A plan of action: the path to academic success and school sustainability

Strategic planning is central to a school achieving its academic ambitions and maintaining a sustainable budget. We take a look at the approaches taken by Pocklington School and Truro School in delivering their respective visions

Strategic plans set out a school’s vision for the future, or redefine an existing plan, each one typically outlining how pupils stand to benefit from the ideas within it. They are also of crucial importance to stakeholders, allowing them to arrive at a consensus on future school priorities. Many people and process are involved in delivering the plan – which might appear smooth and settled on a school website – but, in essence, the projects within the plan, especially those relating to estates and premises, will be constantly under review and in motion.

Room for expression

In the case of Pocklington School, a three-to-18 co-ed boarding and day school in Yorkshire, their current offering, The Pocklington School Foundation Strategic and Estate Development Plan for 2016 to 2020, is a modified version of their 2010-2015 version, with the focal point being a new £2m art and design technology centre. The centre is currently in its early building stage but the plan for it was first agreed in 2010 during a series of consultations involving staff, pupils, parents, alumni and governors. “These stakeholder groups had a maximum of 20 people each. We ran a number of sessions that reflected interest,” says Mark Ronan, head at Pocklington. Each group was given an opportunity to express their views by answering a series of simple questions about what should stay the same and where improvements should be made. “The common priority across all groups was the removal of all prefabricated spaces – the most significant of which was the art and design centre,” Mark says. In order to ensure contributors were at ease when presenting their opinions senior leaders were not directly included in these meetings; Mark engaged Dr Amanda Gregory, head of management systems at Hull University’s Business School, to facilitate meaningful consultations with stakeholders.

Mitigating financial risk was also a priority during this time when the Eurozone crisis was proving problematic for businesses. Mark says that this led directly to the school changing tack in the  funding of capital expenditure projects, putting an end to borrowing and moving to a ‘no debt’ policy which meant that the art and design centre would be reliant on fundraising contributions. It was also agreed that the undertaking of separate premises projects – such as new biology labs, a sixth form centre and a pastoral space for their middle and lower schools – would be delivered using cash reserves.

Meeting the challenge head on

One of the most challenging periods Mark and his SLT faced began when they approached private partners for charitable donations and launched a public fundraising campaign to raise, in full, the £2m needed for the art and design centre. “At the very same time we had to engage with an architect to discuss what the building would look like,” Mark says.

“On the one hand your donors want to know what the final design will look like, but you have to be careful not to spend too much money on an architect because you are wondering if you will get the money to build it. After all, we were relying on our fundraising campaign being successful.” To resolve this, the SLT agreed with the governors that a certain sum of money from school resources would be provided to engage the services of an architect. Additionally, the hurdle of not having final design concepts to show donors was addressed by having one-to-one meetings with them and explaining the full context of, and vision for, the new facilities.

Andrew’s advice for delivering a fit-for-purpose strategic plan

Implementing the plan requires a range of skills; focus, patience, persistence to name a few. It’s easy to call something a success before it has become properly embedded. It’s also important to realise that you don’t have to achieve everything tomorrow; be prepared to play the long game. 

Furthering the cause

Further measures were put in place to ensure this period was managed effectively. A pair of governors’ sub-committees were created – an education sub-committee and an estates committee. The former included Mark and met to specify exactly what they wanted from the art and design technology centre; the latter included the school’s bursar who conferred with governors on budgetary considerations. While the two committees met separately, they also shared their conclusions, something that Mark says was key to guiding the planning process effectively and transparently. “All along we worked on the basis that there should be no surprises,” he says.

Such an approach, and the efforts made to adapt plans to financial circumstances, will soon pay huge dividends as the centre – which includes digital and computer-aided design and manufacturing technology, as well as an arts and crafts area – enables students to express their creativity like never before.

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From an operational and managerial point of view a number of issues will be addressed before the new facilities become fully functional. “The key challenge for management now lies with the bursar, estates management and our project oversight committee in working with the contractor to ensure that we deliver the new facilities for the next academic year,” Mark says. “There’s a regular user group meeting with the heads of Art and Design Technology so that they understand the progress of the project and plan for the transition from the existing facility to the new centre.”

The Truro way

Similar in character to Pocklington, Truro School in Cornwall is also a three-to-18 co-ed. Their latest plan, Truro School and Truro Prep Strategic Plan 2014-2020, was produced after a number of meetings under the direction of head Andrew Gordon Brown and school staff. Discussions centred on reaching a consensus about priorities for the school. “After the meetings I was able to pull together a summary of the most popular ideas for change and ensure these were reflected in the plan,” says Andrew. One key improvement to previous plans is a new system that links each staff member with individual and departmental objectives in the strategic plan. “This was introduced to ensure that the strategic plan isn’t on the shelf gathering dust but is more of a living reference document which informs our actions,” Andrew explains.

The current plan also places an emphasis on stewardship of resources, monitoring progress and managing risk; these are used in addition to a series of KPI metrics which, Andrew explains, enable the school to be financially secure and allow for sound, long term decisions to be made. “It’s important for schools not to become excessively focused on an annual cycle – although the annual budgeting process is a key control – schools have to be flexible and operationally nimble.”

This nimble approach has certainly been in evidence lately, especially where large capital investment projects are concerned. For example, some projects originally listed have almost reached completion – such as the new assembly hall/theatre, classroom block and music room for the prep school – a £3m investment scheduled for completion in December 2017. However, other items, such as a 3G sports pitch and athletics field for the senior school, remain on a wish list.

In an effort to see these plans through to fruition, and recognising that all projects can’t be funded by pupil fees alone, in April the school launched the Truro School Foundation – a standalone charitable trust that will have two priorities: raising funds from the wider school community for bursaries and supporting future capital expenditure.

Take five

The school’s strategic plans include a projection of total surplus income improving by five per cent. “The five per cent target is set at a group level by the Methodist Independent Schools Trust as one of the metrics used to indicate long term financial sustainability. A five per cent surplus gives us the free cash flow to plan future developments with confidence,” Andrew says. Income from Truro School Enterprises – a marketing and events arm of the school – also contributes significantly toward this five per cent target. “Their job is to ‘sweat’ our assets during the holidays and at other planned times. Key facilities for hire include the new Sir Ben Ainslie Sports Centre, the Burrell theatre, Heseltine Art gallery and four boarding houses.” The Sir Ben Ainslie Sports Centre is a strong example of how the projects signposted in the strategic plan enhance pupil development and further develop community links. “It has transformed the range and quality of sports provision for students and it also has over four hundred members who use it out of school hours,” says Andrew.

 

Andrew’s top tips for heads and bursars when assessing financial risks

  1. Stand-alone schools are more vulnerable than those which are part of a group so, heads/governors should put tribal thoughts to one side and have a grown-up discussion about their long-term financial security.
  2. Hoping for the best is a bad strategy. If the finances look precarious you need to have a bias for action because doing nothing is also a decision with consequences.
  3. Build a detailed, bottom-up staffing model showing class sizes, number of sets per subject and number of teaching periods required in each subject. Only then can you compare demand with supply and take steps to work out which courses to offer and ensure your staffing levels are efficient.
  4. Avoid an excessive focus on the annual cycle (easier said than done!) and try and work towards a detailed set of targets over a three-year period.

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