Independent schools, academies and free schools all face management challenges. To read about successfully dealing with key management issues affecting schools, click on the headline links below.
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Seasonal and ongoing fundraising for schools
Winter fundraising is always a challenge, really because festivity time is always such a busy period. So it's worth thinking about it as far ahead as possible. Even as early as just after the summer holidays isn't too far ahead. Once you get into the routine of forward planning and later implementation the whole exercise becomes much easier. Of course, there are festivities at other times of the year so similar planning and implementation can take place accordingly.
When winter festivities are gaining on us, and it’s only a matter of weeks before we’re supposed to gifts bought, wrapped and ready to present to our families, we’ve got even less time until schools and workplaces start their winter fundraisers. But time and money are tight right now, and no doubt always will be, so that leaves very few resources to get a decent fundraising event together and make it a success.
Whether you’re a teacher looking to pull off a memorable and prolific fundraiser at school, or a company manager struggling to think of an exciting way to generate some funds, there is a fun and hassle-free solution available that takes all the preparation and time sacrifice out of the equation.
It seems that wanting to fundraise but having little to no time or resources to invest is a widespread issue. The demand for a variety of simple, no-obligation fundraising solutions has been on the increase in recent years, resulting in a surge of companies and organisations offering innovative fundraising solutions for the benevolent yet time-strapped among us. Here are a few of the quickest and quirkiest.
Customised cards, wrap and tags
Custom greeting card, gift wrap and tag services are largely operated by a small team of parents who do not have the time or money to put into successful fundraising ideas and are not able to undertake the workload of organising yet another important event near the end of the calendar.
The way it works is that handmade pictures and drawings are originated by children under the direction of parents or maybe teachers, and are sent off to company, which is either an all-round fundraising company or just a printing company. This company would then professionally print them onto cards, wrap and tags, which would be ordered and bought by parents, friends and families. The provider company would ideally be able to offer an online ordering option, which would particularly work if it were local.
The artwork of youngsters is often the subject choice, making a sweet, sentimental gift for family and friends that can be treasured for a long time to come. Whether in school or in the workplace, children’s hand-drawn designs always put smiles on faces, and draw particular support and interest for their sentimental nature.
Custom cards and gift wrap services - with the designs originated by pupils, the organisation undertaken by parents, and the provider company only working to firm orders - have the bonus advantage of having no upfront costs, meaning nobody is out of pocket and no funds need be raised just to put on a fundraiser! The process is a simple step by step:
- Children produce their designs in class.
- A5 flyers and designs are sent home with order forms with payment instructions and then returned to the school - payment being made to the organiser who would bank the money in readiness to meet the invoice from the provider, having priced the merchandise to ensure there was a satisfactory net fundraising result per set of items.
- All orders are sent, e.g. by courier, post or email, to the provider.
- Printed merchandise is returned to the school by the provider.
- The merchandise goes home for everyone to enjoy.
The provider should make available free taster packs on request, or at least offer some kind of online presentation with size measurements, to offer customers peace of mind that this quirky fundraising idea is really for them. Schools have produced such impressive results from using input from pupils and parents in this way as a fundraiser that many schools have made it a regular fixture in the calendar.
The seasonal flexibility of the concept gives it that extra edge (bearing in mind that festive activities of one kind or another take place throughout the year, with products capable of being tailored for the relevant festival . All that’s required is a selection of handmade artistry to make your next fundraiser a success.
Shop to fundraise
The revolutionary idea of shopping for fundraising has made charitable drives of all kinds easier than ever to donate to. And it is something schools should be seeking to benefit from as indeed increasing numbers are so doing. It requires no extra time or effort, and is as simple as going about your everyday life, and making the majority of your purchases online.
Hundreds of companies and retailers, from fashion and jewellery stores to broadband and insurance providers, are signed up to shopping-fundraising schemes, giving people everywhere the chance to raise money for a good cause without any extra input. There are now more localised shopping for fundraising schemes coming on-stream where school participation can be more meaningful.
The process is so simple. You register your charitable cause with the fundraising company, and share it with friends, family and associates. Then, whenever any of your fundraising group makes an online purchase with one of the participating companies, they give an amount of commission directly to your fund. It costs the purchaser nothing extra, and is quite possibly the most low-maintenance fundraising method currently available.
