Video: How are schools changing the way they operate?
By Emma Westwood
Writer | Editor | Content & Digital Strategist
With upheavals in school operations, we turned to our partners at Cole School Experts to take the temperature of the current climate and draw from their expert advice.
How are schools changing the way they operate?
Even though schools right around the world are experiencing changes in operations in real-time, very few of us have the time to step back and fully process what is happening and where everything is heading.
EdSmart asked our friends at Cole School Experts – providers of consultancy, finance, accounting and software services to independent schools across Australia and New Zealand – for their observations and what schools need to know to change for the better.
This video interview with Brita Lidums from Cole School Experts talks about how schools are changing, as well as new priorities and learnings that schools can apply.
About Brita Lidums
Brita joined the Cole team in 2011 and is a well-qualified CPA with strong public and private sector experience, both in Australia and the UK. She has excellent communication skills, which are the foundation of this profession, and possesses the leadership skills to drive projects to successful completion.
Brita is Cole’s most experienced School Projects Expert. Her expertise includes restructuring finance departments, accounting for schools starting up, implementing new software including data cleansing, and helping out Schools in difficulty.
She strongly believes that high quality financial information should be available to all school stakeholders in a timely and easy-to-understand format to facilitate the decision-making process. Brita also has a Graduate Certificate in Public Policy, a Graduate Diploma of Business (Accounting), and is Xero Certified.
Steve Baker (EdSmart): Thanks for joining us wherever you're watching this webinar video blog from. My name is Steve. And with me from Cole Schools Experts is Brita Lidums. Welcome, Brita.
Brita Lidums (Cole School Experts): Thank you, Steve. Nice to meet you.
Steve: We will jump into the questions here. 2020 has been an enormous change across any kind of industry or just the way the world operates, but particularly with schools. From your role, how has 2020 changed the way schools operate and what are the main differences that need to be noted?
Brita: Steve, I think we can all safely say that 2020 was a year that we all blinked in disbelief and never saw coming. From my perspective, there were four things that really did change that were noticeable changes, adaptability, technology, governance and strategy and then a natural move to virtual services as a result of all of that. So let me unpack that a bit. Adaptability, we all saw schools and workplaces indeed shut their doors very quickly and people move offsite with their computers under their hand and wondering whether technology would cope.
Brita: Zoom came about. But at the same time, there were the whole, for school, can you deliver the curriculum offsite? Can you deliver curriculum, especially for younger children who very much need that face-to-face, hands-on contact? Could you do that over a screen? How could you do that? Did the existing resources work? That was the first big thing.
Brita: But also for those schools that continue to operate or didn't shut down immediately there were the small things; could they get enough toilet paper? Could they get enough hand sanitizer? What were the hand washing procedures? Where are their face masks? Again, the ops managers or site managers, everyone had a very quick change in the policies of how they were even educating the children on those basic things.
Brita: So that's the first thing. The next is technology and I've touched on that, how quickly we all had to adapt, and the pressure put on the IT departments to be able to make sure the services could continue to operate.
Brita: And I don't think that can be underestimated, just how quickly and dynamically it all had to change, and the pressure put on there, but also people had to learn new things, which again, for a younger student wasn't that easy. And for the parents, that wasn't that easy either.
Brita: Governance and strategy: the focus on risk last year. And I think again, the world has changed. All of a sudden, boards are really coming to the forefront of, did you keep your staff safe? Did you keep your students safe? Did you actually understand your legislative requirements? Big one.
Brita: In between all that, being offsite, were the schools meeting their registration requirements? Were they delivering the curriculum that they are required to do? And again, that came back to the emphasis on the board on that matter.
Brita: Risk control strategies. Were they in place? Were they actually up to date? Could they adapt to 2020?
Brita: And then the last one, cash collection. We all know cash is king in our own little worlds, but for a school especially, you had to ensure that you were still collecting your school fees, yet that became a lot more sensitive because we knew that there was some people that weren't earning the money that they could necessarily pay to the school.
Brita: But at the same time, school had to pay its staff. It had to pay quite a bit for the technology. So that was another big, big challenge made to schools. And I think we will continue to see that coming through in the future.
Brita: So what did all that come down to? The natural move to virtual services. So we saw curriculums going offline, but at the same time, I think schools began to identify where their natural strengths were—curriculum delivery—and identifying gaps of could they actually adapt to the new back office requirement?
