Everything is going swimmingly…

I’ve been at my current school for two years now. Two years. Where on earth has the time gone?

It’s not been without its challenges, but one of the biggest challenges has been water.

Water?

Yes. When I took over from my predecessor she had spent more than two years querying our water bills. We owed thousands and thousands of pounds and they could not be right. I picked up the baton from her and ran with it. Quite frankly over the last few months dealing with four different water companies at one point it felt like a swimming relay and I was drowning! Finally, about this time last year it was agreed that yes, the giant bullrush laden pond at the far end of the car park WAS a leak and the LA instructed contractors to start the work.

Months, months and months passed as holes were dug, inspected, then the next stage would happen. Finally in August after numerous trench inspections, meter inspections and fevered brows we had a new mains, new meters and I came back into school feeling SO proud that it was finally done.

Oh how wrong I was!

The first day of term John (my Headteacher) and I walked down to the ‘pond’ to see how it was doing. It was dry. Completely dry. Again, smiles all round, we finally cracked this. Back to my desk I contacted the two remaining water companies and agreed with them that if I took meter readings at the beginning of October they would historically adjust bills and we would pay what was rightfully owed.

Sorted.

No.

The boiler pump blew a couple of days in. Contractors cam out and fixed it.

Two weeks later it happened again.

This week it happened again.

As the hot pipes went cold, water leaks appeared in the ceiling, through the tiles.

The lovely new water main that I was SO proud of was pushing water through the system at such pressure, and it wasn’t used to it, it was breaking the water system INSIDE the school.

That same day I had been dangling over a manhole taking photos of the meter readings because the water company said they can’t be right.

When will this ever end?!

Wednesday the difficult decision to close the school for two days was made to give contractors time and space to get remedial works done. The water company got in touch and asked if we had new meters because unbelievably the water company that installed them hadn’t advised them of this.

Months go by and still it isn’t sorted out, I’m thinking of adding ‘the sorting out of water related queries and problems’ to my job description!

What became apparent yesterday though (when a comment that was relayed to me, questioning my need to be in school when it was closed due to contractors being on site), and how still some people do not understand the far reaching role of the school business leader.

I don’t just do money.

I have a responsibility for money, for the admin team, the kitchen team and the site team.

The site team are majorly affected by the works this week. Our site manager has to be in to let them on site and remain until they leave. Our Headteacher has been liaising with the LA over the closure. My role is to support both of them and its better to do that on site. Whilst I’m not wielding spanners or suchlike I’m a listening ear, able to text parents and staff with updates when necessary, a sounding board for frustrations to be aired and a tea and coffee maker if necessary. Today I will be a doughnut deliverer. I can support the site manager and Headteacher in discussions with contractors to try and make sure we can be open again as soon as possible. I can also catch up with tons of work that I haven’t been able to get round to doing on a normal day!

We don’t just do money. Our responsibilities are wide ranging and far reaching, that’s why it is such an interesting job!

Potential.

I work in a special school. We have a wide range of children with different needs but approximately half of our youngsters are autistic, and working at all different levels both socially and academically. Our classes are based in pathways, we have a sensory/engagement pathway for our severely disabled children, life skills pathways for those with severe learning needs, a more sensory pathway for our ‘bouncy’ autistic children and a curriculum pathway for our learners who have the knowledge and understanding to sit exams. They tend to work towards functional skills and entry level exams and our goal is to help them on their road to perhaps college and eventually employment.

Over the past two terms I have had the pleasure of spending time with some of these youngsters whilst they have done work experience with us in the finance office. Our first candidate was Lily, a clever young lady from 6th form who spent a morning a week with us in term 5. Lily very quickly got the hang of the budget, she helped me build the budget looking at previous years spend, what we knew was coming up in the next 12 months and the final budget was one that she had had considerable input into. Lily was the business lead for our Young Enterprise business and did so exceptionally well she received an award for her progress from Young Enterprise beating youngsters from right across the South East. I have no doubt that Lily will leave us one day and be successful.

Over the past two weeks I have had three youngsters from key stage 3 with me. Each time I have worked through a presentation I did for governors, explaining how the budget is created, how I monitor it and how we keep the school running. Their comments and input have been amazing. They have amazed me with their understanding, their enthusiasm and their constant interest in how we operate. I have no doubt that two of the three could go on to become very successful, probably in finance as that seemed to be where their interest lay. The other? She was fascinated and had constant questions about how things run in school, question after question! She will make a brilliant, precise, administrator.