It being the age of the app, there are a multitude of mobile applications now on offer that provide different and quirky ways of donating to charitable causes. Each app tends to have its own USP, so there is a really eclectic menu of fundraising apps on offer to meet any needs. Some incentivise activities, such as walking or running, for sponsorship, and allow anybody to make a donation to your fund.
Some offer a simple online platform for your fund, with no particular need for a theme or "trade". The use of a fundraising app will allow you to easily keep tabs on how much you have raised, and take most of the trouble out of the fundraising.
If you are looking at organising a very simple and inconspicuous fundraiser, you will certainly find a fundraising app that suits your needs, and handles all the hard work for you.
Particularly well suited to schools, fundraising via recycling is a simple solution with little preparation necessary. There are quite a few charity recycling organisations out there, who provide all the posters and packaging materials you need to bring attention to your campaign. Empty printer cartridges and old mobile phones are collected and periodically sent off to the recyclers, who in turn give you a monetary contribution for every item collected. These sums quickly add up, and campaigns can be conducted on a long term or ongoing basis.
Other companies offer clothing recycling, a fundraising approach that has been used for Blue Peter appeals in the past. Groups, schools and workplaces simply collect all unwanted items of clothing, which are collected, weighed up and sent off to deprived families in African and Eastern European countries. Funds are calculated by the overall weight of the clothing donation, and should be sent on to you within seven days.
The added benefit of charity recycling is knowing that you’re making a group effort to do something beneficial for the environment, provide necessities for poor communities and prevent excess waste. In the cases of schools, this can be made a particular focus, and can be an educational talking point: perhaps you could take ten minutes to explain the recycling process to pupils, and why it is such an important thing to do.
As we have seen, fundraisers do not need to be complex or time consuming to make an impact, nor do you have to put in countless evenings making signs, baking cookies and otherwise creating a visual spectacle. There are a few general pointers to bear in mind when organising a fundraiser:
- Do some research and explore the fundraising companies out there who offer innovative solutions – outsourcing the hassle of fundraising saves you a lot of time and effort.
- Make sure to read the terms and conditions, and about any fees that may be payable if you outsource your fundraising to a third party.
- Give yourself plenty of time ahead of your proposed fundraising date for planning and preparation.
- Very importantly, refer to the Government’s regulations on charity and fundraising, and any codes. Fundraisers are usually conducted with the very best of intentions, but improper execution can inadvertently cause you to break rules, and may cost you down the line. Ensure you are clued up and comfortable with the idea of fundraising before you commit to it.
Now that you’ve got an idea of the sorts of services and products that are available for charity fundraising, you have everything you need to make your next school fundraiser a simple, secure and successful one.
Innovative fundraising for schools
Back in 2013 when former cabinet minister David Blunkett commissioned a major inquiry into the UK’s donating habits, school children were found to play a significant role in fundraising. Children aged between 9 and 11 were revealed to have given almost £20 million to charity that year, which indicated a keenness to help others. The report suggested that this drive to make a difference should be made use of.
Why we need new ideas
While major favourites of primary schools such as the BBC’s Children in Need and Red Nose Day have apps to make donating fun and easy, schools themselves are finding that they're increasingly stretched for educational resources. Traditional fundraisers (fundraising events/campaigns) are facing issues: the public conscience turning ever further from confectionary-oriented fundraisers means fewer parents want to attend cake sales; parents, generally, are more pushed for time than ever, and may not be able to fit school based fundraisers into their schedules.
It's becoming clear that new, innovative ways to raise funds for schools need to be found – ways that suit school staff, parents and pupils alike.
Parents and families are on the go now more than ever, giving them less chance to attend any onsite school fundraising events, but fortunately, technology gives them the chance to get things done en route. Last year, Google research indicated that 17% of charitable donations are made on a mobile device, and this statistic is set to grow.
Phones and tablets bring the world to our pockets, and the level of connectivity offered by these devices enhances a few critical factors which are utterly inseparable from successful fundraising: a sense of community, a common awareness, a way of communicating your objectives, and a means of giving. Now is the ideal time for schools to look into the lower maintenance approaches to fundraising that use innovation to better suit people’s lifestyles.
