Last month the National Audit Office (NAO) cast its eyes over the risks to the financial viability of schools in the light of increasing cost pressures. It found schools will have to make £3 billion worth of efficiency savings by 2019-20 “against a background of growing pupil numbers and a real-terms reduction in funding per pupil”. To counteract cost pressures, the government wants schools to make 8% savings through better procurement (£1.3 billion) and by using their staff more efficiently (£1.7 billion). Indicating the scale of the challenge, the NAO noted that 60% of secondary academies spent more than their income in 2014-15.
In making the cuts, the NAO found significant risks that “need to be actively managed” by the Department for Education (DfE). It seems a key problem is that the Department has not “clearly communicated to schools the scale and pace of the saving required”, nor yet provided the support needed by schools to plan for and make the savings without affecting educational outcomes. Partly due to this, the NAO suggests that the DfE did not know whether the savings will be achieved in practice.
Worryingly, the NAO consider that the DfE’s estimates do not take into account the cost implications of its policy changes and may risk imposing additional cost pressures on schools. The Department is expecting schools to have the capacity to deal with its policy changes, but had insufficient evidence to support this assumption. As grist to their mill, the NAO note that schools failed to make the £1 billion back office and procurement savings that the DfE aspired to in the last Parliament, but instead costs increased by nearly £500 million.
Educational Services Grant
Looking at one of the policy changes, like the Local Government Association (LGA), the NAO had concerns about the phasing out of the Education Services Grant. The grant is used by councils and academies to provide support and improve education services in schools, including speech therapy, physiotherapy and activities such as planning for more school places and running recruitment criminal checks. The LGA has opposed the cuts. They say councils already top up their £600 million grant and express concern that they have been told to expect around £50 million to do the “exact same duties that normally cost them £815 million annually”.
In making cuts, the NAO noted “that schools tend to reduce the proportion of their spending on teaching staff before other areas of spending”. As context to the challenges schools are facing in the West Midlands, its perhaps worth looking at the DfE’s staffing statistics. Across the country, the number of primary school teachers has increased with the rise in primary pupils. At the same time, the number of secondary teachers has fallen with the decline in secondary pupils. However, the extent of the changes is not the same in each region.
The figures for the West Midlands show that between 2011 and 2016, the number of primary school children increased by 10.3%, while over the slightly different time-frame of 2010 to 2015, teacher numbers increased by 9.5%. This was the smallest increase in teachers of the ten education regions. The figures show the West Midlands had the third highest pupil/teacher ratio and was one of four regions where the ratio increased between 2010 and 2015, although the DfE note there was little difference between many regions.
Between 2011 and 2016 the only regions that saw increases in the number of secondary school pupils were Inner and Outer London. In the rest of the country numbers had fallen, with the West Midlands experiencing the smallest percentage fall of all. The DfE’s report gives the teacher numbers over the slightly earlier five year period of 2010 to 2015, which makes direct comparisons difficult. However, for this period the percentage fall in the teacher numbers was the second largest in England. In line with all the other regions there was an increase in the West Midlands’ secondary school pupil/teacher ratio. As for primary schools, many regions had similar ratios, with the West Midlands’ the sixth highest.
When other staff are included in the ratio, such as teaching assistants and other support staff, the pupil/adult ratio has fallen for primary schools in all regions. There is however, some variation for secondary schools, where, along with the majority of regions, the West Midlands’ pupil/adult ratio had increased slightly between 2011 and 2015.
By and large, across the country, there were lower pupil/teacher ratios in deprived areas. However, these areas also had the highest proportions of unqualified teachers and the highest proportion of teachers leaving for other schools. For example, primary schools in the most deprived 20% of areas have about twice as many unqualified teachers as the least deprived 20% of areas. There was a similar increase for secondary schools, but the difference only doubled when measured by the level of deprivation of the pupils attending (Free School Meals), rather than the level of deprivation of where the school is located.
The DfE statistics also show that schools in less deprived areas found it easier to hold onto teachers both in terms of those leaving the sector and those moving to other schools. Of the other issues related to deprivation in the report, it is worth noting that the proportion of hours spent teaching EBacc subjects by the relevant specialist teachers declined with increasing levels of deprivation.
On this theme, the Sutton Trust recently looked at the outcomes of FSM eligible children and suggested more was needed to encourage highly qualified teachers into deprived schools. They found that financial incentives and more free periods would “best attract” teachers to deprived schools. Among their other recommendations was the need to implement more targeted attainment programmes for different groups of disadvantaged pupils.
• National Audit Office - Financial sustainability of schools, December 2016
• Local Government Association press release - Councils call for Education Services Grant cut to be reversed, December 2016
• Department for Education - Local analysis of teacher workforce, September 2016
• Department for Education - Schools workforce in England 2010 to 2015: trends and geographical comparisons, September 2016
• The Sutton Trust - Class differences. Ethnicity and disadvantage, November 2016