Ask Anna – Tired of pinching pennies?

Dear Anna, I’ve been working as an SBM for 7 years and, to be quite honest, I’m getting really tired of having to manage every year with rising uncontrollable costs squeezing school funding so there is nothing left for anything other than the necessities. It is exhausting. I’m always worrying that something will happen that we can’t afford to repair or replace and there is no joy in the constant penny pinching. Any advice to help me manage this? ThrifySBM

Hello ThriftySBM,

OK, first of all let’s get a few things said and out of the way that you must remember;

This shouldn’t all be on you. I know that the SBM role often takes on all the budgeting and finance in the school and, as their experience grows, the expectation becomes that they will manage it all. But you need to share the burden of this among your SLT and Governors. This is important for a few reasons;

1) Even the smallest school needs a clear separation of duties. If you are doing it all; ordering, invoicing and paying suppliers; recording income, banking and reconciling; inputting staff changes and checking payroll; you are leaving yourself open to enormous risk. The slightest mistake or anomaly could result in you being under huge pressure to answer questions of what went wrong. You need support and a transparent control policy, however experienced you are.

2) Your Finance Policy and authorisation limits are there to protect you so champion them being followed by everyone, to both the letter and the spirit. For example, take time to explain to the authoriser what they are approving, never allow them just to sign it off on your say-so.

3) Report every month (at least) to SLT and Governors and make sure they understand. Give them numbers, not just narrative. Offer them annual training and keep them updated with what is happening in your world. Every school does it differently but I think reporting actuals against budget with a regular review and approval of changing forecasts will mean that you know where you are at the end of the year. (I hate surprises!)

4) It’s important for the efficient running of the school that it is not just you that understands what is going on. “Single point of failure” my IT Manger calls it. Make sure that if you couldn’t come to work for a prolonged period the school would still be able to manage and report the finances!

So, to go back to your question, what tools can help you manage the funds most efficiently so that you don’t feel you are continually penny pinching?

Three year budget – 
Most schools have them but do you use it? Do you actually look at year 3 and think about what you could do now to make it less skimpy? You know staff will get pay rises, pension contributions will rise and you won’t get any additional funding. So plan ahead. Think about staff turnover, energy costs, income generation, IT… I’m sure you will be able to look at each cost heading and make an informed judgement of what costs/income are going to look like, whether you can realistically make savings or whether you are heading for a deficit that action now might avert.

Monthly Information Pack (MI) – I love my MI. It tells me everything I need to know both now and in the scenario-lands that SLT like to propose. Good MI should be flexible and preferably tailored to the needs of your school. Write your own or have a look at what is out there. It will be time and money well spent.

Capital Asset RAG rated spreadsheet – Governors need to know how long that boiler is going to last (I’ll say again – I hate surprises). If you have a RAG rated sheet that highlights all the capital assets on their last legs in bright red, no one can ever say they weren’t warned that expenditure was imminent. The amber ones will also inform the budget of 3 years hence that you are looking at.

5 year Premises Plan – It’s always good to have an overview of your premises and a plan for repair, refurbishment, replacement or growth (or all four!) It is never going to be completely set in stone, there will always be a curve ball, but it is reassuring when everyone is on the same page.

I hope that gives you a few ideas to help you manage that ever increasing cost/income ratio. You’re not alone in this. Talk to some nearby schools and see if you can work together on some collaborative solutions to reducing expenditure or increasing income.

You’ve got this.


If you’d like to ‘Ask Anna’ please email All emails will be read and I hope to be able to answer some of  them via this blog. I look forward to hearing from you.

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