Our youngsters never fail to impress me with their enthusiasm and gusto. One day, there will be some lucky employers who will snap them up. If we can continue to build their confidence they will go far. I wouldn’t even mind if they came and worked with me!

Hopefully they have enjoyed their time working with me and have taken lots away. I know I have learnt so much from them, their enthusiasm was infectious, their interest so engaging and I can’t wait to see what they all go on to do after they leave.

They all have so much potential.

Six weeks and counting…

Go on, you’re not telling me you haven’t counted the weeks already? You have haven’t you? AND you did it on the first day back!

I look forward to this term. Term 6. Summer is here (although with the recent rain that was hard to believe). The stresses and strains of budget build are over and done with, the budget has been submitted to the local authority and I just wait for their comments. The reality is it is what it is and now I just need to monitor it regularly which is fairly straightforward. Our key stage 4 and Sixth form have taken their exams, and all their exam work has been sent off. The two things I worry about most because I want to get them right are done and dusted. I can breathe again!

This term brings lots of nice things. We are invited to tea parties across the school to say thank you for our help (and if you follow me on twitter you will know how I like a cake or two!) There are sports days and celebrations of achievements. We get excited about our new September starters and wave goodbye to our Sixth Formers who are moving on – (I have already put my name down for a Leavers Ball ticket).

It is a term for reflection. To consider our own personal successes, what we have achieved but also what our children have achieved because we supported and encouraged them.

In a special school that feels even more important. Every single day when you see someone being encouraged to walk down the corridor or to sign what they want or when they come and visit us in the finance office and I can practice my fairly average makaton, it reminds me how privileged I am to work in such an inspiring environment.

Let’s enjoy term 6, then have a good break and start the fun all over again.

With a little help from my friends…

About three weeks ago one of my fellow SBM’s came up with the idea of a SBM Fitbit challenge. The Workweek Hustle involves nearly 30 SBM’s across the country in a competition to see who can manage the most steps.

Little did she know how much of a difference it would make to me. We talk so much about wellbeing and looking after ourselves, but actually doing that seems more challenging!

Three weeks ago we started. I walk the dog daily, and up and down the corridors at school throughout the day. It’ll be a doddle I thought. But then week two came, prize money of £100 for our schools came into play and I became a woman possessed!

I walked the dog twice as far every morning, I trotted up and down the corridors at every available opportunity and then walked the dog with my husband in the evening.

And then this happened…

My resting heart rate improved by six beats a minute. I spent less time swiping through twitter on my phone. I talked to my husband! I slept better. For the first time in a long time I had the confidence to walk further and further. Today I walked more than 10 miles in total, my resting heart rate is bopping along nicely at 66bpm, I feel fitter and better than I have felt in ages. I can see what a huge difference just a little more exercise each day can really make.

So Cheryl, thank you! What started as a bit of fun has certainly helped MY wellbeing and I will definitely try and keep it up.

Budget submitted, but is it realistic?

I hope so!

Yesterday I submitted my budget to Governors ready to meet with them in 10 days time, hopefully for them to agree it. I’ve lost count of the amount of alterations I made to it whilst I cobbled it together, with updates coming out from the DfE and the LA (we are are a foundation special school) over the Easter break.

There is so much talk from education professionals at the moment about the lack of school funding, whilst others say some schools are just not managing their budgets well enough. Now the budget is submitted, I have sat back and given it some thought, and here is my take on it.

Last financial year we had the increased teachers pay. I don’t in any way begrudge this, our teachers are fantastic and work hard with some very challenging students – the pay grant did not meet our additional costs. Not our fault.

From April our support staff costs increased considerably due to the increased minimum wage and living wage. We follow the Kent Scheme meaning that our learning support assistants went from a FTE of £15628 to £17188. Overnight. The vast majority of our staff fall into this bracket as we have 30 classes and some classes may have 3 or 4 LSA’s in. We received no additional funding for this. Our staffing is just about where it should be for a PSCN special school at 85% of our income. The increased costs are not our fault.

We use The Education People (a trading arm of Kent County Council) for licencing support, catering checks and many other things. They increased their charges by 3.5% knowing we had a flat cash settlement again. Not our fault.

I have been advised that power costs will increase considerably this year, perhaps by 10%. Not our fault.

Teachers Pension increases have been fully funded, this year. The LA have told us to predict this for the following two years.

I have managed to put together a balanced budget. In year one we need to make sure we keep our numbers up – at present luckily we have a queue of children waiting for a place! Realistically we are full, but as happened over the holidays we can tragically lose one and immediately our money for that child stops. Whilst I have a small cushion, if we don’t fill that place with a child with similar needs the amount we receive is less.