The needs of busy parents have started to be recognised in recent years, and have sparked the growth of a number of notable new trends in school fundraising.
"Mobile wallet" companies have established simple online platforms for the use of charitable organisations such as schools. Adopting the basic idea of an online store, schools can either sell merchandise or simply collect donations, and parents, students and friends can make orders and contributions without the need to take time off work to do it in person.
This method is nice and versatile, and can be applied to any number of different fundraising activities. Not only is it far more accommodating of the demanding lives of parents and families, but it extends the reach of any fundraiser considerably.
Social media grows ever more powerful as a tool to raise awareness and share initiatives in every context. But while an invitation to an onsite fundraiser might demand at least a glance through the diary for many busy parents, a link to an online fundraising platform puts that fundraiser just a click away. The portability and convenience of the mobile wallet concept make donating to causes an easy thing that can be done at any time.
Printed and customised gifts
A particularly dominant trend is currently emerging on the school fundraising scene that reworks the classic concept of handmade greetings cards and school tea towels. Specialist gift printing companies have rolled out the self-portrait idea to include all manner of gifts and souvenirs, such as aprons, bags, mugs, mouse mats and keyrings. By inviting children to produce designs to be printed onto gifts, school classes enjoy a creative activity together in their effort to raise money, and families get delightful mementos to treasure from their children’s school days.
The extensive range of products now printed by such companies, as well as the versatility of the concept, has seen it become a regular occurrence in some schools. No longer limited to end-of-year or Christmas, gifts can be printed for any event or festival, as has been proven by schools designing Olympics-themed merchandise.
The low maintenance requirements of printed gift fundraisers really cater to the needs of PTAs. There are usually no upfront costs, and very little time outside of the school day is required for organisation, turning out remarkable returns for such little input. With the involvement of a mobile wallet company, anybody can purchase printed gifts from the school at any time, while PTAs are free to hold sales on school grounds that parents and children can visit and purchase from.
We’re all very used to seeing charity campaigns on TV and in literature imploring us to text a number to make a small monetary donation to whichever cause. Well now, thanks to specialist facilitators, any charitable cause – whether for a registered charity or a local hero in need of help – can have its own phone number to make text donations to.
Again, very simple to set up and spread the word about, schools simply set up their fundraising page, personalise their text, and then let everybody know. With that, charitable donations are rounded up by the facilitator and passed on to the school to be spent however is deemed appropriate. This kind of fundraising is particularly simple and straightforward, with minimal effort needed on school staff’s part, and social media providing the perfect platform for passing on the message, and gaining as much support as possible.
Making a fundraising initiative work
Creating a successful fundraising initiative requires more than just a good idea. Fundraising relies on communication and enthusiasm for all involved; without either, there can be no real engagement.
Crucially, you need to start with a strong idea of specifically what you want to achieve, and how. Some initiatives, such as providing a successful new after-school offering, can be ambitious, while others – like updating the textbooks – are simple. All, however, are important, and the key in any fundraising initiative lies in conveying that importance to your potential donors in an inviting way which generates enthusiasm.
Whether your goals are modest or ambitious, knowing exactly what you want to achieve and how will give your initiative momentum and help you to communicate its importance to others in a way which paints a bright, vibrant image of the future.
Putting a number on your goal can be a good way of bringing energy to a fundraiser. Setting a definite success threshold can help not only to provide a concrete objective, but also allows you to share progress with everyone involved as you track progress toward that target.
Look to your expectations for the fundraiser, and strike a balance between ambition, which can help to motivate people, and realism, which makes for attainable goals. Aiming too high can rob a fundraiser of that sense of achievement; falling short of an ambitious goal doesn't mean your fundraiser wasn't valuable, but setting the bar unrealistically high can lead to an unattainable definition of success. Hitting that fundraising target gives a real sense of achievement to all involved, and can grow your school community's confidence in and enthusiasm for fundraising.
A clear and effective plan
Setting realistic goals, communicating your message clearly and delivering an effective and enjoyable fundraiser are far easier objectives with a clear and effective plan.
