Five key takeaways from a recent GovNet webinar
One thing I’ve learnt working in the education sector is that you never stop learning. Most of my lockdown learning has come from webinars. I’ve used them to keep connected, discuss trends and challenges and share insights and advice. But I’m starting to get "webinar FOMO". Invites pop up to sessions I’d love to be part of, but I don’t always have the time.
Having said that, I’m glad I took the time to tune in to a recent debate on the challenges our sector faces around compliance. Hosted by GovNet’s Alessandro Bilotta, the expert panel included: Stephen Morales (CEO of the Institute of School Business Leadership); Malcolm Trobe CBE (former Deputy General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and a consultant for the Confederation of School Trusts), and our very own Ian Romeo Smith (ESS Product Manager). You can access the recorded event here but, if you’re short on time, here’s a summary of my key takeaways from the discussion.
- Understand the ins and outs of compliance for yourself
Directors and Trustees need a good governance professional and CFO to keep up to speed with compliance requirements. But it’s not enough just to rely on them. You need to engage with the rules yourself. Why? Because your funding agreement with the ESFA is legally binding and any breach can lead to a financial notice to improve. As Stephen explained, there’s “no room for complacency” and “failure results in severe consequences.” Errors in reporting are more common than many of us might expect; the ESFA has identified weak internal controls and poor information flow as causes. Malcolm pointed out that there were already nine reports on financial management when he’d checked the ESFA website on the morning of the talk (early March 2021).
- With freedom comes responsibility
The freedom that comes from academisation is accompanied by greater responsibility in terms of financial reporting. Stephen encouraged schools to “understand what you’re going into with your eyes wide open.” Stepping away from the local authority means you no longer have access to their financial management advice. Ensure you have the right measures and technologies in place to go it alone on financial reporting. And ensure financial systems within your multi-academy trust are compatible to reduce the risk of error or security breaches. As Malcolm emphasised, “Getting the financial aspects right is make or break when it comes to joining a trust or converging trusts.”
- Good decisions depend on accurate data
Boards and trustees depend on accurate financial data. It gives them a clear picture of the status quo and helps them make better decisions for the future. Malcolm pointed out that major trust failures such as that of Wakefield Cities Academy Trust were caused by trustees not having appropriate financial oversight.
Data is the starting point. “We then have to ask the right questions” explained Malcolm. Boards and trustees need to interpret it, challenge it and understand the assumptions behind it.
- Present data so that it’s easy to interpret
“There’s a relatively clear view on how data should be reported externally but internally there’s a bit of variety” explained Ian. The DfE submission is one way of presenting data, but internal stakeholders require different summaries. “A headteacher needs to be able to understand factors that affect the financial health of the school,” said Stephen, “and the CFO needs to find a language to make it understandable.”
Lots of people find data easier to digest when it’s presented visually – in graphs, pie charts or bar charts. The panel highlighted how the right technology brings complex data to life. They also identified a training need to provide education professionals with the skills to understand standard financial data for their school or trust.
- Simplify compliance and reporting with SIMS Finance
Academies’ accounts submissions can be complex and time-consuming. SIMS Finance has worked closely with the ESFA on their Better Financial Reporting programme to improve the process. Our technology now automates returns and trusts are telling Ian this is the way forward. SIMS Finance simplifies data entry and reduces errors. It also gives you a suite of reporting options so you can present accurate and accessible summaries at the touch of a button. As Alessandro summarised, technology really can “cut down the admin of being compliant.”