Every order that is made is scrutinised, every invoice thoroughly checked, every contract up for renewal is checked for value.

Years two and three are also showing a positive balance, after reducing training costs, keeping student numbers high and tweaking smaller budgets by reducing them.

My plea to the government would be this. My Headteacher and I are working so hard to educate some of the most vulnerable children in society. Our budget hasn’t increased but our costs have. It isn’t about us spending more money on a deliberate basis, but by being affected by costs that we have little or no control over. We are not asking for extra money in 2020/21 and 2021/22 for frivolous things, but just to run our school and keep our pupils happy, safe and as successful as they can be.

This isn’t a moan, it is a statement of fact. It is trying to explain what it is like on the ground. I just hope somebody out there starts to listen.

And relax…?

Does anybody else find it hard to wind down at the beginning of the holidays!?!

My contract is term time only, but those first days after the end of term I always struggle to slow down, to wind down, to stop thinking about work. I left school on the last Friday of term with closedown done, works agreed with the site manager and the new budget pretty much ready for governors.

By the following Monday I was at the laptop, wanting to check emails, typing up a new policy that I hadn’t had chance to do last term, comparing the teachers pension grant to our budget planning software calculations, prioritising the jobs that needed doing at the beginning of the new term. I just couldn’t switch off. The opportunity to sit quiet and contemplate is something that you just don’t get chance to do on a normal school day.

That brings about the question, is there a normal school day?!

I secretly envy those full time SBL’s and their boast of quiet offices and cuppas with their site teams. To be able to walk the corridors with no children present. After two mornings of working at home, I popped in last Thursday to take some paperwork in I didn’t want sitting around. It was nice to catch up with the Site Manager, to see some vital improvements to one of our more ‘bouncy’ classrooms which will help keep children safer and staff saner! People away from school life have said this week ‘two weeks off, you lucky thing’ but the reality is you don’t stop thinking about school. It is all consuming. Planning in your head what jobs need to be done first immediately you go back. Life is so quiet when you’re not in school. The hustle and bustle, the behaviour incidents, the pupil who sets of the fire alarms, the medical incidents and ambulances – life is very different away from site! I miss it. I really miss it. Some days it seems so incredibly tough, but I think that is what makes SBL’s love what they do. The randomness of the job which covers so many elements of the schools operations. The wanting to support and help all the teaching staff in what can be a challenging environment. Supporting the rest of the SLT and helping them understand the intricacies of the operational side of the school. I have never done anything else like it (and I have had many other jobs, ask my Headteacher!) I also know that nothing else would compare.

So here, in the second Thursday of the holiday when I have not had the laptop out for 48 hours, have managed to read an entire novel, and have four days of the holiday left, I’m going to say out loud, look out school, I can’t wait to get back!

#WorthLess?

There has been an enormous amount in the education press recently about education not being funded sufficiently. I won’t be harping on about that because it’s been done before. Something has struck me this morning though and I want to get it off my chest!

I work in a special school. An amazing special school. We have around 270 students, 30 classes, and more than 220 staff. We NEED those staff because of the complex needs of our learners.

Around 50% of our children are on the autistic spectrum. Some cope very well in such a specialised environment, some still find it hard. Some children have 1:1 support, in some (very few) have 2:1 support due to their presenting behaviour.

The learning support assistants that support them are incredible. They cope with everything thrown at them. I am in awe of their professionalism and enthusiasm. Whether they are dealing with a behaviour incident, intimate care or a medical episode they are calm, reasoned and professional. Always.

They are also some of the lowest paid people in education.

My Headteacher and I want to be able to give them a payrise this April in line with that that teachers were given in September. That, of course, was fully funded.

Do our learning support assistants deserve less? Not in our eyes! What it does mean however is that we will need to find this from our main budget… it will be in the region of £70k and there is no helpful pay grant for this. We also want to give the children amazing resources to help them progress. We are cost cutting in every other area we can, nothing is not being scrutinised.

The reality is though that yet again we have a flat cash budget. We have many areas of expenditure going up by 3.5%. We need to fund all the non-teaching roles payrise.

Even if you are not a school business manager, and you don’t possess a calculator, you can tell that doesn’t add up. So, I’m off to check that magic money tree in the garden again. That’s the only option until the government listen.

In the meantime, I promise everyone in school we are trying our hardest to be as fair as we can. You are all amazing. Utterly amazing. I am incredibly proud to say I work alongside you.