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'Innovation, not money, boosts school productivity'

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The Coalition government’s Workload Challenge helped to establish Nicky Morgan as a supportive and conciliatory education secretary in many people’s eyes. In response to the consultation, Ms Morgan wrote that “too many teachers are spending too much of their time on overly detailed, duplicating or bureaucratic work which can take them away from what matters most – improving teaching and learning”. The idea was that by “reducing unnecessary and unproductive workload”, teachers could become more effective with their time and, thereby, more productive. 

Freeing up teachers and schools to achieve more with less effort is the biggest challenge for the returning education secretary. Cost pressures and rising pupil numbers make this "productivity challenge" both desirable and necessary. While the Conservative Party has committed to protecting cash spending per pupil, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that this will result in a 7 per cent real terms cut per pupil. Accounting for increases in National Insurance, pension contributions and public sector earnings growth, the overall funding cut could amount to between 9 and 12 per cent per pupil.

Yet more money alone will not improve productivity. Research by Reform shows that increased spending on education coincides with productivity decline. According to figures published by the Office for National Statistics, productivity was negative between 2000 and 2008, with very small gains in 2003 and 2004. Yet spending over the period rose by nearly 50 per cent. These findings support previous research by Reform, which found no simple link between schools’ spending and their pupils’ value-added results in English and mathematics. This indicates that schools could, in theory, improve results without receiving more money.

Rather than immediately looking to loosen the purse strings, the new government should look to tweak its existing policies to improve productivity. One area in need of attention is innovation. The last coalition government presided over a large extension of autonomy and freedom to more schools, with the number of academies rising from just 200 in 2010 to over 4,000 in 2015. Nicky Morgan has said she will extend school autonomy further, by converting all schools judged "failing" by Ofsted to academy status, alongside more "coasting" schools.

The energy and drive behind these policies will only pay off if schools innovate to improve pupils’ results. Yet many existing academies are not using the freedoms they have. A survey of academy schools undertaken by Reform and the SSAT in 2013 found that two thirds had not made changes to the curriculum, staff terms and conditions or the school day, despite having the freedom to do so.

One possible reason for this is that the remaining regulation for local authority schools makes it hard for academies to exercise their autonomy. Some of these regulations have been eroded since the Reform survey; for example, the Deregulation Act 2015 gave all schools the power to set their own term dates, independent from the local authorities. Yet other restrictions remain, such as maintaining national terms and conditions for staff.

Another barrier to innovation may lie in the size of the school group. Analysis by Reform has found that, of the 4,700 academies open now, nearly half are standalone schools. A large majority of academies (84 per cent) are either standalone schools or belong to a multi-academy trust of 10 schools or fewer. The small size of these groups is unlikely to give schools the breathing space to innovate and, potentially, make some mistakes along the way. Research by Parthenon Group has, in contrast, found that large school chains of 30 or more can save between 5 to 8 per cent in a school’s total budget, allowing schools to reinvest in teaching practice across the chain.

The next few years will not be easy for schools; many will struggle to maintain pupils’ results at a lower cost to the taxpayer. Schools must be given the tools to rise to this challenge. Encouraging schools to innovate should therefore be top priority for Nicky Morgan.

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