Updated: Jan 16, 2019
Protesting about funding cuts is understandable, but there are some under-explored ways to manage the situation as well.
If you are a head teacher, how do you protest? Politely it turns out.
At the end of last month, according to organisers, 2,000 head teachers from England, Wales and Northern Ireland gathered in Parliament Square. They slowly walked to Downing Street, where a delegation delivered a letter to Chancellor Philip Hammond, demanding action over funding cuts which they say are unsustainable. Hannah Richardson, for the BBC, observed that the ‘gathering had more of an air of a collegiate conference than a demonstration. In response to the head teachers’ approach, Robert Peston, the ITN political editor tweeted ‘Memo to head teachers: next time you go on a protest march, it might be sensible to do some protesting. My colleagues tell me you were so well behaved…that you’ve made it almost impossible for us to make a news piece.’
Funding Cuts are Real and Deep
Polite or not, head teachers are experiencing real cuts to their budgets. The first Institute for Fiscal Affairs (IFS) annual education expenditure study, published in full on 17 September, showed that, in England, there had been an 8% overall reduction in the money spent per pupil between 2009-10 and 2017-18. The analysis demonstrated that sixth form funding was less by 25% and local authority support had reduced by 55%. Between 2015 and 2017 the core budget up to the age of 16 fell by 4%. At the same time, schools have had to make increased national insurance contributions, pay into the apprenticeship levy, take on other responsibilities and cope with the impact on their pupils of cuts to other services.
Between the last two years for which figures are available, 2015 -16 and 2016-17, the proportion of maintained schools with a deficit increased markedly, from 6% to over 9%. The average surplus in primary schools fell by £8,000 and the average deficit rose by £7,000 over the same period. Things will now undoubtedly be much worse.
Link this to the ‘comparable standards’ norm referencing of league tables, where a small relative change in exam results can produce a dangerous shift in school ranking, and it is a perfect storm. Schools are under pressure to do more and more with less and less. Protest is a reasonable response.
Overcoming Funding Challenges
But, for head teachers, overcoming challenges is part of their career choice; indeed, it is a central tenet of the mindset they share with their students every day. One response will be to drive staff and pupils ever harder. Yet that strategy is almost certainly at the point of becoming counter-productive, as worrying trends highlighted in recent reports on child mental health and teacher recruitment and retention would suggest. The other is to use resources more efficiently to free investment to support staff. Whilst that conclusion is not new, having the time and capacity to manage the required process is demanding, because so many other daily issues crowd in.
There is an increasing willingness by the Department for Education to support schools’ financial management – evidence, perhaps, of its acknowledgement of the challenges headteachers face . An increasing range of tools and data is available to help schools in their desire to run more efficiently. Whilst we await an increase in funding, we would be sensible to take advantage of this. We would also be sensible to explore partnership: joint procurement and shared appointments can increase efficiency significantly.
The government provides useful bench marking tools and, in our research, we discovered many surprising examples of marked disparities in school expenditure and funding. Two schools in West Yorkshire, not far from the Affinity office, have similar characteristics and are judge “good” for leadership by Ofsted. They are both in the same DfE bench marking category, but one school spends £1,400, or 25% more per pupil than the other.
This funding gap raises a number of questions, but what really interests us as a school support business is how the two schools have achieved similar progress despite the disparity in spending. Fundamentally, we believe that, whilst the ultimate goal of education is to improve the quality of teaching and learning, leaders need to continually evaluate how they spend their money, so they can maximise their investment in their human resource – the staff who will achieve this goal.
How Affinity Can Help
Affinity has the tools and expertise to audit school spending and suggest efficiencies. We'd love to help.
References and Further Reading
1. 2018 Annual Report on education spending in England, IFS https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/13306
2. Schools’ Financial Benchmarking