Opening a new school, survival tips for the first six months

22 Mar 2019 | by Claire Edwards

Setting up a new free school, with only one year-group and a small band of staff, you are likely to be leading on all six professional disciplines covered by the ISBL professional standards. This blog shares some key SBL lessons learned since my secondary academy opened in September 2018. For anyone about to go through this, the following welcome pack is helpful:

Welcome Pack

Leading Support Services

We were so excited to welcome our first pupils. A lot of effort had gone into getting the MIS up and running and pupil records completed, as well as getting all classroom furniture and equipment in place and ready.

You may well be managing the premises, catering and administrative teams, but many of your other responsibilities include all staff. Straight away, it’s essential to set up your safeguarding systems, undertake a thorough induction for staff and ensure health and safety and GDPR measures are in place. Risks assessments will be needed, both personal ones for staff medical issues, pupil’s medical conditions and building issues. 

Finance

You need to submit your In-Year Budget Forecast Return within 4 months of opening.  While this seems like a long time, there is lots to do to review your template 7- year plan and to fit the actual staffing costs of the teachers you subsequently took on, into that agreed budget, together with all the other costs which are now more defined, since contracts are in place. You will probably also be working with a new finance system which you need to get to grips with. The ESFA will expect to receive your management accounts from month 1.

Cashflow can be volatile. Funding is received on the 1st of the month and payroll is likely to be the last day, so balances can decrease considerably during the month. 

You can’t submit a VAT return until your academy has opened. If you have a long pre-opening phase, get your return in as soon as possible after you open. It has taken our academy 14 weeks to get the first return paid. HMRC didn’t want us to submit any further online claims until the first was paid.

Get your rates reclaim in quickly. You don’t receive any pupil premium funding until April, so if that’s a significant amount of funding for you (54% of pupils for my academy), make sure it has the right timing in your cashflow forecast.

 Starting from scratch provides the perfect opportunity to only accept online payments and to pay expenses through payroll, you may not need cash on site at all.

As soon as you open your new school, you will need an audit and to produce accounts for the previous year (or longer accounting period). This means getting up to speed quickly with the previous accounts, which may be on a spreadsheet from the opening period, before you purchased an accounting package. You don’t, however, need to complete an Accounts Return for the period, if you did not have an open academy. Grants (such as DfE capital funding) are recognised in the year they are approved so, although you may not spend much until subsequent years, you could have a very large fixed asset reserve.

Procurement

Set your contracts register up as soon as possible. If you haven’t been involved in pre-opening procurement, you will need to quickly understand the terms and prices of your contracts, so you know what you are paying for and you can monitor quality against agreed SLAs.   

Make good use of government frameworks. You will probably be using some as a condition of your Fixtures, Fittings and Equipment or ICT grant funding. It is so important to define your specification fully to ensure the end contract agreed meets your requirements. 

There is likely to be a very high volume of orders in term 1 so ensure your financial regulations and processes are clear and efficient, get BACs working as soon as you can and protect your finance officer from unrealistic expectations.

Infrastructure

Most new schools start in temporary accommodation. I found that not much had been left in the way of maintenance records or zone maps for either fire or security alarms. So clearly, getting all of this in place, plus your asbestos management report and register from day 1, is a key area of focus.  Ensure you have an accurate map of the building, signpost all your fire exits, install extinguishers, check your emergency lighting and undertake a legionella risk assessment if the system has been changed to allow your use of the site, or you don’t have the previous one. As an academy, you also need engineering inspection services for boilers and plant, which is not covered by the RPA, as well as boiler servicing. If you’re a secondary, then put in place risk assessments for science, DT and PE, as a minimum.

Try to use local networks to identify trusted plumbers and electricians. You may well experience leaky rooves, faulty lighting and blocked drains. Set up a clear process for logging maintenance issues and getting them resolved. The DfE might fund improvements, if the contractor has not left the building in a suitable state, so do ask first before spending your budget on repairs.  However, be warned that getting quotes approved is not a fast process.

Human Resources

It’s a busy time ensuring all your safeguarding checks are in place, making sure staff are paid correctly and records transferred for pensions – you may well have a temporary number with Teachers Pensions in the pre-opening phase. 

It took a month to get a Secure Access account and you then need to get all your governance information onto the system straight away. Setting up different accounts for school and MAT can be confusing. The ESFA are now streamlining the systems used through DfE sign in, which is a positive step.

By Christmas, you will be going through it all again to recruit next year’s staff. At the same time the development needs of current staff are important. If you only have Year 7, teachers may wish to become examiners to strengthen their subject skills, and you may be able to offer an incentive to support this. You may decide to share your teachers with other local schools to enable them to gain or continue to strengthen their skills by teaching KS4 or 5.

Marketing

You might not think marketing is critical in your first year. You have your new pupils, hopefully you will be full or close to, if demand meets expectations. However, we found ourselves having a photographer in during the first week to prepare the prospectus for the next intake! We were taking photos of brand new Year 7’s, so clearly some guile was needed to achieve a ‘relaxed look’. You will also need to hold open days in the first term, when you are just up and running.  

Wellbeing

Last but not least, do prioritise wellbeing for staff and yourselves. As the ‘lead fixer’ for issues with the building, the whole experience can be quite overwhelming at times. With a very small staff, everyone is inevitably working very hard. Allow leave for family occasions whenever you have cover.  Absence insurance can provide free physio and counselling for staff. This can be very helpful particularly for young staff, new to the challenges of the profession. Consider wellbeing treats for staff. We fund this from unrestricted funds, such as SLT consultancy, because it is so important in building the team and being a caring employer. Use your networks, get involved in local groups, ask governors for support.   

Whatever the ups and downs on the journey so far, I have learnt so much and am thoroughly enjoying being part of the exciting learning journey for my new school staff and pupils.  My special mug, given to me by a lovely school I previously supported, keeps me resilient for each day ahead!