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Changing from Commentator to Coach


by @DorsetSBM   #Pledgeforchange20

In September 2018 I ventured back into full time work for the first time in 15 years by taking on the Financial Business Manager (FBM) role in a school where I had been doing maternity cover in finance. The timing was right, for a change, as my youngest son was about to start middle school and would be getting a bus at 8am and not be home until 4pm; the years of doing the school run were over so now to replace it with more time spent at work!

Trust yourself, you know far more than you think you do. (Dr Benjamin Spock)

That was over a year ago and little did I appreciate at the time just what a roller-coaster it would be. Now, inheriting someone else’s budget is never easy and I knew that there was a forecast deficit for 18/19, but holy **** (choose your own word). What I discovered in that first month of analysis doubled the potential loss and frightened me stupid!

I immediately called an EGM with Trustees and requested a face-to-face meeting with the nameless “This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.”. Transparency was my tagline and I invited questions at every turn from Trustees and so began a year of uncomfortably close scrutiny by Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). All this before I had even started on the prep work for our 17/18 audit, a year when I was not at the helm.  The first meeting with the ESFA resulted in me having to completely revise the submitted 3YrBFR before they provided an SRMA at the beginning of December. The third action was for our LA to look at changing the frequency of their top-up payments to us – which, of course, never happened. The SRMA visit was informative but did not have the impact we envisaged because there were very few areas that we had left to make any savings – unless we wanted to lose some 1.5 FTE of invaluable SLT. This may have been a financially astute suggestion but try running a 2-19 Special school (SLD/PMLD) with only 1.5 SLT and you will simply watch the workload on teachers rise even further and there will be no such thing as school development.

In the Spring term, with OFSTED looming large on the horizon, the decision was taken by Trustees and SLT to stick with my revised budget (retaining SLT in full), reign in spending on anything that wasn’t a health & safety issue and invest in a new financial management system that would give more meaningful and timely data. The idea was to simply limit our losses. I also managed a tender for new Auditors and welcomed aboard a fresh approach from a company that was willing to see our differences and work with what we do rather than make us fit their mould.
The Summer Term continued with the ESFA’s continuing requests for meetings, copies of management reports, updates on SRMA actions and cash flow forecasts; at the same time we were also facing continual requests from the LA to take on more pupils above our planned places and even began to work with the LA to provide new buildings to house an additional 15 pupils from September 2020.

Things were looking hopeful and we were assured by the LA and ESFA that they would not let us “go under”.

And so I began the task of building the next 3yr budget and complete the 18/19 forecast outturn. Choices were stark: no replacement of those staff leaving, halving the CPD and IT budgets, removing class budgets completely and having no money for the 6th form to spend curriculum time at a local college investigating options for life after school. I would like to point out that, for me, this was the most profound change and I could cry just thinking about the lost opportunities for our young people. Their choices are few and far between once they have left school and without the chance to experience a vocational curriculum those choices will be further diminished. There was little to be done regarding whether this would be a balanced budget as we have little control over what income we receive from the LA for new children arriving in September. Unlike a mainstream academy, where your annual income is received monthly and can be relied upon, we receive our top-up funding termly and this changes depending upon each child’s individual needs, leavers and new pupils. The inevitable swings in cashflow therefore cause the ESFA to over scrutinise and causes suppliers to cut off lines of credit! The Trustees approved a deficit budget once more but with reasoned thinking via throrough and open discussion about “how much is too much” when it came to cost cutting.

The Summer Term also brought OFSTED and due to the incredibly passionate and professional team that we have we were once again graded GOOD and with this came the renewed confidence in what we are aiming to achieve and added even more weight to the budgetary decisions being made for the years to come. As mine is a Term Time Only (TTO) post I left for the summer holidays knowing that I had submitted a deficit budget to the ESFA and that the whole process was going to be repeated in September! 

The Autumn Term arrived and it felt different, in a good way. I no longer felt that I was the newbie and made sure that my weekly meetings with the HT were not cancelled and that I had business to discuss. The ESFA were onto us from day 2 requiring an update on changes since our last skype meeting (a whole 3 working weeks when I pointed out that I was TTO and had just returned from holiday). However, two weeks later I received a call from the ESFA that made me want to throw in the towel. We were achieving so much with so little but no one, at a level to make any change, was listening. The pressure from this call made it clear that their only agenda was to get “difficult to solve cases” off their caseload by forcing us to join a MAT. Rather than crumple behind my desk I chose to go straight to the HT and show my vulnerability, coupled with anger, as I had taken on so much over the last year and delivered everything that was promised. 

Like any sports commentator, your internal Commentator can only comment on what has happened….(and) plays right into that fear and keeps us back….right in the middle of our comfort zone. (Nigel Risner – The IMPACT Code)

The support (plus coffee and tissues) that I received in that moment gave me hope and some confidence that I was not alone. It made me take back control of the situation, by joining the HT in playing hardball with the EFSA; I now tell them when, and if, the information they reqiure is appropriate and have been known to say “no” when I believe their request is disproportionate. I also took the step of engaging with the #SBL Twitter community and immediately felt cocooned in professional support from people who I had heard of from their books, blogs, magazine articles and conference speaking. Suddenly I was one of them. There is no hierarchy in this particular twittersphere and your opinion/question/assistance is valid. Meeting up in person with these people only served to throw even more light on my situation and the fact that I was not on SLT was considered alien to my new colleagues.

Any Coach takes your past experience and channels it into a game plan…the Coach will take you outside of your comfort zone….We have to learn to ignore the negativity that spouts forth from the Commentator and start developing the Coach within us. (Nigel Risner – The IMPACT code)

Finally, in this new academic year of self-discovery, I came across the #WomenEd 10%braver campaign; I have started to find my voice and believe that I have earned a place at the SLT table after uncovering and reporting to the LA on a large sum of missing funding that subsequently helped us finish last year in surplus. The fight is not over so my #pledgeforchange20 is to continue to Coach, rather than Commentate, push for my seat on SLT and continue to state the case for sufficient funding within Special Schools

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In 2020, I’m telling guilt to get lost
#PledgeforChange20 #WomenEd #DGMeet


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Wednesday, 07 December 2022

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