Curriculum Led Financial Planning in a crisis

Andrew Mackereth - 26 January, 2021

Category : Blog

Curriculum Led Financial Planning in a crisis

Former Secondary School Headteacher and Arbor’s Senior Partnership Manager, Andrew, speaks to Steve Gibson, Deputy Headteacher at Berwick Academy In my first article on the subject of curriculum led financial planning (CLFP), I asked: Is your Curriculum planning improving outcomes for your students? In this article, I discussed with a secondary Senior Leader how schools

Former Secondary School Headteacher and Arbor’s Senior Partnership Manager, Andrew, speaks to Steve Gibson, Deputy Headteacher at Berwick Academy

In my first article on the subject of curriculum led financial planning (CLFP), I asked: Is your Curriculum planning improving outcomes for your students? In this article, I discussed with a secondary Senior Leader how schools are addressing CLFP mid-pandemic, including how to juggle the challenges of budgeting whilst addressing gaps in curriculum and learning, and planning for the future.

Steve Gibson is Deputy Headteacher at Berwick Academy, a small community high school and sixth form in Northumberland that aims to improve skills, knowledge, understanding and values through friendship, learning and respect. Balancing the budget in a small, rural school is not a science but an art form, as Steve discusses the challenges he faces with outdated building stock, rural isolation and difficulties around recruiting and retaining quality staff. 

You can read our conversation below. 

Andrew: How much medium-term and long-term financial planning are you doing at the moment? 

Steve: Obviously, the main focus is on ‘the now’ but as we have funding challenges anyway, our eye constantly has to be on the budget. We have had the support of external resource advisors but sometimes they lack school operational experience and don’t appreciate the complexities of providing a balanced curriculum when numbers on roll are below average, or that by reducing staffing to any great extent we wouldn’t be able to function. We have implemented many suggestions, but some of their suggestions would be detrimental to our curriculum and the way we operate.

We have an old school building which has been well looked-after, but it’s fair to say that some parts of our site are in a poor condition and the costs associated with operating our ten buildings are high. This is a costly site and needs a lot of upkeep. As part of our Covid response and financial prudence, we have reduced movement between buildings to maintain heat and minimise student contact but the buildings are not large but do house specialist facilities. We are not able to consider any major capital projects at the moment. 

A: What priorities have you identified?

S: Suddenly we find we need more people on duty and more people at the gate without any additional funding, and while this is built into our contact time allocations, changes like this rely on a lot of goodwill. We have already had to change the structure of the school day to make the site Covid safe and currently operate a three lesson day.

With the reduced movement of students, we found this approach had a positive effect on behaviour and when all students return, the reduced timetable may remain in some form. We like it because it maximises learning time as students settle more quickly. In effect, we exploded our one week timetable over two weeks so you get a good chunk of curriculum time. The curriculum is therefore protected but some subjects may only see classes once per fortnight.

Attendance follow up will be a priority when students return and we are buying a day of Education Welfare Officer time to help us get students back and engaging with learning. We’ve also maintained our EWO contract throughout lockdown last year and again this year in order to help us to reach out to some of the more difficult to engage families.

Mental health and wellbeing have emerged as strong priorities and our Pastoral Team have really stepped up in this respect to ensure that there is a wellbeing helpline, regular catch-up calls and home visits when appropriate, and support for families where we, or they, identify a need.

A: Have you been able to collate and track all of your teaching and non-teaching costs?

S: It hasn’t been easy as the information is held in a number of different places. What we do know is that staffing costs are high and recruitment is difficult, and therefore staff are expensive. We have built a planning model that shows how much each subject costs and can even demonstrate what each lesson costs.

We have found that some of our activities are cost-negative. Things like our “On Call” rotas are mostly made up of the Senior Leadership team and that’s predictably an expensive use of their time. We have used some classroom management software to analyse how often Senior Leadership have been called to assist in classroom difficulties as the basis for some calculations, and as a way of identifying trends and training requirements.

A: What impact has your financial situation had on your curriculum?

S: We have had to reduce the range of options subjects for Year 10 whilst trying to keep a broad curriculum. We have had to limit the options for students by grouping similar subjects such as graphics and design technology into a single subject offer. We only have one MFL teacher so all students study French and this is our only language GCSE in order to meet students’ language acquisition aspirations and the requirements of the EBacc.

We offer a broadly traditional curriculum, but are evaluating it annually with the needs of each cohort in mind. We have also reduced the offer in the sixth form to those subjects we know we can deliver well as we understand that it is reliant on main school funding to exist. 

A: Have you considered taking any drastic measures with your curriculum? 

S: Yes we have. We have considered shutting our sixth form but the nearest alternative is 30 miles away or a difficult journey to attend college in a big city and we feel our community deserves local provision. There are many difficult decisions to make around curriculum and financial planning, but our first priority is always what is right for our students and our community, and then we work hard to make that happen within our financial means.

A: Have you seen any positives come out of these unusual circumstances?

S: We have a clear vision for where we need to improve, and we have not allowed the lockdowns to change that course. We have built on CPD for staff, and our teaching and learning strategy has become embedded through our virtual learning to reflect our in-classroom learning.

We are seeing the benefits of increased learning time. Not all subjects are big fans of the longer lessons but we may consider changing our timetable to a 4 period day to maximise the positive effects of fewer lesson transitions and the opportunity to go deeper with students during those longer lessons.  

The forced move to virtual learning to support students at home has not happened in the way we expected, but has followed our intention to move as much home learning as possible to our virtual platforms. A positive outcome of the current situation is that our students and parents are now used to accessing and learning from these platforms. Our staff have also had the opportunity to learn new skills in working remotely, and our ability to offer lessons of quality at home has been developed at breakneck speed.  

A: Have you built any ‘what if’ scenarios? 

S: We have, the main one is considering our status as a high school. Our students join us in Year 9 and school funding modelling nationally favours the secondary school model starting at Year 7. The modelling of two additional year groups enables us to demonstrate a balanced budget, and if we continue to believe in the current system, we therefore have to acknowledge that funding should be different for those schools who don’t fit the standard primary-secondary mould. Either changing the model of the school, or changing the funding mechanism for those of us operating in a three-tier system, would make us more financially sustainable.

A: Is your curriculum affordable and sustainable? Is there anywhere you could be more efficient?

S: It is just about, because we’ve carefully looked at our Teacher contact ratio and costs per lesson. We know we can’t shave any more of these costs. The challenge for us is to look at efficiencies in our operating costs so we can prioritise the curriculum. For example, when we look at our technology costs we know that on top of our MIS costs we have safeguarding software, a classroom management tool, a parent communication tool and a homework tool. All of these add up and all of them are relied upon by someone to do one specific job. Our homework tool for example has become our main vehicle for managing our online learning. We don’t underestimate the value some of them bring. 

We look for efficiencies all the time, and we are good at repairing before replacing! We look after our buildings to make sure they provide the best environment that they can, and when money needs to be spent on them we make our choices with one eye on today and the other looking to the future.  It’s the same with our curriculum.  We want to offer the widest and most appropriate curriculum we can for our students, but to do that we need to maintain a clear understanding of the cost of any decision we make, and balance that with a clear understanding of the needs and aspirations of our students and our community.

Further reading

For more information on a tool and advice on your CLFP, go to: 

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