of education that an academy is able to provide.
Staff costs remain the greatest expense for academies and is an area which academies consistently review. However, cutting headcounts or freezing pay further will have a similar knock-on effect on staff morale, with the associated impact on the quality of teaching provided. One solution, particularly among larger Multi Academy Trusts (MATs), which have a greater degree of flexibility, is to share teaching resources, most notably at senior and leadership level. Some MATs now share head teachers across several of their schools, with a head teacher moving between schools during the week, with a deputy taking day-to-day charge. However, this solution is far from ideal, as it relies upon schools being geographically close and assumes the head teacher is capable of managing a number of schools, all with different issues.
A Trust-wide approach to staffing below the senior leadership team (SLT), can also be beneficial, according to the academies focus group. Selecting staff to manage key areas of performance, such as an Examinations Officer, to work across a Trust increases flexibility. Having one member of staff to work with a single exam board for instance, allows teachers to move between schools, without needing to adapt to different curricula.
Repairs and maintenance remain the ‘easiest’ cost for academies to manage. Cutting out non-essential maintenance costs has been an effective short-term fix for many academies, but it is worth considering that they could result in higher costs in the long-term. Most notably, if repairs and maintenance are delayed for an extended period of time, underlying damage could be exacerbated, while a decline in the facilities – and appearance – of an academy sends out the wrong signals in terms of reputation. No parent wants to send their child to an academy that doesn’t ‘look the part’, which is then likely to impact on pupil numbers and ultimately, funding.
Some academies simply have no choice but to select resources and products purely based on cost. For an academy receiving adequate funding, it is important for long-term solutions to be favoured over quick-fix, short-term solutions which may represent the cheapest option, rather than value for money. This could prevent future costs from arising, worsening the financial health of an academy. Ensuring staff managing contracts are there for the long-term should negate short-term contracts introduced by staff contracted for a certain amount of time only. Planning for the long-term could make the future of an academy more secure in a climate where funding is unlikely to increase while costs will almost certainly continue to rise.
In the current climate, it is unlikely that funding for academies will increase. The academy sector continues to be one of the toughest to operate in, and it is advisable for those being challenged by funding issues to seek specialist advice where necessary.