In a former life I spent some time working as an Associate for a boutique consultancy that specialised in social enterprise and the third sector.
The MD asked me to codify the company’s burgeoning internal knowledge by producing a document that listed the different social enterprise business models that its consultants had encountered, along with their relative pros and cons for different social causes.
I sat with my line manager and mentor and explained that I would probably need an hour with all of the consultants to interview them and get that knowledge out of their heads and onto paper. His response left me stunned…
“Okay. You could, you could do that, we could make that happen. But before we do anything you need to appreciate that each of these guys is billed out at £800 a day, so if you want to speak with fifteen of them for an hour each, what you’re really asking for is £1,500. So, do you still want to go ahead with that, or shall we find an alternative solution?”
I had never heard anyone frame the value of time like that before, and it’s a lesson that stayed with me.
Time is money
Flash forward to my years as a teacher – a world in which our social goals often leave us shy when talking money – and here are a couple of examples where I wondered whether the same robust analysis had been applied.
In one school we were moving from decant to a newly refurbished building. The entire department spent two days decorating the corridors, making it a bright and welcoming place for pupils. We then asked for plastic covers for the displays, which existed elsewhere in the building. The request was denied, since it would cost a couple of hundred pounds.
Four months later, the predictable happened. The general wear and tear of hundreds of pupils barrelling down the corridor had left things looking a little tatty, and we were expecting an inspection from the LA. The maths department were ordered to spend an INSET day dressing up the corridor once again. I ran the cost.
15 adults, on an average salary of around £100 per day (approx. £25k), for a whole day, that’s £1,500.
That’s an initial investment of £3,000, plus a further £1,500 spent repairing damage.
We could have spent £200 and not needed to repair, instead we spent £1,500, and I wondered if anyone even realised.
Plastic display covers. Cost: £200. Cost of not having them: £1,500
At another school we were never expected to write out lesson plans, day to day. Three times a year, though, there would be a monitoring visit from the academy chain. The teachers to be observed by the monitors were mostly notified in advance, and as with any observation were expected to produce a written plan for that lesson. But there was a general sense of ‘the monitors are ultimately free to go where they like, and so we must all be prepared,’ and with that general sense came a mandate for all of us to therefore have plans written up for all of our lessons on that day.
I was ready and prepared for the day in question, everything good to go by 6pm, except for the written plans. I decided to time how long it took me to put the plans together for the next day’s four lessons. Turns out it took 2 hours just to write up my thoughts into formal plans for four lessons. I might imagine I’m just a bit slow at writing, but I wasn’t the only one still there at 8pm. Again, I ran the calculation.
£30 for two hours’ work, for around 40 staff. £1,200.
Most of that was waste, since as mentioned, the vast majority being observed were informed up front, so almost none of those 160 lesson plans were seen by anyone.
Further, these numbers are calculated before taking Opportunity Cost into consideration. What else could those teachers have been doing with their time? Would they have taught better the next day had they rested for a further two hours the night before?
And I wondered, was that cost, and that waste, ever considered?
Do we waste money and not even realise it?
It’s not that either of these decisions were bad in and of themselves. The first school was in a financial crisis, to the point of laying off half its workforce the following year, and so I’m sure spending £200 on almost anything seemed untenable.
I do wonder, though, if those stealth costs, and the stealth waste that follows them, had been taken into consideration when making the decisions; in most cases I would suspect not. It’s been my experience that many (certainly not all) senior leaders tend to consider their staff as a ‘free’ resource, rather than thinking of them as a purchase of expert time which they are slowly spending across the year. How differently might we consider the things we ask of teachers if we saw their value to the school in those terms: costly expert time.
Everyone I’ve shared my initial story with has met me with the same wide-eyed look of surprise I had when my mentor first pointed reality out to me. And so I continue to wonder: what better decisions might we make in education if we all kept this financial reality in mind? What wastage might we be more prepared to slough away if we see ourselves as haemorrhaging money.