The money spent by schools of the same size can differ by up to Pounds 1,000 per pupil, according to a survey by the Audit Commission which reveals the amount spent on books, administrators and maintenance varies enormously.
The main differences in the cash schools receive are accounted for by the local authority funding formula and the standard spending assessment - what the Government considers the authority needs to spend on education. However, there is still scope for schools to make efficiency savings and improve their pupil-teacher ratios, according to the report.
Adding up the Sums 4 is the fourth in a series of Audit Commission reports aimed at school managers. John Bailey, an associate director, said: "The purpose is to provide heads and governors who are trying to manage resources with more information. They can compare their school with those in the report of a similar size. If they find they are at the extreme ends of distribution in certain aspects they can question why.
"Overall, the extent of the variation between schools does suggest there must be scope for more efficiency savings."
Governors, he said, are not provided with enough information to be able to make meaningful comparisons. Some schools have set up their own benchmarking schemes, but so far only on a local level.
The report, based on data from more than 70 schools across the board, notes that a third have experienced a drop in the funding per pupil in the past year. While delegated budgets per pupil rose by an average of 0.9 per cent for primaries and 0.5 per cent for secondaries, the teachers' pay award was 2.7 per cent at a time when the retail price index rose by 3.5 per cent.
In general, the pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools appears to have remained unchanged in the past two years, and has increased from 15.9 to 16.5 in secondaries. However, there is great variation between schools.
Non-contact time for teachers also varies, from 0 to 15 per cent in primaries and 15 to 27 per cent in secondaries.
Headteachers' pay is one area in which governors may find comparisons useful. The School Teachers' Review Body has given guidelines based on the size of the school. Nevertheless the Audit Commission has discovered that heads' pay can vary, for example, by Pounds 12,000 between two schools with 800 pupils. Of the sample, one in six secondary heads negotiated a rise of three points or more, while more than half had no change (above the annual rise) from 1993-94 to 1995-96.
Spending on books and educational supplies varies from year to year, so comparisons need to be viewed with care. A school which has spent very little this year may have spent a large amount in the past. So there may be a good explanation why one school spent Pounds 80 per pupil while another (grant-maintained) school spent Pounds 270 per pupil in 1995-96.
The report shows local management is settling down. Early fluctuations in practice have stabilised. Initially, schools were employing less experienced, cheaper teachers but, in the past two years, there has been little change in the pay point at which teachers are appointed.
Of the schools which had been criticised for maintaining large balances, 60 per cent will now have most of their budget allocated.
Dermot O'Donovan, one of the report's authors, said: "Schools must learn to take the long view. They may feel under pressure to preserve the number of teachers. But, the knock-on effect may be that less is spent on books or building maintenance. Schools can use classroom assistants or employ administrative staff to free deputies and heads for the classroom."