Karen Petrillo became finance director at Rastrick High School in 2011. Balancing the books in the face of funding pressures has seen her fall back on entreprenurial instincts, writes Ismail Mulla.
Schools across the country have been under pressure to show value for every penny they spend following a raft of changes in Government funding over recent years.
While some have struggled to balance the books, Karen Petrillo has used her decades of industry experience to help Rastrick High School Academy Trust through fiscally choppy waters.
Ms Petrillo “fell into finance” after leaving school at the age of 16, when she started an apprenticeship at Delta Electrical, a switches and sockets manufacturing company in Oldham.
She said: “I’d just left school, gone straight into work and by October a job became available in the finance department.
“Then it just spiralled from there really.”
That was back in 1987 and in 18 years at that company she got to see first-hand the drastic changes the manufacturing sector has gone through. Ms Petrillo also secured her accountancy qualifications.
She said: “When I first started there was 600 employees, when I left there was 100 people left. All the manufacturing had been outsourced to either India or Eastern Europe. I was heavily involved in that.
“It was the right thing for the company to do but it was really sad to see the company that I had grown up in just lose all that work to other countries.”
The outsourcing meant spending a lot of time abroad and with a young family and a third child on the way she decided to take redundancy when the opportunity arose while on maternity leave at the tail end of 2005.
Ms Petrillo said: “It was hard enough travelling when I had two children. If I was going to travel while I had three children, it wouldn’t have been fair on my husband. So I took the decision to have some time off with my family.”
She adds with a laugh, “I had four weeks off.” In January 2006, Ms Petrillo went down what she calls “the mummy track”.
Ms Petrillo said: “I took a lovely little job with a software company called Result Group in Elland, which is near to where I live.
“It was a wonderful family business – a successful software rental business and I worked there part-time.
“The hours fit perfectly with me being able to take the children to school and nursery, then go to work, finish work and pick all the children up from school and nursery and still have quality time in the evening.”
Despite this Ms Petrillo made a pact with herself that she would not stay with one employer for longer than five years.
She said: “I felt like I was selling myself short. I get really comfortable and I didn’t push myself out of my comfort zone enough.
“I needed to experience lots more business sectors, meet lots more people and after five years an opportunity came up to work in a local high school.”
So in 2011 she took on the role of finance director at Rastrick High in West Yorkshire.
There’s one problem though. The year is 2019 and Ms Petrillo is still at Rastrick in the same role. What happened to the pact?
Ms Petrillo flushes and buries her head in her hands before acknowledging that her pact had indeed gone out of the window.
“I love working at Rastrick High School,” she says. “I love my job.”
To be fair to Ms Petrillo, she did enter the education sector just as the Government was tightening up the purse strings and therefore the finance director has had plenty on her plate to keep her occupied.
“It was around about 2014 and 2015 when you could start to see that things imposed by the Government that we had no control over were affecting budgets,” she said. “The teacher’s pension contributions went up, there were changes in National Insurance rates. Yet it wasn’t reflected in the funding we were getting per child.”
Being an academy gives the school more freedom but with the majority of the budget going towards paying teachers there’s little wriggle room especially when there’s teacher shortages.
Ms Petrillo said: “We’re lucky. It hasn’t hit us yet but if all of a sudden you’ve changed your payment structure and it’s not as favourable as the academy down the road then that’s going to affect your ability to recruit and retain your staff.”
With thousands of pounds of savings required, Ms Petrillo fell back on her business instincts. The school launched its nursery called Smarties in 2015. The idea for the nursery came when Rastrick’s teachers were themselves struggling to find childcare after other schools went on strike.
Ms Petrillo said: “My boss said we will open a creche for the day so that our teachers could bring their children into school and still come and teach our children.”
It planted the seeds for Smarties, first providing care for the staff’s children and now being utilised by the whole community.
The nursery, which recently was awarded an outstanding rating by Ofsted, is also helping balance the school’s books.
Ms Petrillo added: “We also have another big entrepreneurial project. We used to outsource our payroll to a company, which specialises in school payrolls, and this was costing us £12,000 a year.
“I made the decision to bring that service in-house to gain those savings. After running our payroll for a year in-house, we actually decided that this is a service we could offer to other schools and business clients.”
The school has become a Bacs bureau and has five clients that it provides payroll services to. Ms Petrillo says that her department is ready to take on even more clients.
As well as being finance director, Ms Petrillo is also part of the school’s senior leadership team. She does a lunch duty and gets to interact with students on a regular basis. It takes time out of her day but is also a reminder of the purpose of her role.
She said: “You should never forget what your job is all about. It’s not about making profit. It’s not about just being a financial engine. Your job is to make the education of those children the best it possibly can be.
“I work so hard, with the little entrepreneurial things we do, to bring money into the school that will help with the education of the children because ultimately that’s what we’re there for.”
When asked about the future, Ms Petrillo says: “I’m not ambitious. I just like to do my job to the best of my ability and have job satisfaction.”
Whatever the future holds, Ms Petrillo is certainly setting high standards with her work at Rastrick High.