Creating an overall fundraising strategy which picks out the strengths and preferences of pupils, staff and parents alike and sets out priorities according to level of need is certainly a great way to ensure a clear and energetic approach for any one fundraiser But it also ensures that ongoing fundraising efforts are focused, consistent and as impactful as possible.
When one fundraiser feels enjoyable and meaningful for those involved, it paints the next effort as an inviting opportunity and paves the way for future successes.
Remember that you're not alone in sharing and spreading enthusiasm for your fundraiser. Enthusiasm is infectious, and children can have an almost supernatural capacity for enthusiasm when they encounter something genuinely engaging. Sharing space, time and effort with others is an enormous part of what school is about at every stage of education. Getting involved in a common project and working toward a shared goal can amplify that sense of working together which is so important in a school environment, and fill pupils with enthusiasm for the fundraiser.
Creative projects especially can really strike a chord for children of all ages, making your pupils the perfect ambassadors to spread interest and engagement throughout your school community, whether at the dinner table or on Facebook.
Far more fundraising opportunities
The charity sector is awakening to the possibilities of fundraising in the 21st century, and is taking steps to make raising money easier and more imaginative. As third-party companies, such as text donation and printing services, take the time and effort out of the fundraising process, it presents PTAs and schools everywhere with far more opportunities for new, innovative and easy fundraising.
"The portability and convenience of the mobile wallet concept make donating to causes an easy thing that can be done at any time."
"Fundraising relies on communication and enthusiasm for all involved; without either, there can be no real engagement."
"When one fundraiser feels enjoyable and meaningful for those involved, it paints the next effort as an inviting opportunity and paves the way for future successes."
Schools crisis management when reputational challenges
There is no area that is more complex than supporting a school with its communications when things turn sour. With schools there is always more scrutiny and forensic analysis will often follow.
Parents trust schools with their children’s development for the best part of a decade and a half. Pupils are at a crucial stage of their development and experiences at school shape their lives. This is when they are at their most vulnerable and for this reason there is an innate trust between parents and teachers; and when this is broken the potential for damage is immense.
Perhaps the area with the largest potential damage both to the child and the school are issues surrounding safeguarding. We have all seen the headlines, such as: "Ex-teacher admits boarding school sex abuse", "Boy charged over school knife incident" and "School in turmoil from staffing crisis".
Actually, those three headlines are all from separate situations which occurred within two weeks of writing this article. All are prominent with a simple Google search and the impact for the school is huge whist the long term repercussions are far reaching. If this wasn’t bad enough, it doesn’t take into account the fact that schools, through their ordinary and well intentioned day to day work, arguably expose themselves to a higher level of risk.
Even the most mundane and well intentioned day to day business of operating a school can be fraught with risks. A visit to a museum, a residential camping trip, an appearance at the school by a special guest visitor: all are ordinary and mostly successful activities undertaken by schools up and down the country that, while generally trouble-free, carry plenty of potential for mishap and mischief.
Schools are also uniquely positioned at the heart of their community. When a school is affected local politicians and community leaders can come out and support you – or come out against you. In short, staying on top of the potential risks, planning for all circumstances and ensuring you are communicating with the people who matter is no easy job.
How to approach a crisis
How can a school manage when confronted with these challenges – when its reputation and relations with the community, carefully nurtured and sustained over a number of years, are at risk?
To some extent, the easy answer is that there is no easy answer! Crises come in all shapes and sizes. The correct response will depend on many variables – the history, the rarity (or otherwise) of the occurrence, the school’s relationship with the community and so on.
Often there is no substitute for expert advice, tailored to the requirements of the difficult task at hand. Nevertheless, although there is no one size fits all approach, there are some general principles.
After a major incident, shutting down the story is often beyond the reach of even the most talented PR professional. The focus must be on doing things in the right way, even if that means media scrutiny on the school increases in the short term.
Firstly, the importance of dealing with a negative scenario proactively, rather than waiting until negative comment has built to an intolerable level, is crucial. Don’t underestimate the speed with which a crisis situation can build. It is a PR adage that "news travels fast" and this is particularly true for schools. Incidents are often witnessed or talked about by pupils so any response must be timely. This is only amplified by the speed with which news can travel on social media.
