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News - May/June 2017

School standards at risk due to financial pressures

School standards at risk due to financial pressures

THE requirement to make savings under severe financial pressures is putting school standards at risk, MPs have warned.

Funding per pupil is reducing in real terms and, if they are to manage within the funds available, mainstream schools in England must find efficiency savings rising from £1.1 billion in 2016-17 to £3 billion by 2019-20.

In a recent report, the Public Accounts Committee observed that the Department for Education “does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under” and is not well-placed to act swiftly if efficiency measures threaten the quality of education and its outcomes.

The DfE believes schools can save £1.3 billion through better procurement and the balance of £1.7 billion by using staff more efficiently. However, the Committee concludes: “The actions schools take are likely to increase teachers’ workload, with implications for recruitment and retention, and put at risk the quality of education.”

MPs are concerned the Department does not appear to have a plan to monitor in real-time how schools are making savings and their impact, instead relying on existing information such as Ofsted inspections and exam results.

The report states: “Indicators are time-lagged and we may not know the full impact on educational outcomes until 2021 when the new GCSE results come through. This will be too late for the children who are in school now.”

The report questions the Department’s savings estimates, which it finds do not properly consider the impact of policy changes on cost pressures - for example, curriculum changes that require new textbooks and materials. It also highlights the additional cost to schools of the new apprenticeship levy, the financial impact of which has not been set out by Government and from which schools “will only be able to benefit in a limited way”.

The Committee is concerned that the Department does not seem to be learning from the experience of other sectors, “in particular from how over-ambitious efficiency targets in the NHS proved counter-productive”. Schools facing reduced spending power need to reconcile financial, workforce and quality expectations, says the report, and the Department must help them manage the risks.

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “Pupils’ futures are at risk if the Department for Education fails to act on the warnings in our report. It sets out more evidence of what increasingly appears to be a collective delusion in Government about the scope for further efficiency savings in public services.

“It must not be deaf to the experiences of head teachers who, as we heard in evidence, have already had to make potentially damaging cuts in areas such as maintenance, teacher recruitment and pastoral services.”

Schools have already been making savings in a number of ways, but the Department considers they can save more, such as through better energy deals. However, staff account for three-quarters of schools’ spending, and savings here will be harder to achieve without detrimental effects on the quality of education and educational outcomes.

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