Many schools and governing boards are thinking outside the box when it comes to handling tight budgets. In this guest article, Chair of Governors and School Technician Sejal Rabone explains how her board joined forces with another maintained school as part of a federation, a move that has helped the schools weather financial challenges.
While federating is by no means the answer for every school, Sejal’s story demonstrates the vital importance of careful planning and collaboration when it comes to addressing the cost of living crisis and other pressing challenges.
Picture the scene: you’re a governor for a single-form entry primary school. It’s rated as ‘Good’ but budgets are stretched and the headteacher has just announced they’re retiring at the end of the next academic year. The easy option would be to advertise for a new headteacher and carry on with the status quo, wouldn’t it? Yet, good governance is about considering the future of the school, especially one that doesn’t have a lot of extra funding and wanted to continue improving the curriculum. So, could there be another way?
With the support of the retiring headteacher, we formed a small steering group to look at possible alternatives and asked ourselves why we needed to do this (without focusing at that point on the “how”). It became clear that forming a type of partnership with a similar local, two-form entry primary school was a good option. We knew the headteacher there had successfully raised standards and was also familiar with our school. So, the steering group became larger, with three governors from each school plus the headteachers, and we asked someone with corporate change management experience to help us with running the meetings. The second school wanted to create a fresh challenge for the headteacher to ensure retention and this potential federation provided it.
This is a key point – it’s essential for any governing body to always work through scenarios; where are we and where do we want to be? What would happen if we followed through on a plan or would it be better to keep things the same? Advice might be available from the Local Authority or from another school who has already been through this, as well as online resources.
What is a Federation?
It’s a group of two or more maintained schools, who in effect work in partnership, but each school keeps its own identity and budget funding. It differs in that there is only one governing body. The benefits will be defined by the governors and leadership. In our case, we created a new executive headteacher role to oversee both sites, along with new head of school roles. The aim was to save the cost of two separate headteachers and deputy headteachers and instead look at a new model of leadership. In this case, it helped that the schools are in walking distance of each other.
Other cost savings were planned by sharing a School Business Manager, SENDCo, and Pastoral Lead. The federation would also bring other benefits such as shared planning, preparation, and assessment (PPA) time and resources for staff, create more middle leadership roles, save on costs of subscriptions and INSET days.
What needed to be done?
The governors published a consultation document to all in the school community, with the support of the Local Authority and then held an AGM. Of course, there were some big questions from the staff and parents, but a vote showed the majority supported the change. Having said that, some staff did leave within the year but recruitment was not a problem at the time. It was important that the change was championed in a positive way by the leadership team.
The main challenge was actually for the governors, who had to form a new governing body for the two schools and then, overnight, start considering two sets of data, two separate budgets, and two sites-for-premises visits! It does take commitment and it was great to see the governing body collaborate in such a way that the “them and us” element did not become an issue.
The schools continue to be separate places and the creation of assistant headteacher roles who work cross-site is valuable. The best time was when Ofsted called; staff from the other school came straight over to support and prepare with colleagues. What hasn’t co-joined so well are the two PTAs – they’re still completely separate for each school, as are activities such as after school clubs.
Schools are having to adapt in all sorts of ways in response to the restrictions in funding and no-one wants to have to consider redundancies and loss of roles.
A way we have approached supplementing our budget is to release experienced staff in consultant and secondment roles. As maintained schools, this is again supported by the Local Authority and the School Business Manager bills for the pro rata days worked at another school. The governors are involved in these decisions, as they can only be made if the school is secure and confident the staff can be released – it cannot be to the detriment of our own pupils. It may also require other staff stepping up to cover classroom commitments.
What it can do is offer a real growth opportunity to a member of staff who might be considering their next steps. Yes, there’s a chance they could leave in the future, but there’s also a chance for them to try a new role with the safety net of returning. These opportunities can support retention and professional development; the extra income is a bonus but not the key driver. The discussions around these positions should form part of the meeting agenda and allow for a review at key points in the academic year.
Learn more about how governors can help schools weather the cost of living crisis
Our Counting the Cost campaign features a host of helpful videos, podcasts, and articles to help governors navigate the cost of living crisis. Explore our resources here.
This article – along with our other Counting the Cost resources – was made possible through the generous sponsorship of Allen & Overy.