Q&A with Pam Tuckett

Thank you for joining our expert panel for this webinar. From your perspective, how did this opportunity come about?

“Will Jordan actually trained and qualified as an accountant at Bishop Fleming, so we go back a long way. In the early days, when the academy sector was just starting, we used to meet potential clients together; Will, as one of our Sage experts, would speak specifically on software, and I would focus on my role as a specialist academy accountant. When he established IMP Software we re-connected and I also introduced him to Westcountry Schools Trust MAT, where I am a Trustee. He spotted an opportunity with IMP Planner and I am pleased as there is a huge gap for such a provider in the market. Forecasting is a big thing, it is not just a budgeting tool. Also, because it has been written by an accountant (Will), it really stands out from other systems.”

Tell us about your role at Bishop Fleming.

“I lead our work in the education sector and advise clients on strategy and governance, including growth aspirations and risk protection. I have extensive experience of auditing and advising the firm’s largest education clients, including MATs. We are currently working with around 200 Trusts, of which just over half are MATs, and these span more than 800 schools. Bishop Fleming is also the lead author of the annual Kreston Academies Benchmark Report, the leading independent report on the financial state of the country’s academy schools. We build in something new to the report every year; last year was around internal scrutiny and governance. The sector is taking time to get its head around both. Many early academy conversions would involve working with a finance team with one person, typically from a local authority background. However, as MATs get bigger they are evolving as businesses, and academies want to listen to and learn from us. Originally we only worked with outstanding or good schools, as was the nature of conversion, but now we support all schools including those in difficulty. We can deal with anything as every member of our 100-strong team audits academies.”

What are the key issues and challenges facing MATs around financial planning?

“There are a number of them, but the main one is knowing what assumptions to put in their budgets. The biggest challenge is around planning. For example, if a pay increase of 2% is announced in July this is too late for Trusts as they typically (though not this year due to Covid-19) have to submit their budgets to the Education & Skills Funding Agency in May and July. Also, if you are in a difficult financial position as a Trust, the easiest way to cut costs is to make staffing changes because pay accounts for 75-80% of outgoings. It will take two terms to go through a well thought-out process on making people redundant as part of a restructure to save costs. However, some MATs – particularly those taking on failing schools – will seek to do things more quickly, and this has implications for the pupils. For example, if you cut a subject teacher who is delivering GCSE courses to Year 10 and 11 pupils in order to improve the financial position, this is going to impact on their education in a pretty severe way – especially if that subject is cut from the curriculum. That is not always understood by everyone, so is not a decision to take lightly. Also the discussion around centralisation – we always advise MATs that this is the way to go, as this allows the most robust financial governance: let finance experts manage finance and let teachers’ teach.”

What are the implications of Covid-19, and what advice would you give to MATs?

“Firstly, I think that what MATs and individual schools have done is amazing. To go from ‘ed’ to ‘educare’ over a weekend, and doing that without knowing what finance is available to support them, is incredible. If we had been in the same situation five years ago I think Trusts would have struggled but they are now more agile and think like businesses now. The biggest issue they have faced, other than Free School Meals, is the exceptional costs regulations which academies need to understand. Any academy or school may be able to claim back any extra money they are spending during this period, albeit this is capped, but they can only claim if they have an in-year deficit. For MATs which are GAG pooling – where the Trust receives its funding centrally and allocates budgets to the individual schools, rather than schools receiving their income and then just paying a top slice to cover central costs – they will not know this as they do not report by schools.”

What is your view on the cancellation of the Budget Forecast Return Outturn (BFRO)?

“With my academy governance and MAT Trustees hat on I still think MATs should be doing this regardless. Just because they do not have to formally submit a form does not mean they should not be doing their forecasts. It is the same with internal scrutiny. My clear recommendation is that, yes, you should seek to continue with your internal scrutiny programmes this year, as far as is possible and practical. Being able to obtain, rely on and take decisions from clear, robust assurance is critical, now more than ever. We have developed our own blog on this topic: https://www.bishopfleming.co.uk/insights/do-academies-need-do-any-internal-scrutiny-year.”

MAT Financial Planning in Uncertain Times, available to download w/c 4th May
IMP Software is proud to bring you an expert panel for our on-demand webinar, which focuses on helping MATs navigate financial planning in uncertain times. IMP Software Co-Founder Will Jordan is joined by Stephen Morales (Chief Executive of the Institute of School Business Leaders), Stephen Mitchell (Founder of Keystone Knowledge and former Chief Operating Officer of Spencer Academies Trust) and Pam Tuckett (Audit Partner and Head of Education at Bishop Fleming). In the webinar we discuss how MAT CFOs can work through the current challenges and, whilst the BFRO is cancelled, still produce robust financial forecasts despite the many ‘unknowns’ that still remain.