Crisis aware mentality
Schools need to develop a crisis-aware mentality. Staff should be encouraged to be the "eyes and ears" on the ground who can alert senior management to a problem, however small it may seem at the time, before it becomes a major issue. A communications plan should be in place as a structured approach can be the difference between looking like a well-run school and a shambles.
There are three key aspects that a communication plan should include, and depending on the scale of the incident one or all of the following aspects will be necessary:
- A communication to parents giving them information of an incident before it becomes general knowledge and how that letter will be distributed.
- A media contact on behalf of the school who can take pressure off decision makers and buy time with the media.
- A holding statement for mainstream and social media.
A school’s primary focus is its pupils, followed closely by its parents and teachers. Once safety is ensured, the small things will make a big difference as to whether the school emerges from an incident with its reputation intact, or mortally diminished.
Parents need to be informed quickly and effectively without causing alarm. There is nothing worse than parents finding out about an incident at their children’s school through local or social media. But we should also be clear that once parents have been informed, we can assume that the local media is also aware. Therefore all communications need to be crafted in a way that will not be misinterpreted.
Many schools have well developed systems to text all parents. Whilst this may be efficient, it is not always appropriate. Sometimes more details are necessary and letters or website posts are more effective and sensitive.
Informing through a holding statement
The next stage is often to inform the media through a holding statement. This needs to be carefully worded and should address key issues whilst not committing the school to a course of action that they will later regret or change. Strict policies need to be in place for social media. Either the school is responding to all posts or only issuing official statements. Consistency is key to looking credible to those who are paying attention to the school’s every move.
In addition, creating an informal dialogue with key media - perhaps by providing off the record updates and letting them know when they are expecting official statements - will ensure the school is given that bit of leeway which can make a real difference to perceptions.
Making up lost ground
There is no quick fix, but it is important to keep incidents in context and rebuild trust. The school must take decisive steps and ensure that these steps are well communicated. There is little point turning round to parents or media six months after the event and saying a new policy has been written if there have been serious safeguarding breaches. It will never be enough.
Even if a new policy is all that is required, parents (and inevitably the media) should be informed every step of the way. Conducting reviews, publicising conclusions and being transparent in talking to parents, teachers and the public can create the basis for a recovery.
One of the most effective tactics is to get out on the front foot and publish and publicise internal reports – setting out the story before the media has a chance to create an alternative narrative.
By being proactive and ensuring that your audiences, including journalists, receive information from you rather than from other sources, you can shape the narrative and frame the terms of the story. This can be particularly effective if there are rumours of financial irregularities. Where pupils have injured themselves, precautions need to be taken for the future.
PR alone is not the answer
Although this might sound counter-intuitive coming from a PR consultant, schools would do well to remember that PR alone is not the answer. Good comms needs to start with policy and action – not empty words. The school in question instituted a series of programmes aimed at its pupils to encourage tolerance. That’s all well and good but where the problem is with staff, targeting pupils was seen as a PR stunt and did not win any friends.
Playing the long game is a school’s best hope. There is no quick fix when one is dealing with reputation management and recovery. Following a crisis, there should always be review of what went well, what could have gone better, and what can be changed to minimise the chances of anything similar occurring.
The focus should then shift to restoring and repairing a damaged reputation. A mixture of a drip feed of positive stories can leave a lasting impression and reputations repaired. The ultimate aim is to have the community talking about positives rather than the crisis and allowing teachers to focus once again on what they do best – giving young people the best possible start in life and brightest possible future.
How your school board should be safeguarding pupils
The Charity Commission published the findings of its report in late 2015 into the safeguarding cases at St. Paul’s School which hit the national press. The publication of the Commission’s report (which can be found on the Commission’s website) was the culmination of its investigations into the school’s governance, which began in May 2014.
Sexual abuse allegations
The Commission’s enquiry followed and ran alongside the Metropolitan Police’s investigations into allegations of recent and historic sexual abuse at the school and the arrest of a schoolteacher on charges of the possession of indecent images of young people. The inquiry involved close liaison between the Commission, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) and the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) in respect of each of their investigations and findings.
The Commission’s investigation was limited in scope to the conduct of the school’s governors in handling the various safeguarding issues from a charity law perspective. Specifically, the Commission investigated whether the governors had acted in the best interests of the school and ensured the school had, and complied with, appropriate procedures and policies to protect its pupils.
