Lord Agnew made great claims about SRMAs – or school resource management advisers – just before he was moved from the DfE to the Cabinet Office and Treasury in February’s government reshuffle.
It might be harder today to remember those claims, given that we are all focused on the coronavirus crisis, but he highlighted an ESFA evaluation of the pilot scheme which stated that SRMAs had reported opportunities for savings or income generation of £35.29m from the 72 trusts they worked with and that for every £1 of spending in the schools the SRMAs worked with they have found £13 of savings.
These were among a raft of impressive claims being made for the effectiveness of the scheme, which I should add have come under close media scrutiny. There have also been criticisms of the initiative from school business professionals.
A few months ago, I saw this myself at an SBM networking meeting in the south east. When the subject of SRMAs was brought up you could detect an immediate change in the atmosphere in the room. Many saw an SRMA visit – invoked for a range of reasons, including budget deficits and applications for school funding streams such as CIF – as an affront to their professionalism because they believe that they are already very good at what they do.
I’ve heard similar sentiments in other parts of the country, with business managers questioning if some SRMAs they have dealt with have a detailed enough understanding and appreciation of the pressures of running school budgets particularly in different settings such as primary versus secondary.
I do have some sympathy for these criticisms; school business professionals do an excellent job in a very tough funding environment. How much help can an outsider offer who doesn’t have the detailed knowledge of the school and its context?
But I can’t help thinking that, if this type of external scrutiny is now part of the system – the plan is for up to 1,300 SRMAs nationwide by August 2020 and the ESFA has confirmed the programme is set to continue until at least August 2021 – we should look positively at how they can be used to help us improve budget management in our schools.
For one, SRMAs could be viewed as a useful additional source of professional input. It is nearly always a good thing if another expert can look at a school’s budget challenges with a fresh pair of eyes.
This ‘professional triangulation’ strengthens your skills base rather than weakens or compromises it, and will, in most cases, actually validate what you are already doing.
Yes, it does take some professional bravery to open up to this kind of scrutiny if it doesn’t come naturally, but I believe that a willingness to do this does make you a more substantial professional.
SRMAs also bring with them information on how your school compares with others around the country of a comparable size and context. This benchmarking can be an invaluable additional check.
So, a few reasons why school business professionals should welcome the SRMA initiative, but we also need to sound a few notes of caution:
1 I suspect that the schools SRMAs have already helped in the pilot scheme were ‘low hanging fruit’. One of the key reasons those schools got an SRMA visit was due to financial challenges, so the suspicion must be that SRMAs can make the biggest savings in schools that already have issues with funding and costs.
2 Preparation for an SRMA visit involves far too much paperwork for schools. From my discussions with business managers, ESFA is similar to many government organisations in that it already has the information it requests from schools. The problem is that the information is tucked away in a range of cul de sacs around the organisation and it appears that their systems have no easy way of drawing that information out and joining it together.
3 I’ve heard of concerns about the quality of the advice that SRMAs produce. One of our clients in Berkshire received a review document following an SRMA visit littered with mistakes and containing few practical suggestions for reducing spending beyond the very simplistic suggestion that the school could get rid of five teachers. No nuanced, detailed explanation for how this could be done without seriously impacting upon the quality of teaching and learning for the pupils, something they were told to avoid.
Of course, it makes sense to maximise your budget savings now so that a budget deficit doesn’t trigger an SRMA visit to your school. By bringing in an external advisor to look at contract areas such as energy, facilities, catering, payroll, cleaning, maintenance and IT you will be able to make the most of the money you have, certainly in relation to your non-staff costs.
There’s plenty of free professional triangulation available out there too. Our regular practical procurement webinars have proved hugely popular with school business professionals keen on making their budgets work as hard as possible. A recent webinar with school energy business Zenergi attracted major interest, for example.
Despite grand government claims – and criticisms – SRMAs do have their plus points and I believe that as professionals working to make the most of school budgets we should see them as a potentially valuable part of our support network. Certainly, I have noticed a much more positive response lately when the subject is raised with the business managers I have spoken to.
But it’s also down to ESFA to be sensitive to the concerns of school business managers and listen to feedback so that it can iron out some of the SRMA initiative’s early shortcomings.