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Poor decisions on spending aren’t just limited to academies

Feb 18, 2014

Poor decisions on spending aren’t just limited to academies

As yet another academy comes under scrutiny for financial irregularities I feel compelled to write as it seems grossly unfair that the poor decisions of the minority are ruining it for the vast majority.

Minerva is a procurement consultancy and we work with every type of school - academy, primary and secondary, independent and so on.  In our experience academy schools are actually well run and, from a procurement perspective, very diligent.  So why is that the case and why, therefore, are they always the ones grabbing the headlines?

‘Flagship’ academies

How do we define ‘flagship’ academies as it seems to me every article about academies has them all denoted as ‘flagship’?  Why do we not have articles about ‘flagship secondary schools’ where there has been an equal lack of due diligence resulting in financial misdemeanours?  Of course, it’s because no one is really interested in that, the media, unions, pressure groups are all keen to ‘bash’ the academies programme and these stories are just gift-wrapped for those interested parties.

Local Authorities are wasting taxpayers’ money

I don’t see any stories about the hideous waste of taxpayers’ money by Local Authorities on behalf of schools.  In my experience many Local Authorities have less procurement expertise than individual schools.  Considering the buying power they have I find it incredible that we’re able to negotiate deals for small individual primary schools which are far better value for money that the service currently provided, or procured, by their Local Authority.  The stories of schools savings literally tens of thousands of pounds when they have procured services themselves versus what their LA negotiated is enough to make you weep – where are the headlines about that?

Financial freedoms

We hear a lot of talk about the so-called financial freedoms of academy schools but, talking with School Business Managers who work in them, they have an onerous amount of reporting and Management Information to provide and some would argue the freedoms are anything but.  However, the distinct advantage is the greater ability to procure goods and services away from Local Authorities and, through Multi Academy Trusts or less formal collaborative arrangements, enable schools to leverage group spend to achieve a better overall result.

Key appointment

So how do we ensure that these financial irregularities don’t occur?  Well, generally speaking, the not-so-secret success is down to who is appointed as the School Business Manager/Bursar (or in the case of many academy schools the title is Director of Finance reflecting the importance of the role).  This is a key appointment for the school and one which, if done carefully and wisely, can have a hugely positive effect on their financials.

Long gone are the days where the part-time secretary or admin clerk is promoted to their level of incompetence by becoming the school bursar.  Any school in that position is, in my opinion, unlikely to be getting the best of their resources.

I’m well aware of many school bursars having completed, or in the process of completing, professional accountancy qualifications, degree qualified and having come from a commercial background.  This is what we should be aspiring to in every school.  But……

You get what you pay for

In my humble opinion the vast majority of bursars are woefully remunerated.  When you consider the responsibilities mentioned later in this post and if you were advertising for someone to fill that post in the commercial world the salary would be much higher.  The point here is that there’s an argument that you get what you pay for.  Any good bursar worth their salt will be saving you way more than their salary in cost reductions and efficiencies so they should be considered as an investment not a cost.

Training and development

In or experience, the lack of experience in the so-called ‘real world’ can be hugely detrimental to those undertaking the job of bursar in a school.  The role now requires the incumbent to be proficient (at the very least) in HR, payroll, accountancy, capital build projects, procurement, estate management, long-term financial planning and short-term budgeting, ICT not forgetting chief cook and bottle-washer, first aider and counsellor.  Yet, all of this is done with limited formal training and an over reliance on support from their peer group for assistance.

What were the governors doing?

Whenever I see any of these stories in the media my first question is always “what were the governors doing”?  I can hear all the governors now shouting at the screen “We’re volunteers”, “We have fulltime jobs” etc but, in my opinion, some of the blame in these situations must rest at the door of the governing body who should be scrutinising the financials with a fine tooth comb.  Don’t understand them?  Get some training, spend time with the bursar but don’t, whatever you do, sweep it under the carpet.  To be fair, in most (if not all) of the recent cases of financial mismanagement the governing body has been complicit in what has occurred but I think it serves as a timely reminder to all school governors to keep a very close eye on the finances.

Right, rant over; I’m off to open a bottle of Bucks Fizz!


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