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Benchmark of intelligence

Schools are using each other to compare performances, reports Bob Doe.

School managers need information on the personnel and financial management of other schools to provide a benchmark to judge how well their own is performing, the School Teachers' Pay Review Body (STRB) says in its latest report.

"Benchmarking is a technique used by organisations to compare their processes and performance levels either externally with those of others or internally between different divisions of the same organisation," the report says. "The use of this practice has grown in industry and aims, by identifying the processes and practices of the best performing organisations, to assist others in improving their own performance."

The key to benchmarking, as the review body recognises, is comparative information that both assists schools in self-assessment and enables the sharing of best practice. "For schools, such information is increasingly becoming available to help them examine and improve the quality of their management," the report claims.

The example the review body cites is the Audit Commission's survey of 100 schools reported in Adding up the Sums: Schools' Management of their Finances (see box 1). As the STRB admits, however, the sample is too small to be representative (covering primary and secondary schools of various sizes as well as local authority and GM schools).

Designed to raise questions rather than provide answers, the Audit Commission's survey gives no hint of how the anonymous schools achieved the results they did.

The average proportion of the school budget spent on teachers' salaries is 70 per cent but schools could vary by as much as 20 percentage points between the highest and the lowest. The survey does not indicate why these differences occur or what the repercussions were.

The STRB wants local education authorities to provide more detailed management benchmarks for schools. In last year's report it said authorities should be "required" to do so. A few are beginning to do this (see box 2) but others have refused, denying that this is part of their strategic purpose or claiming that they such information is confidential to schools. The STRB calls their efforts "fragmented" and wants more co-ordination.

But even when authorities are willing, most will only be able to provide basic facts on schools' spending or staff management information such as numbers at different points on the pay scale, absenteeism or gender balance. They are unlikely to be able explain any differences or identify what it is that apparently makes one school more efficient than another.

The Department for Education's school effectiveness division has set up a pilot information exchange project with some London primary schools, though this has not been universally welcomed. There are fears that such exercises could be used to identify the minimum possible unit costs rather than the means to maximise effective use of funds.

Last September the Local Government Management Board, in a report called Performance Benchmarking for Schools, rejected the suggestion that authorities should be obliged - or could afford - to provide such information. The report suggested, instead, that schools should work with each other, echoing a suggestion for small firms in the Department of Trade's recent Competitiveness white paper. That may seem like passing the buck but it is exactly what is happening in various parts of the country.

For Kevin McAleese, head of Harrogate Grammar School in North Yorkshire, cuts in education spending make more effective use of his school's resources an urgent priority.

He wrote in The TES that heads and governing bodies desperately needed to know how their school's pattern of expenditure compared with others of similar size and type ("The loneliness of the axe-wielding head", TES School Management Update, November 4, 1994). And despite the coyness some schools feel about sharing such information with potential competitors, Mr McAleese, as a result of his article, has found more than 30 schools willing to co-operate in a network of secondary schools exchanging details of their budgets (see box 3). He is also in touch with similar networks elsewhere.

"I have no doubt that many schools would find it helpful to have comparative information as they grapple with managing their delegated funds," he says. "I have no doubt either that this will be most easily done by schools themselves brokering the arrangements."

The emphasis of his network is on schools learning from one another how to use resources more efficiently. So far the participants have looked at the impact of various staffing structures, the numbers of deputy heads and the way funds for books and equipment are used.

Kevin McAleese believes in learning from practitioners. "The only people who really know how to manage a school budget are in schools. They are not at county hall or at the DFE."

Box 1: Adding Up The Sums

Audit Commission benchmarks included: * teacher costs as a proportion ofbudget * pupil:teacher ratio * percentage teacher non-contact time * administrator's hours per pupil * overunderspend on school budget * fund-raising income * head's position on pay scale * head's movement up pay scale * number of deputy heads * teaching time of deputy heads * budget share (Pounds per pupil) Box 2: Unit Costs One local education authority has recently given heads comparisons of their school with the average for all schools of equivalent size and type in the authority based on: 1* teaching staff costs per pupil * support staff costs per pupil * premises costs per pupil * supplies and services costs per pupil * average teacher salary * pupil:teacher ratio The authority is also considering providing comparisons of teacher absence rates, positions on salary scales and age profiles and comparisons between schools of similar size and social background (based on number of pupils eligible for free school meals).

Box 3: McAleese Axe-factors One group of 33 secondary heads share information on the percentage of their budget spent on: * staffing: with separate figures for clerical and technicians' salaries; teachers' salaries; supply; midday supervisors; language assistants; caretakers and other costs (interviews, advertising etc).

* premises, broken down to premises maintenance; grounds maintenance; electricity; gas or oil; rates; waters and sewage; cleaning; staff travel (split sites).

* supplies and services: domestic and medical; furniture; books and materials; administration costs; leased equipment; Grants for Education Support and Training; exam fees; insurance; communications and overall

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