The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Nickii Messer

Budget cutting should be long-term, not knee-jerk

In a climate of ever-tightening purse strings, it’s all too easy for school business leaders to overlook strategic plans and make hasty attempts to cut staff in order to balance the budget. 

With most schools feeling the pinch – or the tight grip of a vice, in some cases – of rapidly shrinking budgets, the most compelling question must surely be not what do we do now, but what do we do in the future?

Expenditure on staffing is by far the biggest chunk of our budget, and the natural place to start looking when we need to make cuts. Yet so many schools start by cutting out the smaller things, like staff training. In reality, cutting back on staff training will probably do very little to balance the budget, but conversely can have a serious impact on the school’s future.

Recipe for disaster

I heard someone talking the other day about school improvement planning being like baking cakes. She explained that while the main cake ingredient is flour, if you don’t add one of the lesser ingredients, baking powder, your cake will never rise. Similarly, staffing might be the biggest budgetary expenditure, but if you don’t have sufficient ‘baking powder’, or in this case professional development, how can you expect your staff to rise to the heights of performance you need, and demand, from them?

When looking to balance the budget, and cuts become inevitable, don’t make hasty decisions. Knee-jerk reactions have a nasty habit of being detrimental in the long term. It’s time for a cool head and a plan.

We recognise that staffing will inevitably be impacted upon, and many schools are already conducting rigorous staffing reviews and restructures. If, as part of this process, you are considering redundancies, take time to plan them carefully.

Redundancy: not a cheap option

Making redundancies not only seriously damages staff morale, but can create longer-term problems as the post is made redundant, rather than the member of staff. If longer-term plans suggest you may need to recruit back into a redundant position in the future, redundancy may not be the best option.

 If longer-term plans suggest you may need to recruit back into a redundant position in the future, redundancy may not be the best option

Good planning involves looking carefully at staffing on at least a three-, if not five-year plan. If redundancy does become necessary, seek professional advice.

The process of redundancy and associated legislation is complex. Getting it wrong can leave you with very costly tribunal claims. Redundancy is never going to be a cheap option, at least not in the short term, and if it involves ‘pension strain’ (generally affecting redundancy of staff aged between 55 – 60 years old) the sums soon start adding up.

The sooner you know you may be overstaffed, or are unable to afford the staff you have, the sooner you can start proactive planning, including putting on hold new recruitment; voluntary redundancies; and natural wastage.  

Chill out

One thing is certain: most schools are facing significant changes, and how we manage these changes could be the difference between success and failure.

Particularly if faced with leading or managing unpopular changes, Karl Lewin’s three-step change theory can be a useful starting point. Lewin explained that if you want to change something you need to unfreeze, then change, then refreeze.

Take the example of a cube of ice. If you wanted to change it from a cube into a cone, you would need to unfreeze it, mould it into the new shape, then refreeze it to solidify it.

For leaders, this concept centres on the principle that when ‘reshaping’ needs to take place, it works better when people are properly prepared for it, rather than forced into something they don’t fully understand. If restructuring the workforce appears inevitable, start the ‘unfreezing’ process as soon as you can.

Present a compelling case for change. Explain that staffing costs the school x% of the budget and with everything else already pared back, this is where changes inevitably need to be made. As a leader, you shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers, and finding solutions for such far reaching budgetary decisions, doesn’t have to lie solely with you.

Present a compelling case for change

Actively engage all staff in the school’s situation, and encourage them to put forward their own ideas, for discussion and full consideration. Let them be part of this vital unfreezing stage, so they can better understand, and buy into, both the planning and actions necessary to keep the school afloat – and on target.

And finally, keep the children at the centre of all conversations to remind everyone who they are really there for.

There are difficult times ahead for all of us, and plenty of unknowns for which we can’t prepare. However, we do have some certainties, and it is important that we plan proactively, sensitively and collaboratively in order that we are best prepared to face them together – for the benefit of all the children in our care.

Whatever your school’s financial position, you need to keep looking to the future.

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