The efficiency delusion

23 August 2017 by Anne Heavey
The £1.3 billion extra school funding announced by education secretary Justine Greening last month was a victory for the collective campaigning by heads, unions and parents. Of sorts. As recognition among ministers that more cash is desperately needed, it was long overdue. It’s nowhere enough, of course. And we have made the point. But if the message was received by Government, then its next move shows it hasn’t exactly been understood.

The financial benchmarking tool, released by the Department for Education a few weeks after Greening’s announcement, suggests there is money…but it is up to leaders to find it.  Savings, efficiencies, fat trimming. Whatever you call it, schools minister Nick Gibb says you can do it. For starters, you can buy a cheaper photocopier. 

The financial benchmarking tool is designed to help leaders, business managers and governors compare their spending with that of other schools to identify where they are ‘wasting’ money. But to suggest that all schools have fat to trim, which this tool does, fails to recognise the stark financial situation many now face. 

Built on a false premise, the design of the tool itself also has one or two significant flaws, which I’ll come to.

First, here’s how it works.

You can select a specific school, trust or school ID to search for; or compare several schools across a post code, or local authority.  

Once the school has been selected you can either view “similar” school based on pre-selected characteristics (including pupil numbers, phase and rurality), and additional characteristics such as SEND, EAL and FSM cohorts). This then enables the tool to build a basket of between 10 and 20 similar schools to enable comparisons. 

The user is then able to compare income and expenditure as well as in year balances with the rest of the basket across a range of areas including: 

  • total expenditure and income
  • staff
  • premises
  • occupation
  • supplies and services
  • special facilities
  • cost of finance
  • community
  • grant funding
  • self-generated funds.

These areas can also be compared by:

  • per pupil
  • per teacher
  • percentage of total
  • absolute total 

Theoretically, this enables leaders, school business managers and governors to consider how similar schools achieve greater efficiency in key budget areas. 

Now for the flaws. 

Although the schools selected are “similar” in some respects, each school is also very much a product of its own context and a lot of important information is missing from these graphs. Just looking at this graph one might suggest that the chosen school (in pink) is spending “too much” per pupil when compared to the rest of the basket. 

But the graph gives very little about the individual characteristics on the other schools in the basket. 

Things we don’t know:

  • Is the school in question on a split site?
  • What is the condition and age of the buildings?
  • How experienced (and therefore costly) are the staff?
  • What is the leadership structure?
  • What is the profile of the SEND intake?
  • What is the full age range of pupils (in the basket above some school extend to KS5, whilst others only include KS3 and KS4)
  • What is the local economy and jobs market?

Also, the data draws on different financial years and is also different for local authority and academy schools. Any schools that converted to academy status mid-year may have up to 15 months’ spend included, which would artificially inflate apparent spend. 

The DfE does advise: “Benchmarking is only a guide. Some schools may find themselves at the lower or upper extremes of the data. You should consider other things you know about your school when assessing the data.”

It’s an important point about the limitations of the tool. However, for the tool to be of any use to leaders, school business managers and governors, they will need to spend time getting in contact with “similar” schools to properly understand their financial picture in order to compare it to their own. 

Let’s be honest, how many of you will have the time to do this? Very few. The DfE’s own workload survey shows leaders are working an average 60-hour week, and at a time when ministers claim to be addressing workload it is promoting a tool that would significantly add to workload if used. 

There are other concerns, too.  The emphasis on the cost of non-teaching staff is among them. All teaching roles, including TLR posts, senior leadership and class teachers are grouped into one category, non-teaching roles are presented across three categories. This focus on non-teaching staff fits with a wider trend - the DfE has been subtly suggesting that one way to find “savings” could be to reduce support staff roles. Many in support staff positions are already on term-time only contracts, this Government seems to be suggesting cutting many roles altogether. 

Other examples of this can be found in the a recent DfE research summary here and this efficiency case study here.  Perhaps the DfE believes spending on support staff is inefficient because it doesn’t fully recognise the value they add to schools. We also need to ask whether at some point Ofsted inspectors will begin questioning governors on whether they have used the tool. We could end up with a dangerous race to the bottom – is this really what we want for our schools? 

The £1.3 billion cash boost (let’s not forget it’s the found within the existing budget) is a start, but if the Government thinks the many more millions needed to restore the financial health of many schools will be found by schools themselves using this benchmarking tool then it’s proof our continuing campaign to get better funding for our schools can’t let up.  The Government must give schools the funding they need to deliver the promises made to parents and children, instead of encouraging leaders to make savage cuts. 

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