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6. A star to steer by: Developing design principles

Part 6 of CJK Associates Autumn 2022 blog series #schooltrustcentralservices

These questions and many more like them come up frequently when groups of schools start to discuss future designs. To resolve them it is often useful to take a step back and consider what ‘design principles’ could be used to guide discussions.

It is very hard to find examples of design principles online as (a) consultancies tend to think of them as IP that they want to keep for paying clients and (b) design principles really do need to be developed in discussion by each organisation, and at a point in time when decisions are being made.Still, I do think that it would be helpful to share some, so will do so in the rest of this article.

I can't stress enough how important it is to work with school staff and all other stakeholders when you are developing design principles. It's a great chance to collaborate.

To maximise their utility for decision making, I like to link design principles to the different operating model layers, as well as to the service in question. Here’s an example set relevant to trusts that are considering redesign of the finance service:

Objectives (what is the overall aim of the future model):

a) The design should free up headteachers and teachers to focus on education and release them from non-education operational activity

b) Finance service should deliver accurate and timely information, every time, and receive clean audits

c) Design should cost no more than current arrangements

d) As trust leaders we are here for all the children in our trust, whichever school they attend: they deserve equitable support (this speaks perhaps more to whether to pool revenue or reserves or how to distribute capital, than to the organisation of the service itself, but it’s a good challenging statement to test alignment)

Organisation (statements to guide our decisions about reporting lines or roles):

a) We will design roles so that senior (expensive) people are using their most valuable skills for most of the time, not doing routine admin

b) Ensure managers have the relevant technical skills to lead and coach their teams professionally

c) You might also make a specific statement about spans of control, e.g. every manager will have 4-8 direct reports. This can help make sure a structure isn’t too ‘layered’ with lots of tiers, or too ‘flat’ with over-worked managers having impossible numbers of people to manage. The actual number needs to be sensitive to the complexity of the roles being managed.

Capability (statements to guide decisions about our processes, skills and systems):

a) Standardise, simplify and share routine finance processes across the trust to remove duplication and ‘reinventing the wheel’, and enable use of a single smart system

b) Financial data should be entered once into a shared system. Headteachers, Head office, governors and Trustees should have quick and easy access to data and reports

Governance (statements to guide a review and rework of schemes of delegation, Key Performance Indicators, committees and the like):

a) Finance service needs to be accountable for its performance in the same way that schools are accountable for education

b) Subsidiarity: rather than ‘everything must be central’ or ‘everything must be local’, place authority for financial decisions where it has most impact

To emphasise: these are just examples, and if you disagree with them that’s good, as it means you are well-placed to come up with a statement that better reflects what you want to achieve. Even if you like them, you should debate them through discussion across your trust.

Armed with design principles, you are ready to design the new-look services. There are some steps to doing this which I hope will help you to ‘make change stick’: discussed in article 7.


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