BENCHMARKING – LOVED AND LOATHED ALL OVER
Mention the word ‘benchmarking’ to a school business manager and there’s a good chance you’ll be greeted with a groan and a comment about it being a waste of time and effort. Unless that school business manager is me. Now it may be that I’m a bit of a geek or it could be because I find data analysis strangely fascinating; come to think of it the latter would make me a geek anyway. I’m also a lover of Excel (does that also constitute me being a geek?), and so analysing data gives me a chance to use my favourite software for some interesting number crunching and create some rather pretty graphs. Whatever the reason, you won’t find me complaining about carrying out benchmarking for the school – quite the opposite in fact. It’s the one task that I do annually that I really look forward to carrying out.?
I’ve always been open about my excitement when I learn that the DfE has published the data on its website (https://schools-financial-benchmarking.service.gov.uk/) in the spring term. I’m not ashamed to admit that I check the website probably much more often than is necessary to see if it’s live, even though I know I’m going to get an email letting me know it’s there. So, with Excel template at the ready, I eagerly anticipate what useful information I might find out this year about my school’s use of the budget.
With that in mind, if you’re relatively new to the role of school business manager or, indeed, benchmarking, you might be wondering why other school business managers don’t feel the same as me. Well, the reason is perfectly understandable because the problem with the data is that (a) it’s a year old and (b) the CFR data that it’s based on can be inconsistent across schools. A code used by one SBM might not be used by another. You see one school business manager might well decide that the correct CFR code for their recent spend on consultancy would be ‘bought in professional services’ while another might decide it’s an ‘admin buy back’. Some of the codes are probably a little too subjective. The other problem, of course, is the financial year end when suddenly you have to code the new furniture in Year 3 to “classroom resources” simply because there’s not enough money left in the furniture budget and you were not anticipating that two desks and four chairs would suddenly break.
So no, benchmarking is not perfect and may not be a true reflection of how your statistical neighbours are spending their pots of money, but it does still have its place in school and can be useful to the school business manager and leadership team. Most of the spend we are interested in comparing are staffing, energy, insurance, back office and supply staff and it’s unlikely that these will differ between schools.
Once the school business manager has the data to hand they are fully armed to put forward any relevant business cases or start researching alternative service providers. Imagine my delight a couple of years back, when I’d been told that we had more admin staff than other schools, only to find that we had spent less than others, and less than the average on back office. Why was I delighted? Because I was then able to present factual data to the governors to justify the spend on an additional pair of much-needed hands.
So, love it or loathe it, the task of comparing financial spend between schools is useful and can certainly give school business managers, the leadership team and governors food for thought about how we spend the money we have and where we can make much needed savings.
All we need now is for the data to be made real-time!
By Caroline Collins - August 2017