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At a loss about profit?

Q We know of two schools that have been judged as not "providing in part value for money". Short of being judged as failing we can't think of a comment more injurious to a school in the eyes of parents. We also feel that judgments about value for money are more suited to shops and shipyards. But to prepare for such judgments what issues should we be considering?

A Educationists naturally distrust what they see as a mercantile approach to a process concerned with children rather than goods, with things of the mind and spirit as opposed to profit. They rightly argue that the most laudable and enduring things about school are often those most difficult to quantify: memorable, illuminating teaching, the capacity to nurture disadvantaged children's sense of worth and potential, the unyielding struggle to make relationships with intractable communities.

Nevertheless, the question about value for money is a legitimate one when we think of schools as publicly-funded institutions.

It is not that they are asked merely about balancing the books, about maintaining regular profiles and showing planned and regular budget spending against each budget head, as the current jargon puts it. Rather, it explores more subtle and complex areas, what the Office for Standards in Education describes as the efficiency and effectiveness with which resources are deployed to maintain the school's aims and obligations and to match its priorities.

I suggest that the following are the kinds of question you need to be asking when you consider value for money. They derive from the obvious but challenging requirement that you have evidence to assure you that your spending is producing the results and the outcomes you had hoped for. So, for example: * does the organisation of teaching and non-teaching staff represent the most productive balance? Is the employment of non-teaching staff justifiable in terms of benefit to the children (or is there any possibility of expensive support staff, unsupervised and loosely directed, being allowed to work in a desultory way with uneconomically small groups of children).

* are there manifest gains from expenditure on in-service training and staff development; is teaching performance enhanced, achievement raised and systematic monitoring brought about by the allocation of non-contact time to co-ordinators?

* can you justify any emphasis, reflected in disproportionately favourable funding, on particular areas or elements of the school, or on particular curriculum aspects? For example, did the children's gains justify the release of the deputy from class responsibility, the major emphasis on special needs, the significantly increased early-years provision, the introduction of Reading Recovery or the after-school French clubs. Did such gains compensate for any consequential reduction of other elements of school life?

* Does your policy ensure that, as far as possible, children are not disadvantaged for want of essential books, equipment, materials and technology. Are there areas where allocation of funding is disproportionately generous?

* Is time being profitably used: what returns for the school does the release of teachers on extended courses yield? n To what extent do daily routines expand to consume precious learning time?

But, of course, in considering value for money, neither you, nor indeed inspectors will confine themselves to these areas - to what I think of as the book-keeping genre. Don't forget the even larger matters; providing for a broad and balanced curriculum that incorporates the full national curriculum entitlement, for special needs, for classroom organisation that guarantees appropriate differentiation, for equal opportunities. Where arrangements for any of these are seriously deficient then a school may indeed be judged as failing in part to provide value for money.

I have some sympathy for those teachers who feel that it amounts to impertinence to demand of meagerly funded primary schools proof that they are giving value for money. Equally it now seems undeniable that at least in some cases schools and their pupils would benefit from more systematic and rigorous attempts to consider how the money available is most likely to bring about what they wish to achieve.

Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Write to him at The TES, Admiral House 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY

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