Brita: And now they have the technology in place. It seems a bit more natural actually. There is no reason we can't do payroll offsite and leave it to an expert to do that who does this for a living who is across all the enterprise agreements.
Brita: Same with finance, especially cash collections. Such a sensitive topic, move it offsite to someone that's a bit more objective that can handle a bigger volume and just get those measurements in place, and start doing that in more service. So that to me are the four big things for how 2020 changed.
Brita: So the natural move to virtual services. What we saw were schools and other entities beginning to identify that they might've had a gap in their skill set somewhere. It might've been a payroll function. It might've been a finance function. It might've been cash collection, accounts payable, any of those, but you couldn't rely that you'd be able to recruit a staff member quickly last year. It was very difficult to... Well, as we all know, everything's stopped, but we kept operating here at Cole School Experts.
Brita: We might've been offsite, but we were all operating. So it was quite natural for a school to pick up a phone and say; "can you fill this function for us for the short-term?" Or "we've just identified that there might be this issue we need addressed, but we haven't got the staff to be able to do it right now. Can you do this project for us?" It might've been a recalculation of long service leave entitlements. It might've been catching up on some outstanding debt that belonged to an accounts payable function.
Brita: It might've been re-budgeting for next year to take into account the financial considerations of 2020. And I mentioned earlier today that the cash collection was a big thing. Well, all of a sudden, your cash collections falling off a cliff, what's that going to look like next year? What's going to look like in two years’ time? How will you recover from that? We have the skill to go in and the resources to go in and look at all of the function and measure what that difference would do and forecast forwards.
Steve: So Brita, in moving into 2021, what are—or should be—the new priorities for schools?
Brita: From my perspective, I think there are three: strategy; policies and procedures; and corporate governance. What is the board trying to achieve? Do you have the facilities to do that? And how are you physically going to grow your school, or keep your school? With that too is identifying the strengths and weaknesses.
Brita: So curriculum delivery should always be a primary focus of the school. So should all the resources be directed to that? In which case you can seriously think about outsourcing your back office, your finance function or your HR function, maybe even your facilities function. And that allows you the focus to deliver the curriculum. It also means that you can find a service delivery that meets your requirements. And then if they're not performing, move on to another one or grow with that service delivery.
Brita: Something else to seriously think about in terms of getting enrollments is, is your student demographic changing. What is your marketing plan doing to get those enrollments in and to promote your school? Is it actually achieving those targets? What are those targets? What is the aim in terms of growing?
Brita: Policies and procedures. Again, 2020 saw a big emphasis on how do we do things. Are we doing things correctly? It's time now, look at all the existing policies and procedures. Do they need to be rewritten? Are they actually current for 2021 and beyond? If not, rewrite, get rid of, move on.
Brita: The final one is corporate governance. Again, the emphasis on the board in terms of corporate governance and meeting its requirements has become a very, very strong one.
Brita: The board needs to certify that the school isn't operating as a going concern and the board also needs to be able to stand behind and say, it's met its legislative requirements. That's no small feat. And I would strongly suggest that people now need to start thinking about corporate governance training and understanding what their requirements are, and what their legislative requirements are, and what it actually means to be a board member, not just now, but in five, 10 years’ time and how are you going to meet those objectives.
Brita: Strategy, a school should right now, after the 2020s upheaval, be looking at where do I want to be in five years’ time? Where do I want to be in 10 years’ time? Do I have a master plan to achieve those objectives? Do we have the facilities to achieve those objectives? If not, what do we need? How are we going to fund the master plan? What do the staffing requirements look like for five, 10 years’ time? Will you be able to meet those ongoing requirements?
Brita: With a strategy for the five-year, 10-year plan, you need to also have a marketing plan because not only do you need the numbers of enrollments, you need to ensure that you replace those students that graduate each year. So are you in the forefront of people's minds when they're looking for a school for their children? Is your marketing plan sufficient to grow your school's enrollments and your schools visibility? And then finally, what will the facilities look like in 10 years? How will you finance those facilities? How will you maintain those facilities? How will you grow your school even more to adapt to its changing needs as the whole world changes and technology changes?
