How can ministers say that schools waste money?

Many politicians have accepted that schools need cash – but they also think heads are wasteful, writes James Bowen

Ministers seem to think schools are wasting money - in fact, schools are experts in cutting costs, says James Bowen

Once again we have seen government ministers talking about the need for schools to become more “efficient”

Despite the fact that virtually everyone (including the secretary of state, the schools minister and pretty much every single candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party) has publicly accepted that schools need more money, the whole efficiencies trope is one that some seemingly find it impossible to resist. 

An insult to school leaders

Let’s stop and examine this for a moment. What might we (or more accurately they) mean by the need for greater efficiency? It would seem reasonable to assume that they are suggesting that schools are somehow being wasteful, profligate even

Frankly, this is an insult to every single school leader who has spent the past three years (or more) desperately trying to balance their budget. To the leaders who have made staff redundant, put off vital building repairs or had to go cap in hand to parents asking for money just to keep the school fully stocked with pencils and paper. 

Let’s be clear, watching the pennies is not something that is new in schools. Even when schools weren’t facing such impossible financial constraints, they always had to be prudent. Schools have never been swimming in cash, despite what some would have you believe. 

But this is not just about the amount of cash available. In every school I’ve worked in – and I think this is common across virtually all schools – there has always been an acute awareness that you were spending the budget on behalf of the children, and as such you would sweat every pound and penny. Knowing that you are spending their money tends to increase your desire to achieve value for money. When you look those pupils in the eye every day, it tends to focus the mind. School leaders don’t need politicians to tell them to be efficient – it’s in-built. 

During my time in school, virtually no one claimed expenses: we regularly and routinely paid for resources out of our own pockets, and we relied heavily on helpers and volunteers across all areas of school life. I wonder how many businesses there are that would work on such a model? 

Schools are experts at saving money

Even if it is possible to eke out a few more savings here and there, I think we have long since passed the point of diminishing returns. I mean, where does this end? At this rate the government will be recommending smaller portion sizes for kids’ lunches. OK, perhaps I’m pushing it with that example – let’s not be silly.

Equally, I’m really not convinced that renegotiating the toilet roll supplier contract is where I want school leaders spending their limited time and energy. If there is some great deal to be done on paper, IT or carpet supplies, can’t we just do this at a national level and be done with it? I mean, if this government has proven anything, it’s that it is a master at getting a deal over the line. 

The irony is that we’re now sending advisers into schools to tell them how they could be more efficient. If anyone should be advising on efficient use of public funds, it’s schools and school leaders. Despite facing years of real-terms cuts to their budgets, they have found a way to maintain extremely high standards and to continue to meet the increasingly complex needs of their pupils. 

This isn’t just efficient, it’s a bloody miracle. 

James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT headteachers' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders

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