Q&A with Stephen Morales

Prior to our webinar we sat down with ISBL CEO, Stephen Morales

Thank you for joining our expert panel for this webinar. How did this come about?

“I have known Will Jordan for a number of years now. Will has been part of our working group with the Department for Education (DfE) on the Academies Financial Assurance Framework, and what this should look like, and we have brought him in to a number of broader discussions within ISBL and beyond. We share common ground territory and he is an important part of our conversations. I was delighted to be asked to speak on IMP Software’s recent webinar and have the opportunity to field a range of questions.”

What has Covid-19 meant for ISBL, and the support you provide to thousands of school business professionals as well as government?

“The Institute’s nature is to try to help people and we are used to sharing our knowledge and expertise in a very open way. We are a small but close team and enjoy interaction, but I think we have adapted and responded well. There has been a deluge of guidance during this period and we have had to both manage and interpret this for our members. At the same time, we have had to feed into policy development and represent views from our members, whilst managing expectations about what is possible. The frustration and disquiet over Free School Meals (FSM) – the poor performance of the Edenred system, lack of certainty over the recoupment of expenditure on alternative FSM provision and use of reserves to fund alternative FSM provision – has been particularly challenging. I have sympathy with practitioners, of course, but understand the issues that government is facing. Schools tend to see through the lens of their own context, and the education sector as a whole has felt the poor relation in all this, as understandably the NHS and frontline workers have taken priority.”

How significant has been school business professionals’ contribution to the national effort, and is their story understood?

“School business professionals’ contribution and their leadership in repurposing schools has been so significant that it can only have strengthened the profile and critical nature of the role. Whether you are a Headteacher, CEO, CFO – or any other school finance or business professional – these are all education leaders with different areas of responsibility and have all been essential in getting through the pandemic. Once we are over the pandemic, and there is an opportunity to reflect back, we will see that school business leaders have stepped up in a time of national crisis. They are the glue that has kept things together in schools. Whilst the priority has been to save lives and give children access to quality learning materials to help continue their education, this only works if they have the devices, connectivity and mobility to repurpose schools. School business professionals up and down the country have responded to the immediate requirements whilst also not losing sight of the bigger picture, including ensuring that capital projects stay on track and are ready to go again once we are in a safe position. They really have made a huge contribution.”

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

“Firstly, there is the accountability framework and way MATs report internally to stakeholders and externally to regulators in a period of considerable difficulty, which has seen a number of financial checks relaxed in light of the coronavirus crisis. However, if they are not required to submit their returns, what is the ability of the DfE and Education & Skills Funding Agency to provide oversight and affect the decision-making process? Secondly, there is school funding more broadly. What we may see is government pressing the reset button completely. They may assess, through reflection on the current period, that it is time to do things differently. If the whole delivery model moves to more online or remote learning – though this would not be the case for every Key Stage – what does this mean for finances? And with artificial intelligence already coming at us like a freight train, what does future schooling look like?”

What advice would you give to MATs now looking at their three-year budget forecasts and how easy is planning going to be in reality?

“It is very difficult to predict what will happen – there are a number of radical possibilities, as discussed – so it is a question of reflecting on what MATs already know about funding, adding in known costs such as the Local Government Pension Scheme revaluation and new award for local government employees, and starting to build in assumptions. You can never be absolutely sure on budgets for a three-year period, but whilst we may not have all the information we do have most of it, and it will always be within a CFO or finance director’s remit to have flexibility to manage different scenarios and the opportunity to change. MATs might not have all the answers right now, but that is no excuse for not planning. What we can say is that in education – especially state education – there is more confidence in guaranteed income compared to the commercial world; schools will always get x amount of money each year.”

What is your view on IMP Planner, and the support it can provide for MATs at this time?

“Because I know and have worked with Will for many years, I trust his judgement and am in awe of his technical mastery. The work we have done together on the Integrated Curriculum Financial Planning tool demonstrates Will’s understanding of the sector and ability to provide complex solutions to problems that the education space has to overcome. IMP Planner give access to clunky data, and presents information in a way that anyone can scrutinise. You do not have to be accountant to digest it, and this is important for Trustees and Governors as much as anybody. Will is incredibly well placed to guide MATs in the area of financial planning. Generally I encourage the education sector to celebrate innovation and not be afraid to step away from legacy processes. Look at what the school up the road is doing, explore practice in other countries and other sectors, and learn and grow from it. Let us all keep the dialogue going and if we can do better then let’s do it. We need to recognise that change is a bumpy period, but we do emerge stronger from any pain.”

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.