Brita: My recommendation too would be think carefully about your organisational strengths and weaknesses and don't be afraid to outsource an area which will allow you to concentrate on your key deliverables. Depending on your organisation, it could be marketing, it could be publicity, IT, finance, any back office function, maybe even after school care, before school care. Utilise the expertise and experience which you can tap into when required without committing to permanent staff numbers, staffing, enrollments, accountability and non-compliance.
Brita: We talked about enrollments that keeping your enrollment numbers and growing them if that's what you need to do is a very big risk. It's huge. That is something that we all need to keep increasing. There are a lot of quality schools out there and there are a lot of quality schools competing for enrollments.
Brita: So one of my clients recently came to me and said, "Look, we're having a problem growing our enrollments. We've got a waiting list down here in preschool, but we actually don't know whether we can take these children on. Now we'd love to take them on because it means that we'll have steady enrollments for the next, however many years, if these children progress, but can we afford to take them on now?"
Brita: So that was some analysis that we will be doing with them is looking at the staffing cost involved in that section of the school, looking at the fees they're being charged and making a decision as to where it becomes viable for them to take on the extra resources. That's the sort of work that we've been asked to do.
Brita: That same client recognised that they had an issue in their payroll section. Not that staff weren't being paid—staff were being paid—but there was someone taking two days out of their full-time job to do it, or two or three days on a fortnightly basis. Now they also had other things to do.
Brita: It was easier for them to outsource the payroll function to us that we could turn it around in that much more streamlined way, but at the same time, perform a health check on the systems. Are your accruals in place? Is your finance system even set up to do this properly?
Brita: So yes, we know that staff are getting their dollars in hand and they're getting their super entitlements, but is it being recorded correctly in the backend so that when it comes time to audit, that we are correctly recognising the liabilities associated with each staff member?
Brita: Cash collection: So during 2020, it was quite obvious that we couldn't go out to the people who had lost their jobs or weren't working. Firstly, it was not a good look for the school, but also secondly, there was very strong words coming from the government that you should not be pursuing someone that can't pay something.
Brita: But what that's meant now is that as people are returning to work, that the school is quite behind. Well, the first thing, they're behind in paying their school fees, which means the school cash reserves are a lot lower than they should be. We've got our cash collections team working closely with those people.
Brita: Now it's all in a friendly way. It's all very non-confrontational. But because we don't know those people, it's a bit easier to have those conversations and just working out a payment plan. It might be incredibly modest, but at least that there's something happening without the person feeling that they're being threatened. But without the person also having to fear that they're going to lose their place at the school. And that's a really difficult conversation to have when you are sitting in a school, when you know those people and even walking into a school can make people feel a bit uncomfortable when they know that the conversation is going to be had. So they're very big, big ways that we can help.
Steve: So do you have any practical examples of how schools are adapting and overcoming new challenges?
Brita: Absolutely, so what we saw in 2020 and what we are seeing increasingly now in 2021 are that schools are prioritising their energy on education delivery. So that should be their key focus. But what it's also meant, that with the technology changes means that schools are actually more open to think; "well, there's no reason I can't give payroll over. There's no reason I can't get a finance function over to someone else to do. We already have this technology in place, let's use it."
Brita: So all we are seeing definitely is a lot more of that, especially in the high risk areas, whether it's cash collection, five-year forecasting, budgeting, monitoring those budgets. It's having that ability to identify a problem before it arises. So schools are now increasingly seeing that they are exposed and wanting some expert help or wanting some outside help just to give them a quick health check, whether it's a payroll health check, a finance health check, show us what issues we're exposed to, give us a solution.
Brita: So huge benefit to smaller medium schools that might not have that stuff onsite to be able to delve into—or have the time to delve into—the issues that they're beginning to identify, but also valuable for larger schools where they just need an outside perspective. You might've been doing the same function for however many years, but you just need someone else to take a look at it and go, "well, actually, maybe we can think about this," or "have you considered whether we can try it this way."
Steve: From your experience, Brita, what do you think should be learnings that schools take from the last 12 months and apply not just now, but into the future as well?
Brita: Great question, Steve and I think this is the one that can be summed up really, really quickly. Adaptability is key. Adapt, adapt, adapt. Listen to the experience of other schools. Listen, talk, understand what they're doing and how you can adapt to that too.
Brita: And finally, use your expertise that you have, but don't be afraid to go elsewhere and don't be afraid to use outside expertise to help you adapt even better to your situation.