I cannot be the only person with personal experience of managing schools whose jaw dropped at reading the headlines of the Reform report launched last week: Must Do Better: Spending on Schools. Based on lots of number crunching of data tables, it came to the conclusion that school spending could be cut by close to 20 per cent without compromising standards.
Sam Ellis is funding specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)
I cannot be the only person with personal experience of managing schools whose jaw dropped at reading the headlines of the Reform report launched last week: Must Do Better: Spending on Schools.
Based on lots of number crunching of data tables, it came to the conclusion that school spending could be cut by close to 20 per cent without compromising standards.
Whilst there are deceptive elements of truth in some of the assertions, there are also significant levels of disconnect between large sections of the report, which undermine its value. Sadly I suspect that the headline message, that the ring fence around school budgets and the pupil premium should be cut, will carry some weight with those who do not have to manage schools on a day to day basis, meeting the ever the increasing demands to raise standards.
It is true that funding has increased over the last ten years but the vast majority of schools will have seen nowhere near a real term increase at the 90 per cent level indicated in the report. The truth is that in the last three years the majority of schools have seen a reduction in real terms in their budgets.
Anyone with a detailed understanding of school funding will know that there is no way that the reductions proposed in this report could be achieved without making a significant number of schools impossible to run.
The attempt to link funding and school achievement is flawed as it fails to take into account the different contexts of schools. The state of the buildings, the number of students, the level of staff turnover and types of qualifications on offer all have an impact.
The simplistic non sequitur from the report’s headline to the conclusion that class sizes should be allowed to rise shows a lack of understanding about what is actually meant by class size and how that relates to the cost of running a school where pupils learn effectively.
The information on the DfE website shows a significant range of pupil to teacher ratios across the country. One might make, and it seems the report has done so, some simplistic assumptions to contextualise the difference between a school with a ratio of say 13 and similar school elsewhere in the country with a ratio of 16.
However, it is not about having larger classes or smaller classes but about having cost effective classes. I cannot distil over 30 years of timetabling and curriculum planning experience into one paragraph to explain that in detail, but I am happy to elaborate on this to anyone with an hour to spare.
Schools are also having to do more with less. Where once there was funding for young people’s careers advice and guidance, counselling, provision for at-risk students, curriculum development, sports partnerships and other activities, most schools are now having to pay for these out of their own budgets.
Finally, the report forgets that the attainment system is norm referenced, which means that half of schools will be below the average no matter how well they achieve.
School leaders already work hard to ensure that their budgets are spent wisely and efficiently. We have seen a clear focus on using research evidence, such as that in the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit on the spending pupil premium, to implement cost effective strategies to improve student attainment and progress.
The report asserts that the overriding priority for headteachers should be to invest in the quality of teaching. Apart from the fact that this is akin to asserting that the Treasury should be interested in money, the statement fails to elaborate on how one funds such investment to impact on the quality of student learning and progress, which is the real outcome.
Funding schools is a complex issue which requires complex solutions. ASCL supports the move to a national funding formula and we will always engage in a constructive dialogue with the DfE to ensure that changes to the distribution of school funding are equitable and sufficient.
Mr Gove himself is unashamed about his clear demand for higher standards and this is echoed in the significant raising of the Ofsted bar. Headline grabbing reports such as this one undermine attempts by the profession to deliver the required outcomes and engage in sensible discussion of how one funds schools in an efficient manner that is fit for purpose.
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