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School recovery: financial challenges but growth potential

Accountants working in academies are facing difficult financial challenges as they plan for the new academic year while navigating evolving guidance. But what opportunities could the recovery offer the academies sector?

Kristina Kopic, Head of Charity and Voluntary Sector at ICAEW, spoke to Stephen Morales, Chief Executive of the Institute of School Business Leadership (ISBL), to give us an insight into the challenges faced by school leaders during the pandemic and explain what recovery could mean for education.
While continuing its core offer of qualification and training for its members, ISBL’s focus over the lockdown period has shifted to help school leaders make sense of the high volume of government guidance. ISBL also works closely with government officials to ensure that a feedback loop from the sharp end informs their decisions. 

Chartered accountants can show leadership

The full reopening of schools in September inevitably comes with risk. Schools can reopen for all children very effectively, but it is likely that there will be breaches of bubbles. If infections are transmitted, whole year groups and their teachers may need to isolate, and school leaders require clarity on who will ultimately be held accountable.

Fairly soon after lockdown, the government announced that schools would be able to claim additional expenses incurred as a result of COVID-19. Guidance regarding these claims has recently been released and there are heavy caveats on what expenses are claimable and what circumstances need to apply. Morales believes that chartered accountants can show leadership in this area and support their schools by ensuring claims are compliant.

The government also promised a £1bn package to help schools tackle the impact of lost teaching time, with £650m shared across state primary and secondary schools in the new school year. While the government made clear that they expected this funding to be spent on small group tuition, ultimately head teachers can decide what to do with the funding and there may be a temptation to use these funds just to break even.

Financial pressures are set to increase due to the government's commitment to raise the pay of newly qualified teachers and the pressure from unions to raise other salaries accordingly.

Further cost increases arise from the local government pension scheme revaluations. 

School leaders are currently awaiting the consultation about the national funding formula which was put on ice because of COVID-19. Leaders will look to accountants for their scenario planning skills when financial budgets and forecasts are prepared.

Morales is concerned that schools will find the financial challenges ahead very difficult, especially as there are new cost pressures from providing hybrid solutions for teaching, reconfigurations of classrooms and additional staff requirements to ensure new health and safety measures are followed. 

Exchange of knowledge and ideas

School leaders were instrumental in carrying out risk assessments and keeping staff and pupils safe. The nature of the role means that they are natural problem solvers, and this has helped them tackle the human aspect of the crisis. As a result, support networks have sprung up in recent months and ISBL supported this exchange of knowledge and ideas.

The increased collaboration between school leaders is one of the aspects that Morales hopes will continue during the recovery period and beyond. Education can be a highly competitive environment, but the current crisis has served as a reminder that education is a public service and that working together will ultimately benefit society’s most precious resource, its young people.

Morales believes that we may also see post-traumatic growth, a refocusing, and a greater appreciation of what matters most:

 “You could characterise the next twelve months as recovery or you could reframe it as transition, an opportunity to think again”

There are big questions about what teaching and the role of the teacher could look like. While content could be delivered remotely for older year groups, the role of the teacher as mentor or coach is important. Morales believes it’s right to ask if more teaching could be delivered virtually so that the education estate is utilised better, perhaps by investing in fewer but improved facilities. Undoubtedly, accountants will be instrumental in building and evaluating the business case for new teaching models.