Benchmarking is already happening, albeit with little thanks to county and city halls. Around the country groups of schools are beginning to work together and exchange information, because most inherit a historic pattern in their budgets, dominated by staffing costs.
So how do heads judge whether it is reasonable for their schools to be paying Pounds 25,000 for electricity or Pounds 130,000 for books and equipment this year, let alone Pounds 2.6 million for teacher salaries?
The starting point is not with their staff, governors and parents properly lobbying about underfunding of this year's pay award for teachers. It is, rather, to recognise that the management of expenditure, not income, is the key budget planning task.
Hunting the margins and questioning the assumptions can pay off by releasing resources and increasing value for money, if heads can establish a living, realistic context for their school's spending. That can be provided by finding others willing to network.
Last autumn (TES Management Update, November 4) I invited interested secondary schools to help develop a nationwide network exchanging budget information. So far 37 schools have joined, ranging in size from 300 pupils to 1,900 with budgets from Pounds 700,000 to more than Pounds 4 million. All have analysed their budgets for 199495 and received comparative figures for the entire network.
Until now this exchange has been carried out anonymously, recognising the genuine sensitivities which exist for some heads in letting the school down the road know what they spend on teachers. However, on July 7 most participants will be meeting for the first time in Harrogate, to exchange ideas and react to what the figures show.
And the figures now emerging are striking. Some small secondary schools are spending a higher percentage of their budget on teachers than much larger ones, but in other cases quite the opposite is true. Even more instructive is the evidence that heads of schools of similar size and type in different authorities are devising budgets from enormously varied total incomes.
The total spending per pupil across the network varies from just over Pounds 1,900 to more than Pounds 2,500. Six 11-to-18 comprehensives with more than 1,000 pupils illustrate the range (see box).
That is how much they spend. How much the same schools receive per pupil from their local authority varies even more, from Pounds 1,891 to Pounds 2,407 - a 27 per cent difference. Add "other income" which varies between Pounds 22,000 and Pounds 273,911 for lettings, community use and the like, and internal subsidy for the yearly budget from the unspent balances of each school which ranges from a low of nil to a high of Pounds 215,847.
The result? Huge variations in funding per pupil inside a national school system. There will be much to talk about and unravel in Harrogate. Each school willing to share information will generate ideas for colleagues as well as learning from them. The more schools willing to join a national network, the more comprehensive will be the comparative data emerging. And, as school funding moves up the political agenda, such networking can contribute to the national debate.
Any school interested in participating for the l99596 financial year is very welcome to contact me as soon as possible.
* Kevin McAleese is head of Harrogate Grammar School, Arthurs Avenue, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, HG2 ODZ (0l423 524548).
N Yorks Pounds 1,903 Wirral Pounds 1,989 Leeds Pounds 2,096 Avon Pounds 2,120 Norfolk Pounds 2,227 Herts Pounds 2,399