Treading the tightrope when finances are under pressure
Schools need to be shrewd planners, good communicators and strike a fine balance when navigating difficult financial times
The independent sector has been through tough times with some schools closing as a result of the recession in 2008/9. The changes to pension contributions sent waves through many school common rooms as management teams grappled with how they would meet the increase without passing it onto the fee-paying parents.
A tightening of belts can give a sense that things may not be as secure as one would hope. Parents want to know that a school is sufficiently financially secure and will be there for the duration of their child’s education, and teachers wish to be associated with a strong brand.
If finances are a concern, effective teachers will be able to find positions elsewhere, creating uncertainty among staff and so the struggling school finds itself with good staff trying to leave, a factor that parents pick up on remarkably quickly.
So, does a school decide to stick its neck out and move ahead with a project that has been well advertised, possibly with fundraising already in place, creating a feeling of prosperity with an eye to the future? Or is it a time to be more prudent, draw in the reins and ensure that the marketing department is well placed to allay any fears?
This is a time to be overt about exactly what is happening and give the background to decisions especially if developments, eg building plans, are already in the public domain. Keeping quiet and hoping no one asks awkward questions is likely to feed insecurity.
Existing parents are often the best ambassadors for successful schools and ensuring they have confidence in the school and are armed with accurate information is likely to keep the school profile buoyant. It is essential, but sometimes overlooked, that all the staff are confident in their facts and so can field questions across a desk at parents’ evening, or in a chance meeting in the supermarket.
Recognising that some elements of a school may have to change because of coronavirus will bring opportunities to reduce costs without it seemingly being a decision taken in the interests of economy. Co-curricular activities often involve pupils in close proximity to each other and if these activities are no longer desirable, staff can be released.
The knock-on effect is considerable – no need for activity leaders, no one required to look at transport and logistics, to organise the collection of monies, to carry out risk assessments. Forward-looking schools will be looking to replace the more conventional activities; this can be developed with one eye on the costings, in order to make economies.
Residential trips, the cornerstone of many school calendars, may have to be curtailed. Using the internet to nurture overseas relationships with communities for social development programmes or for geography fieldwork could be a very beneficial, and cost effective way to start bridging a gap in provision.
In more usual times, when individuals have fallen on hard times, an approach to the bursar may well have reaped dividends. Someone who had paid several years of school fees, may have been the recipient of support to ensure continuity of education whilst a business recovers. The fear now is that there will be many in the same situation and such funds will be oversubscribed.
How does a school decide who are the worthy recipients, in the face of multiple requests – or should the hardship fund be deployed elsewhere? Schools with well-established alumni associations will be taking the opportunity to press for donations, increases in legacies etc as the financial difficulties brought about by coronavirus are still in the spotlight.
This may well find fertile ground rather than deaf ears, as the gravity of the situation, indiscriminate of any social nuances, has appalled us all in recent months.
There is one area that is overlooked by the management team at its peril. Often employees, particularly the teaching staff, cannot see the value of the registry and marketing departments, especially if they are not lauded for the successes they achieve.
However, it is essential that schools keep an eye on their local situation, are aware of what steps their competitors are taking so that they can match or explain why their course of action is different. Parents are going to vote with their feet in these very difficult times and there is no room for complacency.
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