Improving efficiency in schools through WORKOUT
With regular change to school funding streams and government driven targets, it is acknowledged that schools need to be more financially astute and need to make economies where possible to achieve the greatest outcomes for their pupils.
However, it is commonly felt that as staffing makes up the vast majority of the budget it dominates much of the discussion about efficiency, often to the point that schools find it difficult to concentrate on other areas. Efficiency in other areas (e.g. procurement and energy costs) are perceived as unlikely to make a substantial difference as it is thought to be too difficult and time-consuming to achieve any major savings. There is also little clarity over whether schools are expected to run like businesses, or whether ‘efficiency’ can encompass educational outcomes.
There are many best practices that can be taken from the commercial world and be applied in an educational setting. Schools need to operate better, faster and cheaper. They need to maximise the school’s assets, inc. people’s experience, systems and facilities. Schools have a burning platform and need to optimise spend on staffing and reduce recurring costs. Children and young people only have one chance and their futures cannot be compromised.
Insufficient time or capacity cannot be reasons not to engage in re-assessing the effectiveness of school systems and processes if the school’s objectives are to be achieved.
WORKOUT is a business process improvement methodology aimed at encouraging staff members to assess the tasks they perform ; consider how they perform them ; identify where the inefficiencies lie ; and confirm what opportunities for improvement or innovation exist.
The process works most effectively when it underpins an existing strategic objective and has the most senior buy-in (e.g. Sponsor/Trust and/or Principal/Headteacher) to delegate responsibility to the staff to effect the necessary changes. The process also has to be part of a continuous process improvement culture, and not seen as a one-off initiative.
WORKOUT runs as facilitated workshops with representatives involved in all aspects of the particular process or activity that is being challenged, and viewed from a customer’s perspective. All tasks are judged against their value to the customer. The latter can be the students, the staff or the parents/carers.
The steps involved in engaging with WORKOUT are as follows:
The Sponsor of the WORKOUT session sets the context for engaging in the process improvement initiative ; identifies the area of opportunity or concern ; and sets the challenge and goal (this could either be a financial target saving or time saving delivering the same task). The Sponsor then leaves the staff to it.
The workshop attendees then review the identified process / activity (through the development of ‘as-is’ and ‘to-be’ process maps) and identify & develop recommendations / solutions.
Other techniques are used during the workshop to ensure the participants:
- acknowledge the stakeholders/users of the process being reviewed;
- list all the current initiatives in this area;
- identify how other schools perform this process;
- undertake a SWOT analysis of current process;
Once recommendations are made, they are prioritised and the participants identify what processes, people or systems need to be put in place to deliver them.
Ownership (and delegated authority where appropriate) is allocated to deliver the Action Plan. The latter needs to be ‘short term’, so as that it can maintain momentum, be quickly measured and success celebrated. Alternatively, break down the Action Plan into phases – ‘chunk it or junk it’.
The Sponsor returns at the end of the workshop to review and ratify the recommendations, and empowers the staff to take responsibility to implement the recommendations with the Sponsor’s support.
Sponsor – Half a day to identify the initiative ; assist with the planning ; set the context and challenge at the start of the workshop ; return at the end to review the outcomes and encourage the team to progress the recommendations.
Staff attendees – Half a day to a whole day depending on the nature of area for improvement ; and an hour every 4 weeks to track progress.
Facilitator – Two days to plan the session, run the session and document the outputs. On-going support also available.
Workout Methodology Example
Identify the context
A typical Multi Academy Trust strategic objective may look like this:
Support schools to improve educational outcomes for students of all abilities and to be sustainably ‘outstanding’.
A typical Academy objective may look like this:
Ensure all whole school policies, systems and practices focus on setting suitably challenging, clearly defined performance indicators, the outcomes of which are monitored robustly and readjusted when achieved.
Identify the scope of potential areas for improvement in order to support the achievement of the above objectives:
What school processes, procedures and/or systems need to be improved or removed (if it’s re-work or duplicated activity) to free time up to focus on those that would positively influence the objectives the most?
Are there any new best practice systems and processes the school should be implementing?
Areas for improvement
For example, some activities managed by the School Administration team that are prime for improvement (as a result of improvements in technology, new legislation, demanding parents, change in school priorities) include:
- Student recruitment
- Recruitment and induction of new staff
- Dealing with difficult parents
- Dealing with school discipline
- Keeping up to date with staff records and other data
- Provision of timely data to internal and external parties
- Ensuring all parties are aware of and have access to latest policies and procedures
Activities managed by the School Finance Manager or Bursar that are prime for improvement include:
- Procuring cheaper or more added value third party services (e.g. utilities, insurance etc..)
- Effective fundraising
- Getting more for less from the ICT budget
- Ensuring SLT members and/or Heads of Dept effectively manage their respective budgets and ensuring they link the school budget to the school development plan
- Ensuring timely completion of all internal and external financial reporting requirements
- Keeping appraised of latest DfE, EFA, legal and LA related guidance
- Effective asset management
Tasks undertaken by teaching staff (other than classroom activity) that are prime for improvement include:
Researching new topic areas, to maintain up-to-date subject knowledge, and to devise and write new curriculum materials
Identifying issues restricting them from making the most of the technology available (classroom based or admin based) to develop effective lesson plans and delivering outstanding teaching.
Review and ratify recommendations
- Quantify the savings (money and/or time) proposed
- Outline next steps
- Identify what support is required from the Sponsor, other schools in the Trust or from the Trust itself
- Empower the staff to implement the recommendations
- Co-ordinate a review of progress within 4 and 8 weeks
- Communicate progress and decisions made to all staff
Barriers to Change
The following is an extract from a ‘Financial Efficiency in Schools’ review undertaken by the DfE in 2010, although the challenges still exist today:
Even those members of staff with greater perceived flexibility are likely to find it difficult to become more efficient due to certain widely held beliefs: that they are already as efficient as possible; that factors beyond their control limit their efficiency and, most importantly, that action in areas other than staffing will be insignificant.
There is also little clarity over whether schools are expected to run like businesses, or whether “efficiency‟ can encompass educational outcomes. These are likely to have a serious impact on engagement with, and interest in, communications on the subject. Any communications from the DfE therefore needs to: provide clear advice about staffing and how efficiencies can be achieved in this area; make concrete suggestions for improving efficiency in every area; address the impotence that many feel in this area whilst avoiding criticism; and formalise what is expected of financially efficient schools to avoid ambiguity. (Editor’s Note: But why wait for the DfE to instigate a review?)
There are also various factors preventing schools working together, largely based on assumptions that collaboration will be complex, requires intense negotiation and will only work with similar schools in the same area. It may be useful to provide specific information (e.g. case studies of successful federations etc.) on how to achieve successful collaboration and relevant tools, all of which will need to challenge the assumptions regarding its complexity. (Editor’s Note: Again, why wait for guidance from the DfE. Schools should put their differences aside, find common ground and share best practice with other schools – and not necessarily with other local schools they complete with.)