Making the cut: how schools respond when they are under financial pressure

Date: 24.02.2020

This Ofsted report opens with an observation from a previous literature review that funding has little impact on attainment, other than on disadvantaged pupils, but notes that previous studies have been quantitative. It doesn’t suggest reasons for the general lack of any relationship between funding and attainment, such as that funding is just one element and that the vast majority of funding (c. 85%) is spent on salaries, over which schools have little control, since staffing levels have been pared back consistently over the past 20 years. Instead the report choses to take a qualitative approach to ask schools about how they prioritise decision-making.

 

In real terms, spending per pupil was fairly stationary from 1978 to 1998, and then doubled over the next 10 years. However, as the report points out, “since 2015, schools have been faced with additional cost pressures and uncertainty over their finances”. It also notes that this is compounded by the fact that “year on year, schools do not know how much money they will receive or what costs they will face far enough in advance to plan effectively,” and that they are “spending their money on a wider range of activities than they used to” because of cuts in LA services. Also noted are the inadequacies of SEND funding and the uncertainties of the impact of the National Funding Formula (strangely, the report cites an impact report from 2017, a year ahead of the reform and using a completely different model).

 

Given the uncertainties of annual funding cycles, introduction of the NFF and uncertainties about the post-Brexit economies, it’s not surprising that schools have been trying to put money aside where they can – “43% of LA primaries and 36% of LA secondaries have balances deemed to be ‘excessive’ by the DfE”.

 

The NFF was meant to address injustices in the old funding system and to fund schools with higher levels of deprivation more favourably – especially those outside London (see http://www.schoolzone.co.uk/insight/winners-and-loser-in-the-20-21-funding-allocations) however, the government’s election promise to introduce minimum funding will have the opposite effect, the report points out. increase funding for schools by £7.1 billion by 2022 - 23, with a rise of £2.6 billion in 2020 - 21. The minimum per pupil amount for 2020 - 21 will increase to £3,750 for primary schools and £5,000 for secondary schools.

 

Findings

This is a very limited scale research, with just 200 survey responses, 18 interviews and 16 school visits, but the results are very much in line with our own findings:

  • 80% of respondents cited ‘financial pressures’ as one of their three biggest concerns
  • 42% of primary and 48% of secondary school expect to be in debt by the end of the year – almost double the current levels
  • 76% of primary and 58% of secondary schools are feeling a major financial impact resulting from cuts in LA services
  • The NFF, though it’s roll-out is incomplete, “has caused increased financial pressure for some of the schools that we spoke to and relieved it for others”

 

Decision-making

- Roughly two thirds of headteachers who responded to the survey have used research evidence on effective use of resources to inform their decisions.

- A similar proportion have used financial benchmarking.

- Nearly 80% of headteachers who responded to our survey felt ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ in the ability of those involved to make good decisions for their school in response to financial pressure.

- In secondary schools, attainment in core subjects was the thing that most commonly listed as their top priority when making decisions about how to respond to financial pressure.

- For primary schools, this was headteachers’ second most commonly listed top priority, behind pupil safety.

- Staff morale, well-being and retention was also a priority, while spending on buildings and maintenance, as well as resources, was less of a priority than on teaching staff.

 

Ofsted found no strong evidence that the process of making decisions in response to financial pressure is any different for schools that reported a high level of impact as a result of responses to financial pressure and schools that reported a low level of impact. Unsurprising given the low level of response – it would be very unlikely to find data passing chi-squared or other statistical tests with these numbers.

 

Strategies adopted to offset the financial pressure include:

- Increasing pupil numbers

- Cutting staff

- Using up reserves

- Changing employment contracts to term-time only

 

These are fairly typical measures but more worrying is the proportion of schools that are have take such measures. Around three quarters of schools have:

- Reduced spending on learning resources

- Increased class sizes (secondary; 40% of primary)

- Reduced the number of TAs

- Reduced enrichment activities

- Noted a deterioration in pupils’ well-being

- Reduced individual support for pupils

- Reduced teaching and non-classroom staff (secondary; 45% of primary)

- Reduced premises spending

- Increased pupil numbers (secondary; 40% of primary)

- Reduced spending on CPD

- Noted:

Increased recruitment/retention difficulties

Increased education support staff workload

Reduced staff well-being

Increased teacher workload

Increased other staff workload

 

Curriculum breadth and resources

44% of primary and 67% of secondary schools say that financial pressures have led to some reduction in curriculum breadth in their schools.

 

For primary schools, the subjects that these headteachers most commonly told us had suffered were computing, music, design and technology, art and design, and languages. For secondary schools, these were design and technology, languages, citizenship, music and computing.

 

The majority of schools report that they have reduced spending on learning resources, IT, buildings, maintenance and occupation costs. ‘We have reduced the spending on learning resources from £30K to £5K. All subject leaders now have to beg for the resources for their areas of responsibility.’ (MAT staff member, primary school).

 

90% of headteachers thought that responses to financial pressures in their school had resulted in deterioration in the quality of IT equipment and systems.

 

Does all this make any difference?

“School leaders… had mixed views on whether their schools’ responses to financial pressure have had an impact on pupils’ academic progress and attainment,” the report says, and goes on: “these views are in line with the lack of evidence of falling levels of attainment across English schools”. But it seems impossible to believe that these cuts won’t have any long term impact on the quality of education, even if, so far, exam results are largely unaffected. We close with quotes from headteachers:

 

‘It is relentless doing more with less. I have had to take time off. It was towards Christmas, with the realisation that I couldn’t maintain provision and that there was going to be an impact on [pupils’ progress and attainment] in Year[s] 5 and 6.’ (Headteacher, primary school)

‘Standards are improving, but because of the leadership. But the finances don’t help. We would be making more rapid progress.’ (Headteacher, secondary school)

‘The effect of the cuts is not being seen now. However, it is affecting teacher retention, morale and workload which has a lagged effect. This is the chronic disease. What is happening? Teachers and support staff are doing more, people are rising to the challenge, but this is not sustainable.’ (Headteacher, secondary school)

‘The finances here are secure because the staff are doing so much, and not managing to do everything they need to do. This impacts on the quality of education.’ (Deputy headteacher, primary school)

‘If teachers are stressed and off sick, then this has an impact in terms of pupils’ continuity of learning. Pupils in the lower school have been covered quite a lot.’ (Headteacher, secondary school)

‘Time for support and help has been vastly reduced. This means staff have less time to be reflective about their own practice and how they want to develop their areas.’ (Headteacher, secondary school)

‘For some GCSE core practicals, the pupils have to look at a video of others doing the experiment. “Look at the rich kids playing with the kit”. It makes them feel second rate.’ (Teacher, secondary school)

 

Ofsted report