Whilst this article will focus on the Commission’s findings, the full report should be required reading for governors and senior management teams (SMTs) as it contains a helpful summary of how the Commission conducts its inquiries and what it expects from schools in the course of the investigation.
Good behaviour complimented
It is worth saying first that the Commission’s report at various points pays compliments to the school’s safeguarding policies and procedures:
- There was an extensive range of safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
- The senior management team undertook periodic reviews of policies.
- The governors instructed professional advisers to review the schools policies at appropriate times.
- An independent review was commissioned by the governors to assist the school in implementing best practice.
- Safeguarding training was scheduled for the governors.
- There was good safeguarding training for staff.
- A safeguarding reporting “prompt card” had been issued to all staff.
Room for improvement
Given the good behaviour of the governors set out above, many schools may find it surprising (and a little intimidating) that the Commission had anything left to criticise.
The areas the Commission highlights as breaches or room for improvement provide lessons for all schools, not just for those in the independent sector. The good news is that for most schools learning the lessons of the report will mean minor touches to the tiller. However, the warnings should be heeded as the Commission is increasingly seeing its regulatory role as that of policeman and not friend of the sector.
We have framed the most important lessons from the report as four questions for your board to consider:
HOW DO WE KNOW OUR REVIEW OF SAFEGUARDING POLICY AND PRACTICE IS EFFECTIVE? The Commission’s report suggests an annual review of safeguarding, in itself, is not enough. The St Paul’s governors were criticised for not having a framework by which they could determine whether their safeguarding review was effective and, in checking the staff’s compliance with the policy, were relying too heavily on verbal reports from the SMT without corroborating them.
In their oversight of safeguarding practice and policy, the board was advised by the Commission to draw up an audit and reporting template to agree the terms of reference, scope and methodology of their safeguarding reviews and ensure independent corroboration of SMT briefings by the inspection of a sample of records of serious cases, or by seeking feedback from the LADO or other agencies.
IS IT CLEAR WHO DOES WHAT? In reviewing who conducted the oversight of safeguarding duties, the Commission found a disparity between the school’s safeguarding policy and practice. In theory, oversight was the responsibility of the designated safeguarding governor. In practice, the designated safeguarding governor oversaw safeguarding policy and practice together with the chair of governors but the division of their duties was not formally defined.
The Commission’s report stated that this lack of clarity exposed the governors to the risk of mismanagement – a liability the governors would be collectively liable for.
The Commission also cited the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s report which drew attention to confusion amongst the staff as to the reporting lines for concerns about pupils and staff.
ARE WE ADEQUATELY REPORTING SERIOUS INCIDENTS TO THE CHARITY COMMISSION AND THE LOCAL AUTHORITY DESIGNATED OFFICER? The Commission’s guidance states that it should be notified as soon as a school becomes aware of a serious incident. The legal responsibility for reporting serious incidents rests with the governors even if they are delegating that work to the SMT.
St Paul’s was criticised in the report for failing to promptly report various serious safeguarding incidents and for also failing to declare the incidents in its annual return. It is an offence under the Charities Act 2011 to knowingly or recklessly provide false or misleading information to the Commission. If governors delegate this work to others they should be aware that they still remain legally responsible.
The Commission also criticised the fragmented relationship the school had with the LADO that had inhibited the proper reporting of issues at the appropriate time. Evidence was given that the school was aware of the breakdown but the issue was not formally recorded and no action was taken to improve relations.
The Commission has published guidance for trustees and governors covering the reporting of serious incidents which should be on the reading list for any board unaware of its duty to report serious incidents. The local authority should also be contacted to ensure that your school’s safeguarding arrangements take into account local procedures and practice as well as the statutory framework and guidance.
DO WE ANALYSE TRENDS AS WELL AS ISOLATED SAFEGUARDING INCIDENTS? The Commission advised that the St Paul’s board and senior management team were inhibited from making informed decisions regarding safeguarding because incidents were only ever considered incidents in isolation and not in the context of other incidents and wider trends. Your board should agree how the reporting of serious incidents is presented to the board to provide more detailed management information and allow better decision making.
