The computerised spreadsheet is a well-established financial administration tool for many different organisations, including schools, and it has been around for a long time.
An early ancestor of the computerised spreadsheet was an interactive, visible calculation programme known as VisiCalc. Then, in 1980, Microsoft released its MultiPlan spreadsheet, and followed it with Excel, in 1985.
But while the longevity of the spreadsheet might suggest that it is a tool that continues to work well, it also raises the question of whether there isn’t now a more advanced solution to replace it.
Change for change’s sake is not in itself a sound reason to do things differently, but, as we shall see, the spreadsheet is a flawed and outdated format.
The modern alternative needs to be integrated, collaborative, secure, and scalable.
What’s Wrong with Spreadsheets?
Spreadsheets don’t often make headlines, but in October 2020, the news reported that a Public Health England data error in recording Covid-19 tests was due to an Excel spreadsheet issue.
The data error meant that 14,841 positive Covid tests were missing from daily figures.
The widespread reaction was one of surprise that such important information would be entered on a spreadsheet in the first place, with the implication that the format wasn’t suitable.
But ALL information is important to the organisation entering it, whether it’s to do with public health or a school’s budget. So how fit for purpose is the traditional spreadsheet?
Schools rely on spreadsheets to enter and calculate important data about their budgets, but spreadsheets are prone to human error, they are time intensive to manage, and present potential cybersecurity and privacy risks.
Human Error in Spreadsheets
Spreadsheets can perform various automated calculations, if you enter specific formulas into them.
But the basic way we interact with spreadsheets hasn’t altered much since the early days of Excel.
They still require someone to enter data, and to cross-check it.
And, over time, spreadsheets will, typically, have more people making entries, amendments or modifications following cross-checking.
The spreadsheet can grow and grow, taking on a life of its own. And rogue entries, however unintentional, can be highly disruptive.
88 percent of spreadsheets have errors, according to research from the University of Hawaii.
Mistakes lead to miscalculations and distorted balance sheets. And if these go unchecked, then when someone else enters subsequent data, this compounds and magnifies the original error.
One school faced a £30,000 budget shortfall from a simple formatting error when entering figures as right-aligned text values instead of numbers.
Time Consuming and Risky
When you enter data on an Excel spreadsheet, you’re doing this locally. There is no integrated way of sharing this information instantaneously.
In this context, spreadsheets feel very pre-internet, designed for individual users to handle small, manageable amounts of data. They lack inbuilt connectivity.
If, for example, you’re working on a cloud-based application, this will update automatically, and be visible in real-time to multiple viewers with the right permissions.
With a spreadsheet, every time someone opens and updates it there is a financial management risk.
The information requires manual entry into individual cells, which takes time to enter and is prone to human error (see above), and there can end up being duplicate versions of the same spreadsheet in circulation.
A school’s spreadsheet is only as secure as the system, or devices, it is stored on.
It can therefore be vulnerable to hacking, loss or corruption.
Because they come from an ageing technology that is non-collaborative, users are more likely to share them on thumb drives or via email, potentially increasing data security risks.
Third-party software can compromise password-protected spreadsheets, and the data they contain is largely unprotected.
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has issued an alert to schools, colleges and universities after a number of online attacks against different educational institutions.
Typically, these attacks involve the use of ransomware, capturing and encrypting information then demanding money for its return.
Risk of Non-compliance with GDPR
Spreadsheets could leave schools open to breaching GDPR regulations. This comes back to the non-collaborative nature of the format.
When more than one person needs to work on a spreadsheet, the traditional solution is for different individuals to each have their own copy to work on.
This distribution could be by email, for example, but sharing any confidential information this way puts schools at risk of a data breach, if the spreadsheet contains private details.
These details could be as basic as people’s names and addresses.
GDPR defines such a breach as:
An incident leading to destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to personal data.
Difficult to Scale and Troubleshoot
Spreadsheets do not lend themselves easily to scalability. As a spreadsheet accumulates data, it becomes slow and more cumbersome.
It offers no automatic reporting facility, so any documentation that needs to reflect updated information will require altering manually. Once more, there is the risk of human error, as well as the whole process being labour-intensive.
Where you need to troubleshoot a spreadsheet, you may need to search through multiple folders for interrelated data, and pinpointing errors in single cell entries requires a forensic attention to detail.
What Do Schools Need?
The modern school has multiple income streams. This is a trend that has grown in importance in response to years of budget cuts.
The balance sheet can include Gift Aid, school meals and trips, hiring out school facilities, passive income streams, PTA fundraising and social enterprise-related activities.
There is more complexity in school financial management which requires tools that will:
Schools need more than what spreadsheets can currently offer.
An All-in-one Platform
Tali offers schools an integrated platform for financial management, where you can monitor income and expenditure clearly and securely.
It’s a cloud-based solution, combining precision control with versatility and adaptability, which:
Schools are not only places of learning. They’re complex and demanding individual enterprises. They need and deserve modern financial management systems that will help keep track of every penny.
To find out more about Tali and advanced ways for managing your school’s finances, please contact us today.
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