Financial reporting can easily become the bane of any multi-academy trust (MAT) if it isn’t careful, often involving a tedious, manual process that means extended hours for your staff, and a significant risk of error.
Unfortunately for many, this issue is only further exacerbated by the traditional method-of-choice of financial management - the spreadsheet. Using such a tool to adequately manage finances can be a tough ask for even the smallest of organisations, much less a trust with multiple organisations, sites and financial tasks.
It makes sense then, that many trusts turn to well-established accounting software to overcome these hurdles - but even the best known software may not be best suited to the particular demands of an MAT.
So how can MATs effectively streamline their financial reporting and processes to help you prepare for audit time in your schools? In our latest article, we’ve listed our top 5 tips to help your school or MAT overcome the challenges of financial reporting and make the process a breeze.
Tip 1: Ditch the manual processes
There are a lot of schools and trusts who still rely heavily on spreadsheets to collect, record and manage their financial data.
In one respect, it’s understandable - many (if not all) schools in the UK use the Microsoft Office suite of programs, making Excel an easily accessible (and ‘free’) tool.
However, using spreadsheets opens your organisation up to a number of risks.
Firstly, spreadsheets are not designed to hold such a vast amount of data in a way that people can view, use and report against. Take the Public Health England issue during the COVID-19 pandemic - over 14,000 positive test results were missed out of daily figures due to an issue in a single spreadsheet.
Secondly, manual processes such as this inevitably go hand-in-hand with a rise in the risk of human error. Because they can’t integrate with other software, spreadsheets require someone to enter the data manually against a set framework. Something as simple as entering data into the wrong cell, or accidentally duplicating a row can have significant ramifications. And, the bigger the spreadsheet, the higher the risk of an error occurring.
Mistakes in spreadsheets are easily made. Research from the University of Hawaii found that 88% of all spreadsheets contain errors, and a recent survey investigating Excel skills found that 98% of people have seen an error in Excel cost their employers money.
With such a high level of risk, one of the best things your school or trust can do to alleviate the pressure of financial reporting is ditch the manual processes.
Tip 2: Collaboration
Our next tip ties in nicely with ditching manual processes - collaboration.
Consider the following scenario: your trust is, let’s say, 10 schools strong, plus your central team. Each team uses a spreadsheet to manage and monitor their financial data, with multiple people editing the sheet at any given time.
Put aside for the moment the huge risk of version issues, human error and data duplication, and think about how your central team is supposed to make sense of these sheets. Each sheet could be set up differently and used differently - meaning your central team is already facing an uphill battle just to understand the data presented to them.
You could, in theory, standardise the spreadsheet, but these teams are already used to their current set up. Changing it increases your already high risk of manual error.
Even if your trust is then lucky enough to escape the minefield without any damage caused, the chances are high that it took your teams a lot longer to handle than necessary.
And just because you had a lucky escape this time, doesn’t mean you won’t have issues next time.
When it comes time to collect your financial reports, your team wants to be able to easily and efficiently work together to ensure a smooth process, with no errors or unnecessary disruption.
After all, the easier the collaboration, the more time is freed up for your staff to focus on other important tasks.
Tip 3: Compatibility and integration
With all of the above said and done, it’s perhaps not surprising that many struggle to bring their school(s) and trust accounts together. As we’ve established, manual processes are a minefield, but accounting software can also present a complicated challenge.
To start with, if you’re an MAT, there’s a chance your central trust finance team uses different software than that used in your schools. If you’re lucky, you may have two or three different software applications to contend with. If not, you could be dealing with a number significantly higher.
This then presents a compatibility and integration issue. How do you get all the different software instances to communicate effectively with each other? And, if you can’t, how can you get the data you need from each, in a format that makes sense, can be analysed, and keeps the risk of error at a minimum?
The truth is, if your systems can communicate and share data seamlessly, your finance team is going to be wasting time dealing with a heavy administrative burden.
Tip 4: Data synchronisation
This brings us neatly onto our next tip: data synchronisation.
There are five major challenges when it comes to effective data synchronisation:
For both schools and MATs, synchronised data helps centralise financial management and forms the basis for accurate reporting. Getting it right means data flows across your organisation seamlessly, meaning you can get an up-to-date account of your finances in minutes, not hours.
Tip 5: Audit-ready, customisable reports, at a single click
When all is said and done, if you don’t have a single point of truth in your school or trust - where data is synchronised, systems are integrated, and data can be trusted - you’re presenting your staff with a challenge.
Fortunately, there is a solution available.
With Tali, trusts, and the schools they administer, can manage and monitor income, eliminate human error and carry out essential financial reporting tasks, including:
The Tali platform also incorporates Pebble’s transaction integration platform, Trac.
Trac can enable MATs to create integrated financial management systems, transferring data smoothly between multiple sites.
It offers various options for practical integrations, including fees billing, invoicing, banking, Gift Aid and catering.
Pebble’s innovative financial management software for schools provides trusts with easier financial reporting, while giving them advanced capabilities for more efficient, centralised financial management. At the same time, it offers major financial management benefits to individual academies.
Discover more about our full range of products, and contact us today.
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