Must try harder
Given the legal and reputational risks that safeguarding issues present, not to mention the risk of harm pupils may be exposed to, the Commission’s report provides another timely opportunity for school governors to ensure that their policies and practice are reviewed and, where necessary, strengthened.
"The Commission's report suggests an annual review of safeguarding, in itself, is not enough."
"The Commission...cited the Independent Schools Inspectorate's report which drew attention to confusion amongst the staff as to the reporting lines for concerns about pupils and staff."
The management challenges of running an independent school
Independent schools today - forced to jump through hoops to manage the restrictions and expectations of the education, charity and commercial sectors in which they operate - are increasingly adopting a corporate management structure that replaces the traditional "head and bursar" arrangement.
Private schools of any significant size are having to restructure to meet the business challenges they face, whilst striving to preserve the school environment and culture.
To add to this they must meet the legislative requirements relating to education such as child protection and boarding provision, and work within guidelines laid down by charity regulators including the Charity Commission or, in Scotland, OSCR.
In order to survive, like any business, these schools need to have their income exceed expenditure by a sufficient amount. And, as demands on schools increase from both children and their parents, a key challenge is to fund the necessary capital expenditure required to maintain the teaching and accommodation facilities in an increasingly competitive environment.
The fundamental challenge facing any independent school’s management is to ensure that the school roll is as close to the set budget as possible. The impact of a shortfall in pupil numbers can be financially severe given its direct impact on the school’s surplus.
Attracting new pupils both from home and overseas is fiercely competitive and it can be particularly rewarding when children join the school at an early stage and, assuming all goes well, the annual fee income is secure for six years.
The competitive nature of the market, however, creates its own challenges and schools need to ensure that discounts by way of bursaries are not overdone. This is exacerbated by the requirements of the charity regulators who wish to ensure that schools give sufficient means tested bursaries required to meet the public benefit test. This creates a huge financial challenge for schools when the impact can lead to increased standard fees for full paying students.
Other challenges relating to income arise from schools trying to maximise use of their assets. This, too, can be complicated by the need to demonstrate public benefit. It also creates VAT and tax complications, which will often involve the use of a trading subsidiary company to alleviate these issues, leading to further financial management and governance hurdles.
While some schools may have a substantial endowment to help fund capital improvements, others may not be so fortunate. Fundraising programmes usually require the appointment of external fundraisers, or the recruitment of a dedicated independent internal resource, and finding the right people is no easy task.
Many private schools have old buildings that need expensive maintenance or refurbishment. There are now even examples in the sector of innovative bank lending schemes to meet these costs which are so essential, to not only maintain, but to improve the standard of the school’s estate.
Though parents are obvious candidates for fundraising campaigns, they are already contributing significant sums through school fees. Many may be unable or unwilling to commit additional money to projects, some of which will not be completed before their own children graduate. Fundraising, therefore, needs to target wealthy alumni, who mostly attribute their success, at least partially, to their education, as well as suitable local trusts where reasonably substantial donations may be available.
Salaries of course remain the most expensive cost for independent schools. Usually representing around two thirds of total costs, the salary burden can vary based on the quality of teacher hired by the school. In some cases, unfortunate surprises have arisen over recent years relating to deficit funding of defined benefit schemes for non-teaching staff.
Other challenges relating to staff can also include policies on fee remission for the children of teachers. This can be a huge benefit in the school’s quest to attract the best teaching staff; but it can again put pressure on the achievement of the fee income target.
The employer compliance area can also be a minefield. Ensuring that staff accommodation and associated benefits are dealt with correctly from an HMRC perspective is a tedious, but essential, process. Additionally, employment status issues can arise with part time or freelance teachers who are brought in to help out in specialist areas.
Under a more business-like structure, the head will indubitably remain in charge of educational matters, but much more will be expected of them in terms of acting as a CEO. They are heavily involved in the marketing of the school, both in terms of new pupil recruitment and in dealing with existing parents.
For non-educational functions, there will now often be a chief operating officer who will work with estates, finance, HR and marketing teams to oversee their effectiveness. HR has become a very complex area and, in an independent school, just like any other business, extreme care must be taken not to fall foul of employment legislation.
