Navigating the Financial Landscape for Academies in 2023
July 28 2023 - Navigating the financial landscape for academies in 2023 is a daunting task. The macro-economic impacts of the pandemic have thrown an already strained sector into further turmoil. Rising energy costs, escalating budgetary demands, and inadequate governmental funding have forced schools to consider drastic steps such as staff and resource reductions. With the financial pressure seemingly growing, it is imperative to understand the impacts, strategies, and options available for academies.
The Financial Strain on Academies
Academies have found themselves at the harsh end of a financially difficult environment. Some schools have had to grapple with a staggering 400% increase in energy costs. The pandemic, coupled with other macroeconomic pressures, has squeezed budgets to breaking point. As a result, schools are contemplating cutting staff and reducing resources to stay afloat.
The Implications of Budget Cuts
Areas most susceptible to cuts include those with the most flexibility, such as teaching assistants, special educational needs provisions, and IT infrastructure. Recently announced teacher pay rises have compounded the budgetary challenges, forcing many schools to re-evaluate their budgets. The cuts may bring short-term relief but at the cost of the quality of education.
The Role of Government Funding
The £2.3 billion cash injection from the Chancellor's Autumn Budget last year has not been the financial panacea many hoped for. Many academies are resorting to dipping into their reserves to cover general costs. A stark report recently revealed that a mere 2% of academies expect to break even this year, painting a dire picture of the sector's financial health.
Surviving in Turbulent Times
It is paramount for academies to bolster their Management Accounts, ensuring robust forecasting and modelling with a future-oriented focus. While long-term plans need careful consideration and caution, they should be pragmatic, factoring in a range of possible scenarios.
The Importance of Reserves
Every academy must have a reserves policy, highlighting the level of free reserves it aims to maintain. These reserves are essential in managing emergencies, unforeseen needs, meeting working capital requirements, tackling budget deficits, and supporting new projects. Revisiting the reserves policy during financially challenging times can prove beneficial, enabling academies to maximise their use of resources.
The Value of Professional Support and Trustee Expertise
Many academies, especially smaller ones, lack the internal skills to manage budgets effectively. James Gare, Partner at Monahans, an accountancy and business advice firm who specialise in the charity sector, said "Many Trusts struggle to have the internal skills to manage their budgets and reports show a fifth of schools claim they donít feel qualified to take responsibility for them. In very small Academy Trusts (such as primary schools) it is not uncommon for the same individual who is patching up knees at break time to be managing the school budgets. Sometimes the individuals can feel overwhelmed - but for a Trust of this size there often isnít an alternative option due to lack of resources. In this situation it is important Trusts have some form of additional professional support. The day-to-day management is one part of the picture and academies should also be considering the expertise amongst the board of Trustees. Finding financially literate Trustees can be hard - but critically important during financially difficult times."
The Option of Multi-Academy Trusts (MAT)
Joining a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) can be a lifeline for standalone Trusts, as MATs typically have stronger reserves. While this may limit a school's autonomy, it can offer greater financial stability. If a Trust depletes all its reserves, the likely outcome is a financial notice to improve from the Education and Skills Funding Agency and a potential forced joining of a MAT.
2023 poses significant challenges for academies striving to provide quality education amidst growing financial constraints. However, with sound financial management, prudent use of reserves, professional support, and options like joining MATs, academies can navigate this complex landscape. The journey is tough, but with the right tools and strategies, schools can ensure they remain viable, focused on their primary mission: educating the leaders of tomorrow.