Collaboration is also a growing feature within the management of independent schools. Collaboration and the provision of assistance to state schools, both primary and secondary, can be helpful in assisting to demonstrate public benefit. In the senior years, collaboration with universities, colleges and industry can provide pupils with much needed exposure to tertiary education and work experience.
The profile of risk management has grown substantially in recent years where the “common sense” approach of yesteryear has been replaced by much more formal processes of risk registers, regular reviews and a greater emphasis in this area, both as a matter of good governance and the need to report appropriately in the school’s accounts.
Regarding the implementation of the new Charities SORP, Charity Regulators are introducing guidance for independent schools and clearly laying out the specific information they would like to see in the Trustees’ Annual Report in relation to their Summary of Activities and Financial Assistance.
This highlights the importance charity regulators place on the provision of means-tested bursaries to ensure there is no undue restriction that could put the public benefit test at risk. Clearly in the minds of both politicians and regulators this remains a sensitive area where a school’s senior management team must remain vigilant.
In summary, there is no shortage of management challenges facing both the management boards and the senior management teams of independent schools. In order to operate successfully in the current challenging economic environment, where fee levels, which have generally increased ahead of inflation, are out of reach for many, schools are meeting these challenges head-on by adopting business-like structures and practices.
When schools think of becoming an academy
SUE FOSTER, a partner at accountancy firm KNILL JAMES, says: As more and more schools across the country consider whether to move out of local authority control and become an academy, what are the biggest compliance and accountancy issues they face? How should they structure the new board to best cope with those issues and what should they take into consideration at the start of the process? Here are some tips:
FACE UP TO THE CHALLENGE OF APPOINTING A NEW BOARD. Getting the right governance structure in place is the first step to creating an academy which is well organised and compliant, so creating a strong board is crucial. This may well require significant changes to the current board of governors.
It is important for everyone involved to understand how different it is to be a trustee on the board of an academy rather than a governor at a school under local authority control.
Being a trustee brings with it a whole new level of responsibility, including financial responsibility, as well as intense scrutiny. Those who take on the role are also directors of a high profile company and must accept and expect all the challenges that brings.
For schools looking to apply for academy status this can be an issue. Some long term governors may not want to take on that level of responsibility and will choose to resign their post. Others, who have been part of the school fabric for many years, may not now be suitable to remain in such a role. There are diplomatic as well as logistical issues to consider.
GET THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR BOARD RIGHT. Your new board needs to be able to deliver high standards of governance and strategic leadership.
It will require people with significant management and leadership skills but also trustees with skills in key areas such as finance, law and education. It is wise to include someone with a strong educational background.
Consider too that the head teacher is probably not the right person to chair; even if they have done so in the past. For a single academy the head or principal should always be one of the trustees but equally should be answerable to the board. An academy needs a strong board that is not afraid to question the decisions of teaching and management staff - but also one that does not meddle in the day to day running of the school. The board is there to play a strategic role.
UNDERSTAND THE RULES. Being an academy brings with it new freedoms in an educational sense – autonomy in setting parts of the curriculum and in how the budget is spent for instance – but there is no escape from regulation.
There are several key documents that should be studied in detail at the start of the process.
Additionally, trustees should be aware of regulations designed to aid transparency.
These include requirements that all business interests of trustees – and of any connected persons – must be declared. Trustees can provide services for an academy – but must do so at "cost".
GET APPROPRIATE FINANCIAL PROCESSES IN PLACE. Putting in place a business manager who understands all the financial processes required - and who possesses leadership skills - is crucial. Trustees should also appoint external auditors who can then provide further support. Getting the back office right is a vital step for a new academy and critical to good accounting.
The principal or head teacher should also have an understanding of the accounts office and be aware of their compliance responsibilities. Understanding regularity and putting good risk management strategies in place is key.
CONSIDER TAX IMPLICATIONS. Key decisions include whether to claim back VAT using the VAT126 form (for use by local authorities and similar bodies) or whether to register for VAT instead.
Academies are charitable trusts but additional trading activity may be viewed differently. There are many caveats but profits from lettings, for instance, could have tax and VAT implications. These are the kind of details that can trip you up if not handled correctly.